The Snowman

The Oscar nominated animation is brought to life by the Ulster Orchestra

The Ulster Orchestra play the music to The Snowman is an annual event in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it's a rather highbrow affair – the Christmas concert equivalent to Ascot.

From the off, however, it’s clear that this concert attracts people of all ages and backgrounds, and if anything is unashamedly, admirably populist in tone - the perfect opportunity for parents to introduce their kids to the wonders of live orchestral music.

Masses of children sprint toward the auditorium as the final bell rings, waving neon lightsticks as they go. The Ulster Orchestra are decked out in lengths of tinsel and Santa hats. Some are dressed entirely like elves. They beam as the hall fills up, chatting amongst themselves like school students awaiting the end of term nativity performance – in an hour they can go home and put their feet up.

Led by conductor Christopher Bell, the orchestra spends the first half of the concert playing back and forth with the audience. A Christmas Festival, a medley of yuletide favourites by Leroy Anderson, gets everyone in the mood. Soon the audience are accompanying the orchestra en mass, shaking bells, keys and anything else at hand as Christmassy percussion for the requisite Jingle Bells.

The final half of the concert is given over to Raymond Briggs and Howard Blake’s Oscar-nominated Christmas classic, The Snowman, projected onto a huge screen suspended downstage.

Briggs’s illustrative style is not to everyone’s taste. It’s all scribbled coloured pencil (so 1980s!), as if he couldn’t be bothered to fill in every background, and as such appears chaotic and disjointed at times. Once you get used to the outdated animation, however, it’s easy to appreciate Briggs’s simple storytelling and Blake’s score.

As the young protagonist introduces the Snowman to such things as light switches and glowing hearths, treble vocalist Niall Doherty advances toward the microphone. His rendition of ‘Walking In The Air’ is pitch perfect, and allows the audience to connect with this otherwise voiceless half-hour piece.

Happily the floods of tears expected as the Snowman finally succumbs to the morning sunlight are kept at bay by Bell and his orchestra. A German carol, entitled 'Schneewalzer', bamboozles the young audience – ‘why’s he singing like that mummy?’ – and ends the evening on an upbeat note.

All good Christmas stories have a dark side, and The Snowman is no different. The Ulster Orchestra, to their credit, inject enough humour into this annual Christmas show, however, to counteract the rather morbid theme of mortality that the piece raises and leave the audience feeling decidedly light on their toes.

Lee Henry