Aedín Gormley is a much-loved aficionado of film and theatre music on Ireland's national classical music radio station, RTÉ lyric fm. Every weekend the country tunes in to the hugely popular Movies and Musicals and Sunday Matinée shows for that perfect amount of escapism. Aedín is constantly in demand for her unique presenting skills and is often found on stage emceeing live film music concerts with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. She chats to Final Note about her broadcasting career to date, her recent public interview with Dame Julie Andrews, and her forthcoming Oscars gig at the National Concert Hall.
When did your love affair with the musical worlds of screen and stage begin?
There was no escaping it in the Gormley household! My mother was a classical violinist and played with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, as well as with her own quartet. My parents met through the Rathmines and Rathgar musical society. My Dad was a tailor by day and for a good deal of the year would head out at night to direct shows for a number of musical societies. He was an excellent director and worked on many memorable shows, including an award-winning production of Guys and Dolls. My Dad was also a film buff and passed on his love of film to me. He introduced me to the early black and white classics such as Hitchcock's Rebecca and The 39 Steps. We would hum the scores as much as quote the dialogue! Sadly, Dad died when I was 17, but both he and my Mum really instilled a love of music, theatre and film in me.
Did you study music as a child?
I am the youngest of five and we all played musical instruments. I studied piano and theory at the College of Music and was also lucky to have a very good music teacher in school (Coláiste Iosagáin). I was in the school choir and later in College choirs...an alto!
Have you always been a performer?
No actually! Much as I loved piano, I didn’t put in the practice and never particularly enjoyed performing. I loved music, and although I had a certain musical talent, I realised that music in my life was not going to be about playing an instrument. So, I gave up the piano. I really felt like the black sheep of the family as most of my siblings were pursuing musical careers and were very good musicians. So when I was asked, “And what do you play?" — The answer was not what people expected! However, it wasn’t long before I had a better answer, “I play music on the radio”.
How did you get involved in broadcasting, and lyric fm?
Well, I was one of those people who never knew what I wanted to do. So I left school and did an Arts Degree in University College Dublin. Initially, I had my sights set on Psychology but after a year I decided to continue on with a degree in Irish and Archaeology. This was a time when TG4 had launched, and the Irish language was in a pretty good place. What do you do with a degree in Irish and Archaeology though? Well, Irish gave me an opening into radio. I began broadcasting when I left college on Raidío na Life on both news programmes and music programmes. I still remember the red light going on and that huge rush of adrenaline. I was a little scared, but wanted to do it over and over again! I was then invited to present the evening Drive time show for Raidió na Gaeltachta which broadcast from the RTÉ studios in Donnybrook. At the same time the Radio 1 presentation department was looking for continuity announcers. I applied and worked as a continuity announcer for many years.
The training in the Presentation Department in RTÉ was invaluable. I owe a lot to the then, head of department, Lorna Madigan, who set very high standards and taught me so much. Voice training and pronunciations aside, Lorna told me to imagine that I was talking to just one person when I was broadcasting and to picture that person alone. It was brilliant advice. Radio is essentially a conversation between me, the broadcaster and you, the listener.
It is very hard to get a break as a radio presenter but luckily RTÉ lyric fm launched in 1999 and I applied. Seamus Crimmins offered me the job of presenting Artszone which ran for a very successful 10 years, and Movies and Musicals which sits very happily now on Saturday afternoons.
When interviewing guests, how do you strike a balance between you the interviewer and you the fan?
No matter who I am interviewing, it is all about the research, and making my guest feel at ease. No matter how famous the guest is, my aim is to create a rapport and to enjoy a good conversation together. Of course with a big name I can be a little more nervous, but once the exchange begins this dissipates. Also, I have a job to do — I want to create good radio. The conversation I have with the guest will be shared with the listener, so it is not about me. The guest is the priority. My job is to allow them to tell their story as well as provide an informative and entertaining interview for the listener.
What do you enjoy most about broadcasting — anything you don’t like?
I adore broadcasting! I feel very lucky to have a job I enjoy so much. I love being on air playing music or broadcasting interviews on lyric. A lot of my week is caught up with planning, listening to music, going to films or shows, recording interviews and putting my playlists together. When all of this is done and I can sit in the studio and start my show, it’s a truly great feeling.
Funnily enough I am not the biggest fan of public speaking, but I am very comfortable behind a mic with an invisible audience! I love that about radio...that it is all about sound and imagination. Things have changed a little of course from when I first started broadcasting for lyric fm 16 years ago. We had no texts, no Twitter, no Facebook, so it is now a much more interactive experience.
Since you first embarked on Artszone, how have attitudes towards classical music in Ireland changed?
