Kim Vaughan, Quercus Ensemble

The classically trained cellist on learning her craft in Derry~Londonderry and performing a Roald Dahl classic for City of Culture

‘Quercus’ is the Latin word for oak tree. It’s what the mother of Kim Vaughan suggested when her daughter was mulling over what to call the new chamber music ensemble she wanted to establish in Derry-Londonderry, her native city. Which is, of course, ‘Doire’, or ‘oak grove’, in the original Irish.

Vaughan lives in London nowadays, where she is building a professional career as cellist with the all-female Benyounes Quartet. Her roots, however, remain strongly connected to Derry, where she blossomed and flourished as a young classical musician.

‘I went to Thornhill College,’ she says, ‘and did all my schooling in Derry. The Western Education and Library Board had music lessons, and in the last three years of secondary school I started going to Dublin for cello lessons.’

Vaughan was, she says, ‘quite lucky’ in her early exposure to classical music-making. ‘I had a lot of chamber music experience when I was young. There was the Classical Music Society based in Derry, which doesn’t really exist anymore. They used to have string quartet weekends once a year. Very early on I knew it was that I loved more than anything else.’

Further invaluable experience came from the Apple Hill Chamber Players’ visits to Derry when Vaughan was a teenager. ‘They had some scholarships for Irish people to go and take part in their music camp in New Hampshire, America for a month in the summer,’ she remembers. ‘I went two years in a row and played a lot of repertoire. It was just exactly what I wanted to do.’

Six years at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester followed, then a further period of intense study with her three colleagues in the Benyounes Quartet at the Haute Ecole de Musique in Geneva. All the time, however, Vaughan’s home territory was beckoning, in particular the notion of giving something substantial back to the community she grew up in as a classical musician.

‘I think I always wanted to come back and set something up in the North. A very flexible type of ensemble that opens up a huge range of repertoire, and the possibility of engaging in project-based work which might push the boundaries of the typical classical music concert programme. I thought that would be perfect for Northern Ireland, that there wasn’t really something like that at the minute.’

From the beginning, Vaughan’s intuition that Quercus could fill an important gap in the Northern Irish classical marketplace seemed solidly founded. ‘I set it up in 2011,’ she recalls. ‘We put together Impressions, a really great programme of French music, and we invited the artist Sinead Smyth to display some of her work, and talk to the audience. The feedback was really positive, people really enjoyed it.’

Encouraged by the reaction, Vaughan began examining ways of taking the Quercus Ensemble concept further.

‘I enjoy coming up with ideas and trying to develop them. But I needed to develop the business and marketing skills to make the ideas happen. So I applied to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, on their Artist Career Enhancement Scheme, and was accepted. The mentoring part of that scheme has helped me develop as artistic director of Quercus. I’m really enjoying finding out the skills I need to bring the ideas to life.’

Little Red Riding Hood


The benefits of Vaughan’s involvement with the ACNI scheme have not been long in coming. ‘In March,’ she says, ‘we’re doing the Northern Irish premiere of Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood, in a musical setting by the composer Paul Patterson.

‘It’s for a narrator and a chamber ensemble of wind quintet, string quintet and piano, with a conductor. I think it’s a brilliant coming-together of Dahl’s naughty, mischievous humour, which gives the story a dark twist, and a really vibrant score, with lots of fun and slapstick.’

Quercus will give seven performances in total of the new piece, including a couple at the Humdinger Children’s Book Festival in Derry~Londonderry (March 7-8), and three on a single day (March 10) at the Belfast Children’s Festival.

‘This is the first time we’ll have the full-size ensemble together, so that’s really exciting,’ enthuses Vaughan, who emphasises the importance that she places on recruiting home-grown players to the Quercus project.

‘One of my main priorities is to give younger, new generation Irish musicians the platform to come back and play in Northern Ireland, and share ideas. A lot of players for the Little Red Riding Hood ensemble come from the North, and some from the South. Many of them went to the UK mainland to study, and really want to come back. But there hasn’t really been the right environment or opportunity.’

Vaughan’s aim is that Quercus should create the right environment, and provide attractive performing opportunities. ‘For me, as a freelance musician, I’m quite lucky to have the Benyounes Quartet as a basis,’ she comments.

‘But in terms of chamber music, this type of small, chamber ensemble where everyone has a single voice and single parts, where there’s maybe a little bit more scope for personal expression and a bit more sense of ownership – there’s isn’t so much opportunity for that in Northern Ireland.’

Vaughan is specially delighted that Quercus will be contributing directly to the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations in Derry. In addition to the Dahl project, funding from the ‘Music Promise’ initiative will enable the ensemble to deliver a series of ‘fun workshops’ to young musicians in the city.

‘For me,’ she reflects, ‘it’s nine, ten years since I left Derry, and I think that now there’s a lot of smaller initiatives happening, like the Echo Echo Dance Company, and all the different art galleries. I’m aware of much more diversity, and I think a lot of it must result from working toward this accolade, this special year culturally for the city.’

Excited as she is by Quercus’s participation in the City of Culture 2013 programme, Vaughan is already looking beyond it to the longer-term future. ‘I would really like at some point to re-establish some sort of chamber music course in Derry, maybe once a year,’ she concludes.

‘I’d love eventually for different arts organisations and companies in Northern Ireland to feel a real potential to collaborate with us. It would be great to work with a dance company and artists, or to commission new music. I think there’s definitely the potential for something like Quercus to be really successful, to help develop new audiences for classical music.’

Quercus Ensemble