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Frazer Orr talks to conductor Kenneth Montgomery

An interview with Kenneth Montgomery forms part of the December podcast.

ListenTo listen to the full interview with Kenneth Montgomery see the links below:

Kenneth Montgomery Interview 1
Kenneth Montgomery Interview 2
Kenneth Montgomery Interview 3


Fasten your seatbelts. The Ulster Orchestra is planning to take you on a journey through time and space.

Kenneth Montgomery is the group’s chief guest conductor. In August 2006 he succeeds Thierry Fischer as principal conductor and is already laying ambitious plans for the musicians.

Born in Belfast in 1943 Montgomery’s career has seen him work all over Europe and the US.

‘When I was a boy here you couldn’t study music at a professional level so you had to go somewhere else. The usual place was London.’

After studying at the Royal College of Music he began his professional career as an opera répétiteur. Soon, at the age of 23, he was conducting.

At Sadler’s Wells Opera, which became the English National Opera, he learnt a great deal.

‘I did three years with them. Sometimes performances in London, sometimes performances on tour, it was a great way to learn about conducting in all kinds of different circumstances.’

To broaden his experience of orchestra conducting he moved to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as assistant conductor.

‘That was a tremendous job because not only was there one big symphony orchestra but there was also a chamber orchestra. So as a young conductor I could cover the heavier orchestra repertory and also smaller works, so that was a great learning opportunity.’

After several appearances in the Netherlands he was soon appointed principal conductor of the Dutch Radio Symphony Orchestra and subsequently the Dutch Radio Choir.

Opportunities to guest in Toronto and Santa Fe, New Mexico, were also seized. He clearly relished the challenge this represented.

‘I’ve been there 17 times since then and I celebrate my 25th anniversary next year with them.’

Despite all of this travelling he didn’t remain a stranger to music in his native land.

As artistic director of Opera Northern Ireland for ten years he was instrumental in the creation of the opera company - something he takes great pride in.

‘We did very good work. People still talk about it. And of course the Ulster Orchestra were playing for that so I’ve worked with the orchestra since its beginnings 40 years ago as a guest or with the opera, so I know them very well and I’m very flattered to be asked to be their chief conductor.’

With his vast experience of orchestras all over the world I’m curious as to how our own group compares. Montgomery is unequivocal in his answer.

‘The personnel doesn’t change very much and they’re wonderful at working together and that makes a conductor’s life very simple. Sometimes you go to an orchestra and they’re not really very good at playing together and as a conductor you have to get that to happen. Ulster Orchestra, no problem at all.’

As a conductor then it could become difficult to make your mark on an orchestra used to playing a certain way. The relationship between a diverse group of musicians and their conductor must be a complicated one.

It must be very difficult to direct the orchestra to do something with which they are not familiar. Not so, says Montgomery.

‘They’re very flexible. They know with me that I’m always going to try and bring a new look to the music that we’re doing. Even music that they’ve played a lot of times.’

And this is where this particular journey for the Ulster Orchestra will begin.

Kenneth Montgomery has very clear ideas about how he would like the orchestra to perform. Currently, he is concerned with the authenticity of their performances. As much as possible, with him, they are exploring the possibility of producing work as it would have been produced at the time of composition.

In the same way that the work of a master painter can be restored, with the 19th century repertory Montgomery is attempting, as he puts it ‘to bring it back to the primary colours that the composers would have wanted.’

To begin such a process is not without difficulties as there is little evidence of how the pieces were performed at the time. Such an approach requires a lot of research.

‘You have to know how the instruments were played. The problem with that is it’s very difficult to find out because people didn’t really write it down, just everybody did it.’

Among the materials used by Montgomery is an early recording of violinist Josef Joachim. Montgomery can see striking differences between this performance, by one of the most influential violinists of all time, and what we are used to now.

Most orchestras now play with general vibrato, that is, vibrato all the time. The recording of Joachim is quite different.

‘There you hear him playing without much vibrato but with beautiful colours and sliding between the notes. Our modern players have lost the technique of sliding between notes and that’s something that I’m working on very much at the moment.’

What the orchestra are trying to do is something rarer and more precious than you might think. The world of classical music is becoming smaller and it’s fair to say that classical music is in danger of becoming homogenous.

What would have been true of different classical schools is now global, meaning less diversity in performance.

‘With the universality of recordings in the last 30 years or so, orchestras all over the world begin to sound the same, which is a pity because they didn’t used to.’

Taking the post of principal conductor in August 2007 Montgomery has the opportunity to do something different with the Ulster Orchestra. The continuity guaranteed by the post means that Montgomery can take the orchestra in a direction of his choosing.

‘That’s what I’m looking forward to. A real exciting adventurous journey with them.’

Regular attendees will be taken on that journey. This Montgomery considers to be the whole point.

‘To grab the audiences and communicate with them as best as we all can.’