Ulster Hall Opening Concert

An £8m facelift, a reacquaintance with those acoustics, and a new work from Brian Irvine - the Grand Dame returns

The wait is finally over. After two and a half years of extensive renovations and restorations Belfast’s Grand Dame, the Ulster Hall, once again opens her doors to do what she does best - host concerts. 

This evening's opening concert features everything from the Ulster Orchestra playing a classical overture and rhapsodic masterpiece to the powerful tones of Belfast’s Philharmonic Choir and the extravagant musings of Brian Irvine's 'Big Daddy Motorhead'. 

As the orchestra walk on stage against the backdrop of the newly restored Mulholland Organ, they are joined by principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery who gets the evening's festivities off in fine form with a late Beethoven piece. 

Although rather an obscure work, 'Consecration of the Hall', an overture from his Ruins of Athens contains many of the hallmarks of the great man, and represents a return to form for Beethoven after many years of fruitless labour. 

The piece can hold its own against other Beethovian overtures, containing the same kind of exuberance found in the Egmont Overture of 1810, for instance. The orchestra gives a fine performance, encapsulating the energy and vitality of the piece, clearly basking in the warmth of the hall’s natural acoustics.

Northern Irish pianist Michael McHale then joins the orchestra for a performance of Rachmaninov’s timeless classical Variations on a Theme of Paganini. McHale arrives back in Belfast fresh from his success at the 2009 Terrance Judd/Halle Award at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. A rising star in Northern Ireland’s classical alumni, McHale gives a defined performance of the work, moving through every nuance of variation with a striking and eclectic display of technique.

It’s always a pleasure to hear a new Brian Irvine work, and tonight there’s a surprise or two (or three) in store for the audience. 'Big Daddy Motorhead' gives the orchestra a run for their money with its lively rhythms, colourful orchestration and vibrant back story. 

Like something from the Brothers Grimm, with this new piece Irvine conjures up images of artists from yesteryear climbing out of the hall’s nooks and crannies only to end up having a jamming session. Ghosts and ghouls aside, the piece is certainly a fitting tribute to the hall’s rich past, marking it out as one of Northern Ireland’s premier musical ‘haunts’.

Another work not often heard, Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet is next up, performed by the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and baritone Paul Whelan. This piece is a follow-up to the composer’s successful Songs of the Sea, although arguably this later set is the better of the two. More dramatic and emotional than its predecessor, Songs of the Fleet perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of the beauty of the sea and the ugliness and futility of war. 

Chorusmaster Christopher Bell does not let Stanford down, and the choir also rise to the occasion, as does baritone soloist Paul Whelan, whose depth and clarity of tone provide an excellent narration to the work.

The evening comes to a close with one of Igor Stravinsky’s most loved and enduring works. On it's premiere in 1910, The Firebird was arguably the work that transformed Stravinsky into something of a celebrity in Paris. Its beautiful and subtle orchestration still continue to fascinate and captivate audiences nearly a century on. 

Kenneth Montgomery takes the orchestra through the fantastical story with flair, providing a fitting end to the Ulster Hall’s reopening concert. While listening to the work, pictures are conjured up from the ballet of the beautiful phoenix rising up from the ashes, reminding the audience that the surrounding building has gone through something of a transformation itself these last two years. 

After what seems like such a long time, Belfast’s own Great Dame wakes up once again to host events of every shape and size, returning to Northern Ireland one of its great landmarks, and concert venues, which will entertain for many, many years to come. 

Graeme Stewart