Belfast Festival Goes Classical

From Kiri te Kanawa to Franz Liszt, this year's classical programme offers some mouth-watering prospects

People tend to think of classical music as being for people who already like classical music. Lovely as those people are – and long may they continue to fill concert halls – it is always great to see new people giving it a go.

Hopefully, the rich and varied programme of classical concerts at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's – combining traditional favourites and experimental pieces – will bring in just as varied an audience.

Festivals need big names to make headlines, and for classical audiences, Dame Kiri te Kanawa is one of the biggest. The New Zealand soprano, now 67 and approaching veteran status, is still a magnetic presence vocally, and her concert with the Ulster Orchestra (October 30, Ulster Hall), including arias by Mozart and Strauss, will have Kiri-watchers grappling for tickets.

Of special interest will be the appearance of Newry-born singer Ben McAteer, winner of the inaugural Northern Ireland Opera vocal competition, to sing with Dame Kiri in what could be a career-defining moment.

Vocal fireworks of a different kind will illuminate the Waterfront Hall on the previous evening (October 29), when the massed voices of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir, Phil Kids, and pupils from eight Northern Irish secondary schools launch a combined assault on Carl Orff's choral blockbuster Carmina Burana, abetted by the amalgamated forces of the Ulster Orchestra and Ulster Youth Orchestra. Conductor Greg Beardsell lights the touch-paper to what should be a sonic spectacular.

Beardsell is also artistic director of the Ulster Youth Choir, whose concert with the prestigious vocal ensemble, The Gabrieli Consort, is one of the festival's collaborative highlights.

Members of the UYC recently sang with the Consort at a highly successful Proms performance of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah, and in the subsequent CD recording, so their St Peter's Cathedral concert (October 23), featuring Bach and more Mendelssohn, should be a feast for choral cognoscenti.

If 2011 is a vintage festival vocally, piano music also features strongly, especially in an imaginative series of concerts celebrating the bicentenary of Franz Liszt's birth, the 50th anniversary of Percy Grainger's death, and the fact that Belfast's own composer and classical champion, Philip Hammond has just turned 60.

Hammond marks the occasion with Miniatures and Modulations, a sequence of 14 pieces based on the Bunting collection of Irish Melodies from the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, divided between Northern Irish pianists Cathal Breslin, Michael McHale and David Quigley in their separate recitals. All three programmes (October 21 - 22) are a mouth-watering prospect.

The opening Festival of The Americas concert (October 14) is another obvious highlight, marking the first major appearance with the Ulster Orchestra's new principal conductor, the American JoAnn Falletta. Falletta plays to her musical pedigree in a programme combining Bernstein, Copland and Gershwin with South American composers Piazzolla, Marquez and Moncayo.

Additional pizzazz is injected by the presence of iconoclastic pianist, Joanna MacGregor, soloing in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and the 'I got Rhythm' Variations. Also unmissable is the appearance with the Ulster Orchestra of top-flight violinist, Tasmin Little, playing Elgar's Violin Concerto, a work of which she has recently made a magnificent recording.

A further slice of classic Americana is provided by Music Theatre 4 Youth's staging of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story in May Street Church (October 26 – 29). Tickets should be hungrily snapped up by connoisseurs of music drama, as they should for Shipwrecked (October 22), an original work by Irish music ensemble eX, recounting the true story of a Spanish Armada captain shipwrecked off Ireland in 1588 to a score comprising renaissance vocal and instrumental music from Spain, England and Ireland.

Operatically the festival offers slim pickings, with Opera Theatre Company's revival of Russian composer Grigory Frid's acclaimed chamber piece The Diary of Anne Frank (October 20) the only show scheduled.

Fortunately, though, Northern Ireland Opera's new production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, though not part of the festival itself, is touring during it, and sparkles with the wit of comedian Rory Bremner's updated libretto.

Finally, for those wishing to push the envelope a little musically, two events in particular (both free) are worth checking out.

First is Oceans of Silver and Blood with the New String Theory (October 27), a semi-improvisational piece by Brighton-based composer, Claudia Molitor, featuring two violins, tam-tam, a harp, electronics, piano and film. Note the early start time (1pm) and venue (Sonic Arts Resource Centre, Cloreen Park). This should be a lunchtime recital with a difference.

The musically inquisitive will also relish Joel Cathcart's audio installation Cicadas (October 17 – 19, Ulster Museum), described as 'an hour of improvised instrumental music, flighty harp and muttering guitars, drenched in a soft cascade of organ, vibraphone and muted gongs', disseminated by 'a small swarm of loudspeakers spread throughout the museum'.

Cathcart's hypnotically vibrating creation, and Oceans of Silver, will undoubtedly stretch conventional musical comfort zones and expand aural horizons. What better time than festival time to do just that?

For more on events taking place during the Belfast Festival check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On Festival Guide.