A lot of people say to me: "what did we ever do without lyric"? I do think lyric fm has helped to make classical music more accessible, and that over the years the station has given classical performers, as well as musicians in other music genres from Trad to Jazz, a platform to be heard and to be part of the very healthy music scene in this country.
Do you think music from the movies and musical theatre has a greater following than classical music because of its considered accessibility?
Yes, this genre definitely has accessibility and it also attracts a younger audience into the concert hall. Such music has the ability to bring you back to the experience of watching the film. Think of the excitement for Star Wars fans on hearing the opening notes of the main theme by John Williams, or the terror associated with the introductory bars of Jaws. There can be huge nostalgia too associated with film music when an orchestra plays music from classics like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind.
There are also several examples of film makers who use classical music in their soundtracks. Think of Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Platoon and The Elephant Man, or the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in The King’s Speech, or Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto used so effectively in Brief Encounter! Cinema has done a lot in terms or popularising classical music! Irrespective of the music genre, hearing a live scoring of your favourite music is amazing!
Were you nervous in the lead-up to your interview with Dame Julie Andrews — how did you find the experience?
When the director of the ‘Dublin Film Festival’, Gráinne Humphries, asked me to conduct the interview, I was so excited — we both were! But we couldn’t say anything for weeks until the festival programme was officially launched. I had interviewed Julie Andrews in 2008 but she was in a studio in LA and I was in a studio in Dublin. However, she was wonderful to chat to then and I knew she would be great on stage in Dublin. She is a performer and like all the best guests on chat shows, she turns to the audience and tells her story, as if it were the first time she has ever told it.
My only concern was that I had 70 minutes to cover her entire life, so it was all about pacing it correctly. Let’s face it we could have talked about The Sound of Music alone for 70 minutes! It all ran incredibly smoothly. She took my lead and told her story beautifully with great energy and wit. There were serious Julie Andrews fans in the audience and I felt a huge responsibility to them. Many got in touch with me afterwards to say how much they enjoyed the interview and that was really lovely to hear.
Julie Andrews is an incredibly warm, gracious and generous lady. After the interview, she invited me into her dressing room for a cup of tea. She seemed really happy with the experience and genuinely moved by the reception she received from her Irish fans. That night the film festival organised a dinner for ten of us with the lady of the moment. It was wonderful! The following day she was honoured with a Film Festival ‘Votla’ award by President Higgins in the Áras which I also attended. It was an extraordinary 24 hours and all in all an incredible experience.
What kind of preparation goes into your weekend shows Movies and Musicals, and Sunday Matinée?
I listen to a lot of music every week! Movies and Musicals is a three-hour slot and Sunday Matinée recently changed to a four-hour show. A lot of work goes into choosing the music and getting the equilibrium right. For Movies and Musicals I try to find balance between early classics and new releases, between orchestral and vocal works, and between big Hollywood soundtracks and lesser-known smaller Art House scores. I am also conscious that we have a lot of younger listeners who tune in on Saturday afternoons and so a Disney tune here and there is essential. I also have to go along with the mood on the day. Supporting Irish composers is important to us at lyric. I gave the first exclusive radio play of both Patrick Cassidy’s soundtrack for the Irish Film Calvary last year, and Irish composer Brian Byrne’s latest soundtrack The Price of Desire.
During the week I spend time researching and scripting. A special features may arise to celebrate an event such as Al Pacino’s 75th Birthday, or I may have to preview a forthcoming musical at the ‘Bord Gais Energy Theatre’. I will also liaise with Garret Daly from our Movie News slot. There may be competitions to organise, and our presence on Social Media and the station's website needs to be maintained. My job also means that I have to keep up to date with the latest film releases, so I attend preview screenings during the week. During film festivals there may be extra interviews to do also.
Sunday Matinée is a very different progamme and we do our best to create a music soundtrack for this time of the week. We broadcast an orchestral concert in two parts from one of the many European concert halls, chosen by my producer Eoin Brady. These longer stretches of music at this time of the week have proven hugely popular with our listeners.
How do you like to spend your days off?
Well because my shows go out on a Saturday and Sunday, my working week runs from Saturday to Wednesday, and my days off are Thursday and Friday. I do my best to keep fit. I don’t drive and I walk everywhere! I don’t like the gym but I do like classes in Zumba and Pilates. Luckily, friends tend to like going out on a Thursday night, which is really my Saturday night...so I often meet up with pals for dinner and a movie or a theatre gig. A little retail therapy too is always nice!
Who ‘floats your boat’ on the current film composing scene?
Prolific French composer Alexandre Desplat is one of the outstanding composers in this field at the moment. He won the Oscar for best original score this year for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but had a second nomination for The Imitation Game. I love that each of Desplat's scores is unique and his music is never predictable. Think of his scores for Argo, The King’s Speech and Philomena for example — three scores that couldn’t be more different.
