Musical history in Belfast with the Ulster Orchestra, the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and soloists Mary McCabe, Cicely He, Aaron O’Hare and Brendan Collins
When people herald something as a “hidden gem” I am immediately wary, but having listened to the combined ensemble under the direction of the Phil’s relatively new and certainly eminent chorus director James Grossmith, this was an inspired choice for the season’s opening concert by the 120-strong Phil, which itself will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2024-25.
The Ulster Hall’s much-famed acoustics provided the perfect setting, and it was wonderful to hear the mighty Mulholland Organ, so rarely played now, in full throttle with the organist Tristan Russcher.
The Phil was in fine voice from the very start and right to the end in the Lux Aeterna which, in the words of James Grossmith, indeed gave us “a deep sense of the positive nature of Stanford’s own faith”.
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was one of the most distinguished composers and music teachers in the late 19th and early 20th century British musical scene, and was renowned for his choral music.
He was inter alia professor of music at Cambridge and director of the Royal College of Music, and his pupils included such luminaries as Holst and Vaughan Williams.
Sadly, however, he was later eclipsed by a new kid on the block called Edward Elgar, and he took this badly.
However, it is hard to understand why it took so long for his memorable Requiem to be performed in Belfast, and I hope that it will now become part of the Phil’s regular repertoire.
On Friday the Ulster Orchestra staged another excellent concert with its outstanding chief conductor Daniele Rustioni.
The soloist Frederico Colli was mesmeric in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, popularly known as ‘the Elvira Madigan’ because of its background to the bleak Swedish movie of that name, and there was a Scarlatti encore as well.
In the second half Rustioni majestically steered the orchestra through a remarkable performance of Prokofiev’s monumental 5th Symphony which matched the composer’s claim that it is “a hymn to the human spirit”.
The next big UO concert on November 17 features the distinguished violinist Francesca Dego, aka Mrs Rustioni, and also Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony.