The Performer's Club

Andrea Rea discovers one of NI's premier platforms for unusual music

There’s a long standing musical organisation in Northern Ireland which has its origins in the cultural desolation of Belfast in the middle years of World War II.

During the summer of 1941, a few musical friends resolved to brighten their long evenings by performing music for one another each fortnight. Such was the need of diversion in those dark days that the group of five quickly expanded to many more, and they decided to call themselves 'The Performer’s Club'.

The goal of the group was to promote music of all kinds, especially ensemble works - everything from solo sonatas to concertos. Beyond that, performers enjoyed music that was different from the usual concert fare, and looked for unusual and seldom-played things to sink their teeth into.

RecorderThe focus was on the music rather than the performers. In early printed programme announcements, only the forthcoming works were listed - not the musicians.

Young players were encouraged by the recitals and experienced musicians, who had perhaps lost the discipline of practice, found themselves going back to regular preparation and polishing of their music. The first Performer's Club recital took place on October 4, 1941, in a studio in Wellington Place.

During WWII, the Performer's Club concerts were a lifeline for musicians and audiences alike, filling the void in cultural activities which the war had caused.

When the war ended, the Performer’s Club kept going, even as Belfast and NI began to attract international artists and concerts. The opportunity for expression and the sense of achievement that the recitals provided fuelled the Club’s continued activity.

Recitals would regularly take place in people’s homes, with neighbours providing extra chairs. The post-performance cup of tea provided an opportunity for audience and performers to share their thoughts, and constructive criticism.

MicrophoneAs the group grew, the premises of the Belfast Drama Circle in High Street were used for meetings. The next move was to a lecture hall on the top floor of the Extra-Mural Department of Queen’s University, and then to the Harty Room of the Music Department.

From its early years, the leading light and principal organiser of the Performer’s Club was Frank Capper, a well-known singing teacher in Belfast. He arranged the programmes and many of his students performed in the concerts.

Capper was of the opinion that a committee was permissible, provided it was a committee of one. His influence spanned more than fifty years of the musical life in NI, and his legacy remains strong amongst the singers and musicians who look after the Performer’s Club today. 

The core of musicians who feature in Performer’s Club recitals are singers, owing to Capper's influence. For many years, a Performer’s Club ‘Evening of Song’ was organised nearly every month as a way of showcasing the accomplishments of local singers, many of whom would have been Capper's students.

ViolinThose pupils remember how they might have been told that their song wasn’t quite fit yet for a performance. Carolyn Fullerton remembers being asked to sing a folk song instead of a more challenging work she was studying. Eric Hinds remembers how Capper would say to a singer, ‘we’ll consider that a pleasure deferred’.

David Bloomer recalls lunchtime recitals and a performance of Vaughn Williams’ The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains at the Belfast Festivals at Queen's, as well as various other fundraising recitals.

A typical concert might consist of a long song cycle from an experienced singer, an instrumental solo or two, an ensemble work (such as a string quartet) and a number of lighter items from opera or folk music.

All three singers agree that they wouldn’t have learned and studied anything of the repertoire they did if it wasn’t for the Performer’s Club. According to Hinds, ‘the reason for the Performer’s Club was to give a platform to performers doing repertoire that wouldn’t have been often or easily heard in Belfast’.

Capper’s knowledge of repertoire was an invaluable resource for the Club, and he would travel to hear other concerts and festivals, bringing back new music to his pupils. Such was his devotion to the Club that he continued to be a presence at concerts even after his health began to fail and several strokes restricted his activities.

Veronica Dunne, Derek Bell and Grainne Yeats are names from Performer’s Club programmes of years past. Poetry recitations and readings were sometimes part of the programmes, and quite often there was a theme - music and Shakespeare being just one.

FluteToday the Performer’s Club still exists, although it has become more difficult to sustain since Capper’s death.

Even so, his former pupils are devoted to his memory and have travelled to France to give concerts organised by another former Capper pupil, professional singer Uell Deane - a sort of ‘Performer’s Club South’, with exchange performances in Ireland by French singers.

Currently, there are three concerts planned, and the Club are considering meeting in each other’s homes for performances, just as in the old days.

As much as anything, the legacy of those early recitals and memories of the best years of the Performer’s Club are what keeps the present membership going, putting together new programmes and sharing their gift of music with new audiences.