As I listen to a lot of film music every week, I often hear the soundtrack before seeing the movie itself. I remember listening to Dario Marianelli’s score for Atonement for the first time and it just stopped me in my tracks. Honourable mentions include Thomas Newman whose scoring of the animated features Finding Nemo and Wall-E are so quirky and ingenious. Michael Giacchino’s scoring of the animated film Up is just superb. It is both old-fashioned and fresh. I also adore the film music of Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias, especially his scoring of the film Talk to her. Within the Irish scene, Graeme Stewart gets my vote. He composed a stunning score for the film A Nightingale Falling last year which he recorded with The Ulster Orchestra. The list is endless!!!
What elements would you consider important in the creation of a memorable soundtrack?
The film score composer has to know where music is needed, where it is not, and where there should be silence. Should a film score be as good an experience to listen to on the stereo at home or on the radio as it is on screen? It’s a question that I have asked many composers and most have said "yes". However, it very much depends on the film. For example, a John Williams score will generally use the full forces of the symphony orchestra and will be filled with melody — so it works both ways. However, take the soundtrack to the film ‘Gravity’ by British composer Steven Price. He was dealing with sound in space and Sandra Bullock's plight in trying to get home! So, he distanced the score from conventional Hollywood-style action scores. The soundtrack was recorded in small groups, or on single instruments, as opposed to a collective orchestra in order for each sound to be electronically processed and mixed individually. This created a layered and surrounding effect. This is not a soundtrack to play on the radio on a Saturday afternoon as it is so atmospheric, but it worked brilliantly with the film environ. Personally, when it comes to listening to soundtracks myself, I love a good tune! I remember asking composer John Barry what he felt was missing from some modern soundtracks and he said "melody". Barry always gave us a good melody and I love him for that.
Do you get much opportunity to catch Broadway shows in London or New York?
Not as much as I would like and that is purely down to finances! What I try to do on a regular enough basis is to take day trips to London. I get an early flight, no luggage, have lunch, catch a matinée performance and take the last plane home! Every year around my Birthday my friend Christine and I pick a show and take off to London for the day! Last year we saw Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, and this year it was Imelda Staunton in Gypsy! As for New York...I tend to pack as much as I can into my visits there, and it is always a joy to hang out on Broadway for a few days. The highlight of the last few years was undoubtedly Stephen Sondheim’s 80th Birthday concert with the The New York Philharmonic. I got to meet the man himself afterwards and floated home to my hotel!
What excites you the most about the Dublin Arts scene today?
Well...here I am saying how much I enjoy trips to London and New York... but the arts scene in Dublin is really fantastic and I love living here! Firstly, with the ‘Bord Gais Energy Theatre’ we finally have a venue that is suitable for musical theatre, and it is wonderful that the big touring productions can now add Dublin to their touring schedule. I am also a big fan of the Dublin Film Festival...the range of films and guests this year was extraordinary.
We have such a vibrant arts scene throughout the country. I always particularly look forward to the Kilkenny Arts Festival and The Galway Film Fleadh. It is also great to see a flourishing opera scene here again with companies like Wide Open Opera, OTC, The Everyman & Cork Operatic Society, Wexford Opera, and NI Opera.
What was the last concert/recording/show that gave you goose bumps?
Concert: It was a great thrill to see the New York Philharmonic perform at the National Concert Hall a few weeks ago, conducted by Alan Gilbert. They barely fitted on the stage! And what a joy to see the stunning mezzo–soprano Joyce DiDonato perform with them — quite a treat!
Show: Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre in London last week. Imelda Staunton gave one of the most amazing performances in a musical I have ever seen!
Recording: I only recently discovered composer and pianist Michel Camilo. He specializes in jazz, Latin and classical piano works. He is a pianist with brilliant technique and a composer who flavours his tunes with the spices of Caribbean rhythms and jazz harmonies. His album, recorded with The BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Leonard Slatkin, is fantastic!
How are you preparing for the Oscars gig at the NCH in May?
Well of course the question really is "who will I be wearing", "who will be providing my diamonds", and "how am I getting on with my acceptance speech"!!! I love the glitz and glamour of the Oscars and even though some odd choices have been made over the years, I love making my predictions each year and guessing who might win — it is all highly entertaining! But for this concert in the NCH we are all about the music and saluting the composers and songwriters of film from John Williams to Maurice Jarre to Alan Menken. Selections on the night will include Out of Africa, Beauty and Beast, Dr Zhivago, Jaws and many more. So, I am working away on my research and script and very much looking forward to introducing this concert of stunning film music with the brilliant musicians of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. It’s sure to be a great night!
For more information on 'And the Oscar goes to....' at the NCH this 14 May see: https://www.nch.ie/Online/RTECO-And-the-Oscar-Goes-to-14May15
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