Belfast Music Society Festival

Philip Hammond talks with BMS concerts manager Pam Smith about this year's theme and programme. Click Play Audio for a podcast interview

There was a time when the BMS - once the British Music Society, now the Belfast Music Society - attracted audiences in their hundreds. And that was in my lifetime. But times change and the focus of the BMS commitment to chamber music finds fewer advocates nowadays than in the past.

The very term 'chamber music' perhaps has a stiff, stuffy feel to it to a present generation. That’s unfortunate, because some of the greatest music ever written lies within its ambit, a world of intimate, emotional revelations and truly personal experiences. Maybe it’s something you come to appreciate only with maturity?

This year’s BMS Festival, which spans the weekend February 19-21, is an eclectic mix of solo, duo and ensemble concerts with several themes and sub-themes to the programme. 'All the music in some way is connected with folk music and traditional music from around the world,' explains Pam Smith, BMS concerts manager.

But before you get the impression that this is a follow up to the Open House festival, or some such other lengthy set of trad 'sessions', we are talking treatment of folk music through the eyes and ears of such greats as Schumann, Bartok, Martinu, de Falla and Chopin.

Throughout the six concerts of the festival, other sub-themes emerge – the bi-centenary of the birth of Chopin or the centenary of the birth of Peter Pears. 'He performed for the BMS with Britten, and Britten himself was a great setter of folk songs from the British Isles – so we’ve been able to incorporate the anniversary tribute and the folk song idea in this one concert,' adds Smith.

That makes good programming sense, but even the best laid plans of mice and men - and the BMS -can go awry. Tenor Philip Langridge, the planned star of the Pears tribute, unfortunately took ill and had to withdraw from this year’s festival within two weeks of its opening.

Smith is fairly used to such emergencies and takes them in her stride. Last year’s festival saw Argentinean pianist Nelson Goerner pull out at the last moment through illness but, undaunted, the BMS has re-engaged him for the Saturday night recital this year, relying no doubt on the lightning analogy.

And what of Philip Langridge’s replacement? 'We still have the accompanist David Owen Norris, and he is bringing Mark Wilde, a young tenor from Scotland who, as it happens, has a connection with Pears through his teacher, Neil Mackie, a student of Pears long ago.'

From Finland comes the young Meta4 String Quartet, complete with Sibelius, Bartok and a new work by harmonium player (amongst other things, of course) Ata Kotila. But as Smith is keen to point out, the BMS never neglects its home turf; local composer and traditional player Neil Martin features on the festival programme, as does Northern Irish born flautist Eimear McGeown (pictured above).

All the events take place in the panelled splendour of Queen’s University’s Great Hall – it’s an easy place to access and a fine setting for such a festival. For details of the festival timetable, or to book tickets, visit the BMS website here.