'We are building the cultural legacy for the future': Derry founder of Le Foyer des Artistes
Conductor Darren Hargan has already hit the ground running by founding Le Foyer des Artistes, bringing world class artists to Derry and creating a new international orchestra based at St Columb’s Hall.
On top of this, the Galliagh man has been busy laying the foundations to build opportunities for collaborative cultural exchange and exploration, professional development and education "because we are passionate about nurturing future generations of creative people and supporting emerging talented artists".
The artistic director's vision has struck a chord with people across the island and beyond, and he has managed to attract an impressive group of directors and producers who have understood the vision, the need. And the potential.
Darren himself is a highly sought-after coach and accompanist for singers in Europe and he is also a citizens Switzerland where he has lived and worked for many years. He has studied in Manchester, Amsterdam, was awarded a full scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London and has also worked with many of Europe's leading orchestras, conducted several world premières and guested at many of Europe's leading festivals.
The Derry man had thought of founding his own ensemble in Switzerland, as he had done successfully in England several times "but always under someone else's umbrella." But then COVID hit and an alternative possibility began to take shape.
"Life is so short and you have to really think of one place where this is going to have a home and where it can travel out from. A few years ago I was determined to get back home for Christmas and you had to spend two weeks transitioning to get anywhere due to the COVID pandemic. So I was two weeks in Manchester and I remember flicking through the Derry Journal and I came across this article from Garvan O'Doherty talking about the key to economic development and regeneration and society is really culture. Then I thought to myself, here I am doing all these projects all around the place with a pretty good address book and lots of contacts as a conductor. Why not Derry?
"Then I thought about St Columb's Hall. I used to pass it when I came home and I thought this place is going to go to the dogs and all that great legacy will be lost - 135 years of music making in there.
"I saw my first opera there. The hall used to belong to the Long Tower church and I played the organ in the church, I played for the Papal Nuncio. I feel a personal connection to the hall. It is part of the cultural heritage here. So when I read about it being restored I thought this was really interesting. When I got to Derry I got in contact with the Trust and after the quaratine they came and met me. We visited the hall and it seemed pretty run down but I could see past this and put forward all these ideas for a series of concerts, sharing our cultural heritage, St Columba and they were so receptive."
Darren said it was so refreshing to be met with such positivity and he was encouraged to put proposals together, proposals which were then put before, and endorsed by, the board of directors from the St Columb's Hall Trust.
And so Le Foyer des Artistes came into being. "A lot of work has been done since and in the short time after that first meeting with Anne-Marie Gallagher in the damp and rundown auditorium, I find it incredible that it had been miraculously restored in time for our first concert," he said.
Darren describes Les Foyer des Artistes as "an ensemble of musicians from across the world united to create extraordinary experiences in the community."
"This is the community I want to work in and invest in. As somebody who comes from an ordinary, working class background I want to slit through all the ideas that it is connected to any type of community or is elitist. My passion for all of this was ignited in Derry, I've been adjudicating at the Feis this year and I feel very connected to that heritage. This is not only about music and getting world class artists and singers in, it’s about collaborating with our fantastic bars and restaurants and creating world-class experiences in the heart of the place which people call home, an emerging European destination for tourism.
"We have huge international potential with what we are doing. It is really highlighting Derry as an independent centre of culture, an ancient city independent of Dublin or Belfast and about opening up a new chapter. We celebrate all the great things about the past but we have to look towards what is the cultural future.
"Particularly since COVID we are moving away from the idea that all great cultural projects happen in places like Paris and London. You can really see it. Some people are upset about that but it is important it is happening."
And Derry, he contends, has a cultural and artistic heritage that can rival any of them with unlimited potential for the future.
The orchestra ensemble at the core of Le Foyer des Artistes can contract and expand in size for different projects and having such a core organisation synonymous with a city around which cultural and artistic projects can grow is a tried and tested model elsewhere. But Darren said he was realistic that the real significance is the bigger story, creating something brand new in this 'spectacular part of the world' with its strong links to St Columba, whose own voyage out in some ways mirrors his own.
“Like many Irish people, I have gone out like a Columban monk going to different places, meeting different people, speaking different languages," he laughs. "But people would be saying it would be great if we could do something together. They get it. Culture transcends generations and goes back thousands of years and it will always be important.
"I'm very passionate about telling that story to the man and woman on the street, the people of the Bogside where my mother is from, the people of the Waterside where my father is from, let them know that this story is their story too. This is not just about the concerts, it's about telling the bigger story about Derry’s reputation as a city of music, a city of song and sharing that story with the world and bringing the world to Derry.
"I'm excited to build a new audience and to make young people a part of our story. It’s extremely satisfying because this is about building the cultural legacy for the future.
There is so much talent locally at NWRC, the Costume Hub and elsewhere, Darren said, and longer term those skills can be utlised to create, 'theatre here of the highest quality'.
"My vision going forward is in addition to the four concerts we are staging is to create a new, big festival with events outside which can combine international cultural tourism, music and theatre.
"Derry is a true ancient city and we have to make this the absolute centre for the highest quality of culture and an international centre for cultural tourism.”
The Midsummer Concert, the final concert of the season takes place at St Columb’s Hall on 13 June at 7.30pm. The YAMAHA CFX concert grand piano will return from London for a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto 9 K.271 by the St Columb’s Hall Concerto Award Winner in a programme which will include two of Mozart’s virtuosic concert arias and a special contribution by Lisnagelvin Primary School.
To find out more about Les Foyer des Artistes see: https://lefoyerdesartistes.com/