spacer
The Vacuum Issue 12 Down Mexico Way spacer The Vacuum Issue 12 - Down Mexico Way
Beethoven in Belfast
by Wesley McCann
spacer
Two hundred years after they were written the nine symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven remain at the heart of the classical orchestral repertoire and audiences in Belfast are being given a rare opportunity to hear all nine in two festivals promoted by the Ulster Orchestra under its Principal Conductor Thierry Fischer. The first five were given at the beginning of December, and the symphonies 6, 7, 8 and 9 will be performed in February/ March 2004.
spacer
These festivals prompt the question - what is it about Beethoven's music that justifies such an intense concentration of effort on the part of orchestra, conductor and audience? For David Byers, Chief Executive of the Ulster Orchestra, the justification is obvious: 'Beethoven's music has a universal appeal. His vision is immense; he towers giant like over other composers. He alone seemed to change the whole course and expression of music.' Listening to the symphonies more or less in the order in which they were composed one has a sense of accompanying Beethoven on a journey. We see, says Byers, 'where he is coming from and where he is going to'.
spacer
Born in Bonn in 1770 Beethoven lived through a period of great upheaval. American Independence, the French Revolution, the rebellion of the United Irishmen and the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, and Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo had all taken place by the time of his death in 1827 and had changed the old world order for ever. The same can be said of Beethoven's music, for nothing in music was the same after him.
spacer
So familiar are audiences today with his music that it comes as a shock to realise that his first listeners were often scandalised by the radical new ideas and methods which Beethoven employed. Time too has changed the way in which his music is performed. Orchestras have grown bigger and instruments louder, and perhaps something of the freshness and vitality of his music have been lost.
spacer
In using a new edition of the scores the Ulster Orchestra is attempting to get back to what Beethoven wished us to hear. David Byers likens the approach to cleaning away the varnish from an old master painting to reveal its colours in all their original vibrancy. And, like a visitor to a foreign land learning the language by total immersion in it, the Orchestra, by concentrating on the works of one composer over a series of concerts, becomes thoroughly at home in his musical vocabulary. Usually the modern player has to encompass several different musical styles in the course of a single concert, but on this occasion, apart from the music of some of his contemporaries, Beethoven has had the stage to himself. This concentration is producing performances of clarity and assuredness. Thierry Fischer, who before becoming a conductor was a flautist in one of the finest chamber orchestras in Europe, brings a great insight into music of this period and his light and stylish touch allows each part to shine through with crystal clarity.
spacer
Listening to the orchestra perform these profound works in the Ulster Hall demonstrated once again what fine acoustical properties the hall has. It may be nearly one hundred and fifty years old and urgently (really urgently) in need of a serious facelift, but Belfast is very fortunate to have a hall of this quality. The Waterfront Hall is fine for big blockbuster evenings, and when full has a real buzz to it. But if the listener really wants to hear what is going on between the different parts of the orchestra then the Ulster Hall is to be preferred every time.
spacer
But a hall is no use without an orchestra, and all of us who live in Northern Ireland should be thankful for the existence of the Ulster Orchestra. Very few places of a size comparable to Northern Ireland can boast a full-time professional orchestra. Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool all may, but they can draw on populations of in excess of 5 million within their catchment areas. There are only 1.6million of us and yet we have a full time band of 63 players who put on 24 concerts a year, plus another 12 for the BBC (most of which are free) as well as a very active and imaginative education programme. Nor are performances confined to Belfast, for the Orchestra regularly visits Derry, Armagh, Enniskillen and other centres. Add to that the teaching which many of the players undertake with youth orchestras and individual pupils, and it is clear that the work of the orchestra permeates all of musical life in the province.
spacer
Of course it costs money - quite a lot of money. £1.6million from the Arts Council alone (more than three times the next largest amount awarded by the Council) together with £650,000 from the BBC and a hefty grant from the Belfast City Council. Add to that income from corporate and private sponsors and the box office and they can just about balance the books. Last year the players agreed to forego a pay rise in order to protect jobs and the quality of their output, but thankfully the situation has eased slightly, and a vigorous marketing strategy has seen the box office rise.
spacer
If you've never been to a live concert take my advice. Sign up now for the second part of the Beethoven festival. It begins on 27 February 2004 with the 'Pastoral' (no 6), which is most people's favourite, and ends with number 9, the 'Choral', with its life-affirming 'Ode to joy'. I can promise you an experience that will surpass anything a CD can offer. Full details of the concerts, together with details of special booking offers can be found on the Orchestra's website www.ulster-orchestra.org.uk.
spacer
spacer
home | information | issues | artists & writers | columns | reviews
spacer