Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble

Through fearless programming and financial initiative, Greg Caffrey's contemporary music group are delivering a scintillating season of classical in Belfast

Has there ever been a worse time in Northern Ireland’s history to launch an artistic start-up? It’s a question Greg Caffrey has probably asked himself on numerous occasions since he founded his Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble in Belfast just two years ago.

How to find the money needed to get the venture up and running, then keep it going in an environment where arts funding has been systematically lacerated by local politicians to the lowest per capita levels in the United Kingdom?

That is a tough ask in the current cash-strapped climate, but Hard Rain has recently unveiled details of its second full season, comprising no fewer than eleven concerts, with music by a dazzling panoply of forty contemporary and modern composers.

How on earth has Caffrey managed to do it? First, it seems, by astute and energetic networking. ‘I have actively sought out partnerships over the last two years,’ he says. 'Like-minded organisations that have similar problems finding the funding for what they want to do, and who also sympathise with the Hard Rain remit.'

That remit is to deliberately push the envelope in terms of what Northern Irish audiences are offered musically - to be 'fearless', as Caffrey puts it, in putting into Hard Rain programmes everything from knotty works by early twentieth century masters such as Webern, Berg and Schoenberg, to brand-new pieces by Irish composers like Ian Wilson, Brian Mawhinney and Caffrey himself.

Such music is not an easy sell, but Caffrey has identified a range of partners keen to catch the wind that’s blowing, and collaborate. The Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, for one, which has become a home from home for Caffrey’s players.

'The Crescent sees Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble as an innovative organization that can bring prestige to the centre through performances that are truly cutting edge,' Caffrey comments. 'Through our Artist-in-Residence relationship we use the performance space, technical staff and front of house facilities in exchange for making a contribution to the centre’s cultural programme.'

The role of the Arts Council, adds Caffrey, has also been crucial. 'They see Hard Rain as a unique ensemble, which indeed we are, and so have been happy to support it. Since we are not duplicating the activities of any other organization in NI we are seen as making a strong and much needed contribution to the sector.'

Caffrey is something of an evangelist for modern and contemporary music, and has never concerned himself unduly that the repertoire Hard Rain offers is in some way 'too difficult' or esoteric for the average musical enthusiast.

'I think it’s often the quality of the product that turns people off or on, rather than the product itself,' he comments. 'Contemporary music has a reputation for being under-rehearsed because of its complexities, and therefore badly performed.

'I try to be realistic about how much time it takes to rehearse our programmes so that we get the best results. In short, I think the public recognizes when something is presented and played with integrity, and when they see that they come back for more.'

It helps, of course, if you have top-class instrumentalists doing the playing, and Caffrey concedes that finding them isn’t easy, especially when his preference is for hiring those with local roots or residence.

'It is difficult to find the right musicians. The music is very specialist and even if you have a good technical player on board, if that player doesn’t have a love for this music it won’t be convincing.'

Two years into the Hard Rain project, though, things are definitely coalescing. 'My idea from the formation of the ensemble,' explains Caffrey, 'was not to find the music and then look for the players to perform it. Rather, I wanted a permanent group who would always play in the same line-up, building a musical understanding together as they went.

'We now have a wonderful core group, and I discourage the use of deputizing players in favour of a proper fixed membership.'

One member of that core group is violinist Joanne Quigley, who on Wednesday, December 16 initiates the Solo Series strand of the Hard Rain schedule, in a concert featuring works for unaccompanied violin by Penderecki, Steve Reich, and County Down composer Amy Rooney.

Beyond that, the new season brings scintillating opportunities to hear works which define the very essence of modern classical music - Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo, Pierre Boulez’s Derive I, and Morton Feldman’s Duration 1 among them - as well as Greg Caffrey’s own The Garden of Earthly Delights, specially written for the Hard Rain soloists.

It’s an extraordinarily bold and rich array of pieces, and brings music of seminal importance to Northern Irish audiences, long starved of opportunities to hear the best of what the pioneering figures of musical modernism have to offer.

A clutch of new educational link-ups with Queen’s University, the Ulster Youth Orchestra and South Eastern Regional College, involving workshops and illustrated lectures, are further evidence of Caffrey’s determination to see Hard Rain 'embedded in the artistic community here.'

And, while he says the funding situation in NI remains 'precarious to say the least', Caffrey is infectiously upbeat about his ensemble’s future. 'I see the future for HRSE as being very bright, and I would be surprised if in five years’ time it was not bigger, more active nationally and internationally, and diversifying its contemporary music activities.'

Part of this bullish enthusiasm is fuelled by the reaction of local concert-goers to the performances Hard Rain has already given. ‘Audiences have been wonderful,’ says Caffrey. ‘We’ve been steadily building a bit of a fan base who keep coming back to see us.

'I give out audience questionnaires, so I get a lot of feedback, and it’s wonderful to know that we are impacting so positively on life in the city. Contemporary music is often seen as a very serious business where the intellect prevails and emotive responses are few and far between. But we’ve had whoops, cheers and whistles after performances – long may it last!'

Joanne Quigley performs in the first concert of the Hard Rain Ensemble's Solo Series on Wednesday, December 16 at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast. Tickets can be booked via the venue website. For further information on all upcoming events from Hard Rain's new season visit www.hardrainensemble.com.