Kathleen Ferrier, John Barbirolli, Clifford Curzon, Pierre Bernac, Francis Poulenc, Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Edwin Fischer, the Amadeus Quartet….
The list reads like a who’s who of great classical musicians of the past century, and could easily be extended further. They all have one thing in common: each has performed at the Belfast Music Society, an organisation currently celebrating 90 years of bringing world-class chamber music to the city.
Formed initially as a regional branch of the British Music Society, the BMS was initially a somewhat genteel organisation, a social gathering with tea and buns served afterwards. ‘There was a lady who brought her knitting,’ runs one recollection of the period, ‘and busily clicked her needles, except during the recitals.’
From the outset the BMS attracted artists of extraordinary calibre to Belfast, membership of the society peaking at over 900 in the early 1960s. Fees of top performers, however, began rising stratospherically; the Troubles seriously damaged Belfast’s image as a cultural destination; and membership gradually declined to today’s more modestly sustainable levels.
The BMS is, however, very much alive and kicking as it enters its tenth decade. For the anniversary season, says outgoing society chair, Sheila Sloan, no fewer than three new programming strands were developed. ‘One is new works, commissioning on a more regular basis,’ she explains. ‘The second is ‘Northern Lights’, championing local musicians. The third involves fringe events around our annual festival.’
BMS activities have also been expanding in other areas beyond the immediate concert hall setting. ‘We’ve had an education project running each year,’ Sloan adds, ‘and we’ve also done outreach work. The first year we did the outreach, we took Tasmin Little (watch above), a leading British violinist, to Maghaberry Prison, and she played to the inmates of the hospital wing. It was brilliant, really, really fantastic.
‘On the afternoon of the same day we had a workshop for 150 young violinists in Donegall Pass, at the School of Music. And Tasmin played unaccompanied stuff to them, and answered questions about various points of technique. She gave them hot tips about what to do!’
The ‘Northern Lights’ initiative is another viewed as crucially important to the ongoing relevance of the BMS as a concert-giving organisation. ‘BMS has for years and years supported local musicians, often at an early stage in their career,’ explains concerts manager, Pam Smith. ‘We felt that the 90th anniversary was an opportunity to re-affirm our commitment to them. That’s why we’re piloting the ‘Northern Lights’ mini-fest.’
The Belfast Piano Trio and soprano Giselle Allen were the first artists to feature in the new ‘Northern Lights’ category, and this month both the Cavaleri Quartet (featuring young Belfast violinist, Ciaran McCabe) and Carrickfergus mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin (fresh from the same English National Opera production of Weinberg’s The Passenger in which Giselle Allen sang the title role) have also given concerts.
BMS has just announced the programme for its annual International Festival of Chamber Music in Belfast next February, and Sloan is brimming with enthusiasm about it.
‘What a feast!’ she exclaims. ‘As a string player my highlight will be the Apollon Musagète Quartet [who just this week accompanied Tori Amos at her gig in the Waterfront Hall, and are pictured above], but we have soprano Susan Bullock and pianist Nikolai Demidenko, both of whom are big stars. My advice is to book early!’
BMS’s commitment to Northern Irish classical talent is reflected in the appearance of the young Belfast pianist Michael McHale with his Ensemble Avalon, the student showcase recital staged in conjunction with Queen’s University, and the masterclass by leading clarinettist, Michael Collins.
With its raft of fresh initiatives and a strong festival roster for the new season, BMS appears to be striding confidently forward to its centenary year in 2021. Sheila Sloan, who first attended the society’s recitals when a music student at Queen’s University, would like to think so, but sounds a cautionary note regarding the longer-term prospects of what is basically a voluntary, not-for-profit organisation.
‘It needs passionate enthusiasts for it to continue,’ Sloan says, ‘because everybody’s just doing it in their spare time.’ Pam Smith agrees, and emphasises how much more difficult it is nowadays to secure the sponsorship and grant funding necessary to underpin BMS’s existence.
‘20 years ago you could write a letter to a funding body, and they would respond with a small grant. And that would be fine, no form-filling needed. There’s so much more involved now, so much more time needed, so many more hurdles to jump over.’
For those saddled with the heavy burden of fund-raising, administration, and putting the annual concert series together, is it, I wonder, all worth it? Sloan is in no doubt that it is. ‘The payback I get,’ she says, ‘is sitting at the back of the hall during, say, the Razumovsky Ensemble, seeing the reaction, and enjoying something fantastic with everyone. I’ve had huge enjoyment also from the outreach and education work that we have done.’
Smith, for her part, is spurred on by the reaction of the knowledgeable, discerning audiences attending BMS concerts. ‘I get a lot of people coming up to me and saying, "This is great, you’ve got to carry on doing this, it’s as good as we would ever manage to get anywhere else in the world".’
‘That is our strap-line’, smiles Sloan. '"World-class chamber music since 1921". A voluntary organisation that has managed to be 90 years old is surely something worth shouting about!’
For more information on Belfast Music Society events, visit the BMS website.