New Irish Arts Perform Christian Classics at Waterfront Hall

Christian choral and orchestral collective led by Jonathan Rea celebrate 20 years

When the New Irish Arts orchestra and choir attempt to raise the roof at the Waterfront Hall on September 20, they will not only be presenting the best of the Christian folk-pop repertoire, they will also consider the concert – which celebrates their 20th birthday – part of an ongoing evangelical Church ministry.

On the rostrum will be musical director, Jonathan Rea, who explains how the process works. 'Proselytising is an interesting word,' he muses. 'We just encourage people to worship God.

'The concerts are good in and of themselves, although there is some presentation of faith via comments between numbers. But we aim to do three things at a New Irish concert: we're presenting Christianity, we're supporting the church and supporting Christians in the arts.'

Rea's formative musical background made his eventual career in the worship music field pretty much a foregone conclusion. 'My parents went round singing gospel in mission halls in Belfast. It was actually a mixture of gospel and country music with the occasional old traditional Victorian hymn like 'It Is Well With My Soul' added in, and the style was natural singing the Northern Irish way.

'My sister and I were taken round too, and I joked we were the Von Rea family. There wasn't much real music making in my family and I was the only one who learnt to play an instrument. But I was fascinated by music from when I was young, maybe under five.'

What Rea describes as a very simple compositional style has percolated into his own compositions, although his musical education was formal. He studied music at Cambridge and became immersed in the traditional canon, which runs from plainsong to the transcendent music of the late Sir John Tavener via choral composers such as Parry.

'I did a very formal music degree with lots of complex composition, studied Bach and polyphony,' Rea recalls. 'I also belonged to the University Chamber Choir and we sang Bach's 'B minor mass' at the London Bach Festival, Monteverdi's 'Verspers', all that sort of thing. I learnt my craft and although I didn't have a beautiful tenor voice, I was accurate. But it's beautiful melodies that move me and the joy of singing.'

Rea admits to retaining a fondness for classical choral music and relaxes of an evening with Faure's 'Requiem' or equivalent. He rediscovered his musical roots, he remembers, on returning home to Northern Ireland after finishing his degree.

'It was the summer of 1995 and I'd come back home. The New Irish Arts group had just formed and were performing in the Ulster Hall. To be honest, part of me was not sure it was my thing but after one rehearsal, I was hooked. Part of it was musical, part of it was because it was home. But I could see the potential of linking faith and music-making.'

The result is, as Rea says, more Radio 2 than Radio 3. While the majority of the Waterfront Hall programme will feature known classics, New Irish Arts will perform one Rea original composition, an overture loosely based on 'Thine Be the Glory'. For those interested in Christian music, it will undoubtedly be a highlight. One or two of Rea's early modern numbers have even gone global.

'God of Grace', written in 2003 with Keith Getty, is one example. 'It's a gentle wee song,' Rea adds modestly, 'and the hook came first. The idea was that we produced a simple and fresh melody for the congregation.'

The song was recorded in Australia and Singapore and has an upbeat hook, as you might expect, plus a soulful tune redolent of 1990s pop that reassuringly doubles back at the end of the lines.

Unsurprisingly, Rea's talents have been deployed in six episodes of the BBC's Sunday afternoon perma-feature, Songs of Praise. 'I did six programmes across two years, some with New Irish Arts, some not, and enjoyed it. It features traditional hymns but connects with quite a large audience and some of the speakers provide the Christian message.'

So have there been any conversions at New Irish Arts concerts? Rea admits that the evangelical climate has changed. 'At the start, people made commitments to faith at some of the concerts but now that happens less. I like to think that what we're doing might help people re-engage.'

Although Rea would like the spread of churches represented in the choir to be wider, he concedes that the group is mainly made up of Baptists, Presbyterians some Free Presbyterians and a few Catholics – and some former students who Rea taught as former head of music at Bangor Grammar School.

But Rea does not regret leaving teaching – his schedule is now very much full, with three quarters of his time spent on New Irish Arts and the rest producing choral commissions for the likes of Stratherne School and writing programme notes for the Proms.

On his iPod, Rea branches out a bit. 'I love Nora Jones and her clear sound and I quite like Michael Buble's flamboyance. Sting is great too, and my favourite is 'Brand New Day'.' These choices make sense when you hear Rea's lively account online of Fats Waller's 'Ain't Misbehavin'' with instrumentalist Alan McClure.

Rea's eclecticism won't alter the mood of the New Irish Arts evening at the Waterfront, however, which will feature worship music star Stuart Townend, a chorus from Haydn's Creaton, John Rutter's 'O Be Joyful' and what Rea calls 'film music orchestration' – music that is, after all, about the Holy spirit.

New Irish Arts perform at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast on September 20.