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Conductor who’s passing on the baton

Music education is not a luxury, Damian Iorio tells Jane Clinton as he prepares for a performance at Kings Place. In the face of cuts to music teaching, he is now keen to ‘give something back’ and help others as he himself was helped

02 August, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Damian Iorio: ‘If it wasn’t for those teachers fighting battles and defending it, putting their heart and soul into our education, I think that it would have suffered much more’ Photo: Annalise Photography

DAMIAN Iorio rattles off a long list of names. They are not his latest collaborators in his highly successful career as a conductor and director of music of the National Youth String Orchestra of Great Britain.

No, these names are the music teachers of his old school, William Ellis, as well as Parliament Hill School and Camden School for Girls, teachers who he says fought to maintain music provision despite the devastating cuts of the 1980s.

“There was Colin Durrant at William Ellis and Neil Bowman who was music teacher at Parliament Hill and I had lessons with him,” he recalls. “There was also a wonderful teacher who took over from him: Diana Roberts. She fought tooth and nail for music.”

Damian, 45, was at school during the Thatcher era when cuts were being made in schools and music was regarded as very much dispensable.

“If it wasn’t for those teachers fighting battles and defending it, putting their heart and soul into our education, I think that it would have suffered much more. I have great respect for them.

They believed [in music education] and they did everything they could to give as much as they did. It was very special. Out of those school orchestras many have gone into the profession one way or another.”

He recalls with affection the many orchestras and music provisions he was able to enjoy, including the Centre for Young Musicians (CYM) and the school orchestras and ILEA courses he went on.

He also credits the inspirational Sheila Nelson, who taught him violin and who was a trailblazer in children’s education.

Damian was born into a British-Italian family, he spent the first 10 years of his life living near Finchley Road until the family moved to Fortune Green. He comes from three generations of musicians. His mother, Diana Cummings, who grew up in Hampstead, is a violinist and teaches at the Royal Academy and the Trinity Laban School. His father, Luciano Iorio, also a celebrated viola player, used to teach but no longer. Damian’s maternal grandfather, Keith Cummings, was a viola player who came to Manchester in the 1930s and set up home in there before moving to Belsize Park.

It would perhaps seem inevitable that he would go on to become a musician. His parents made it clear that they wanted him to get to a certain level with his music before he decided on what he wanted to do.

“When I was 16 I stepped away and didn’t play for a few months,” says Damian, who hopes to encourage his two young sons to do the same with their music education. “But I realised my calling was on the stage as a violinist.”

Following studies at the Royal Northern College of Music and Indiana University, he went on to study conducting at St Petersburg State Conservatoire while serving as a member of the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.

He has worked with some of the world’s greatest orchestras and opera companies including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, San Francisco Symphony, and Opéra National de Paris.

He has also been Music Director of the Milton Keynes City Orchestra since 2014.

A passionate advocate for music education and the right for anyone to access music, Damian has been involved in many education projects. He is also currently Music Director of the National Youth String Orchestra of Great Britain, who count among their alumni the Kanneh-Masons, including Sheku Kanneh-Mason (who performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle), and Claire Jones, official harpist to the Prince of Wales.

It is in this role at the NYSO that will see him and his musicians come to Kings Place this month for a concert performing works by Mendelssohn, Strauss, Britten and Tchaikovsky.

He believes strongly that music and learning an instrument should be accessible to every child regardless of their background or financial circumstances.

“There are so many case studies to show how important music learning is on behaviour, well-being and how it has an impact on results,” he says. “Unfortunately, we have a political class that mostly don’t understand or don’t want to understand the benefits of it.”

He also believes strongly that music therapy should be more readily available.

“I find it ridiculous that health departments, not just in the UK but in other countries, do not invest in music therapy more, because it is proven to help people with dementia, Alzheimer’s and many illnesses,” says Damian, who splits his time between Italy and London. “By investing in music therapy you could ultimately save a lot by reducing certain problems, but again it is shortsightedness from a political class that is not as well educated as it should be perhaps.”

He credits many dedicated music professionals with “filling in the gaps” in both education and such therapies. “We have such talented musicians who are involved in music education, music therapy and we are the world leader in this and yet these people are unrecognised, underpaid, under­appreciated and this is something that a forward-thinking government would invest in because it is fundamental to society – music is not a luxury.”

He hopes that his work at a “grassroots” level with the NYSO (which will take on any student irrespective of their financial situation if they are seen as talented, offering them bursaries or help if need be) he can at least “give something back”.

“The music the orchestras and the teachers I was involved with at school were extremely important to me,” he says. “Now that I am a director of a national youth orchestra I feel this responsibility to give something back and to try and give a little bit of my enthusiasm, my knowledge and my experience.

“I am trying to give them what other people gave me so they can take it on in their lives. Whether they become professional musicians or not, you sow a seed that grows in them.”

The National Youth String Orchestra conducted by Damian Iorio is performing at Kings Place on Sunday, August 12 at 7.30pm. For more information visit www.kingsplace.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7520 1490 or email info@kingsplace.co.uk

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