Although it’s (quoting the Ulster Museum) ‘the most continuously disturbed part of Western Europe since 1945’, I always return from Northern Ireland saying that I’ve had a lovely time, and everyone else should visit. It helps of course that, over four decades now, my genial hosts have been the Music School of Queen’s University and their long-abiding composition Prof, Piers Hellawell.
Together we have by now many home-made Belfast concerts to look back on, although if I describe this weekend’s performance by Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble as ‘home-made’ that might not be a fair way of expressing the professional excellence of the locally-based ensemble members. Composer Greg Caffrey founded the group because he felt he had to; there was no contemporary music group in the vicinity to serve Belfast’s high-end composition scene. I can’t think of a better justification for putting composers in charge than this neat little group, whose current season comprises a dozen different programmes plus workshops round and about various colleges in Northern Ireland. Out of an engrossing evening by Queen’s composers, I’ve particularly remembered a cello solo by Daniel Barkley and a piano trio, Eske by Stephen Coyle.
A visit the previous evening to hear the Ulster Orchestra in a noble programme of Beethoven Seconds (Symphony, Piano Concerto, Leonora Overture – neat again!) revealed another group of musicians who are keeping their artform alive over here through their own courage and determination. The Orchestra have been managerially and corporately re-organised so many times that I wasn’t entirely sure if they were still there. But in the nicely refurbed Ulster Hall (an old-fashioned shoebox with a good acoustic) a good-sized audience cheered them on, also listening attentively to a long-ish new concerto (by Timo Andres). If these musics are going to carry on, it will be because of musicians, composers and listeners. The other stuff is secondary, and sometimes gets in the way.
Pictured – the Palm House in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, with sections of next-door Queen’s University peeping out.