Linen Hall Library 225
New Neil Martin composition is the highlight of this anniversary concert at the Ulster Hall
On the very day the Linen Hall Library first opened its doors to the Belfast public 225 years ago, the famous institution’s longevity is celebrated in a musical evening at the Ulster Hall, featuring another of the city’s great cultural organisations, the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by David Brophy.
It’s no ordinary concert, however: care has been taken to link the musical items with the spirit of enlightenment that has driven the library forward throughout its long, illustrious history, and to reflect some of the people who have been connected with it in the past two centuries.
The blazing ceremonial of Aaron Copland’s 'Fanfare for the Common Man' launches proceedings, the combined brass section of the Ulster Orchestra resonating in the Ulster Hall’s wonderful acoustic, underpinned by explosive interjections on bass drum and percussion.
It’s a stirring opening, and sets the stage for Belfast novelist, Glenn Patterson, whose spoken contributions link the musical selections. Cut and tailored like an intellectual version of Bradley Wiggins, Patterson presides behind a lectern, wryly trawling his way through excerpts from the minutes of the library, focusing particularly on its early period.
The results are interesting and occasionally amusing, though give a patchy, skewed impression of the Linen Hall Library's development. A broader overview of what happened at particular periods of the library’s history would perhaps have been preferable for those in the sizeable audience who know little about it.
No such reservations apply to the new musical work commissioned for the occasion, The Great and First Object, by Belfast composer, Neil Martin, a regular user of the library himself over the past three decades. It’s a model of what such commissions should be – clearly structured, tuneful, and readily accessible to a wide range of listeners, without compromising its serious content and celebratory intentions.
The piece is graced by the solo contribution of soprano, Aiofe Miskelly, whose warmly pliable phrasing does full justice to Martin’s writing, and his experience of the Linen Hall as an ‘oasis for mind, soul and body… needed as much now as ever'.
Miskelly’s singing is, in fact, the musical highlight of the evening. In addition to The Great and First Object, she has a number of solos, including Britten’s arrangement of 'The Sally Gardens' and Martin’s of 'Silent Oh Moyle', dispatched with an alluring combination of poise and emotional maturity.
Miskelly, who graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, London in 2012, has operatic engagements at Cologne and Aix-en-Provence in her diary, and will sing the part of Cecily for Northern Ireland Opera in the Northern Irish premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the autumn. She is undoubtedly a singer to keep a close eye on in the future.
The young harpist, Richard Allen, also makes an appearance, in an arrangement (Neil Martin again) of Carolan’s 'The Fairy Queen'. He has a momentary problem mid-movement synching with the orchestra, but otherwise makes a sprightly, elegant impression.
Capping the evening are the massed school choirs of Carrickfergus Grammar School, Carrickfergus College, St Malachy’s College, Belfast, and Sullivan Upper School, Holywood, in an edited extract from the finale of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony.
Even with token amplification, it’s hard for the singers to cut their way through the sound of a full-size orchestra in Beethoven’s meatily-scored setting, and in truth it is a little hard to make out what they’re singing.
But this is not an evening for splitting hairs musically. It’s an evening to praise and celebrate a unique institution, and for the city it has served with such distinction to show its gratitude. The Linen Hall Library, the last subscribing library in Ireland, is special; long may it continue to exert its humane, civilising influence.
The Linen Hall Library's 225th anniversary celebrations continue throughout the year.