Portaferry Proms Return

Friends of Portaferry Presbyterian Church have successfully re-imagined the classical building as an arts venue

As William Crawley's recent BBC television series intriguingly indicated, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland changed the course of social history in this part of the world. But it could not be credited with much of a contribution to the art of music. Several centuries passed, for example, before many of that church's authorities considered permitting anything musical in worship other than the unaccompanied human voice.

So it is not a surprise that recorded session minutes of the one of the reputedly oldest Presbyterian congregations on the island of Ireland reflect this conservatism. On July 18, 1904, a request to consider the introduction of 'an instrument of music' into Portaferry Presbyterian Church is first mentioned.

It led to what was described at the time as a very heated discussion, and it was to be another 13 years before an organ was installed, purchased from Evans and Barr, the esteemed but sadly now defunct Belfast firm of organ builders.

This kind of history is ironic in the light of the present day context of Portaferry Presbyterian Church. As with many such churches, congregations have diminished considerably, and what was once a flourishing 'parish' is now but a shadow of its former self.

That's life – but the catch is that the Portaferry building itself provides an architectural heritage which is worth preserving. It could well be that its future will eventually reside outside the auspices of the church and in the world of the arts and heritage.

Built in 1841, Portaferry Presbyterian Church was praised by the late Sir Charles Brett as 'one of the most interesting examples of Greek Revival architecture in Ireland... a magnificent Greek temple with a six columned portico at each end... one of the most distinguished neo-classical buildings in Ulster [and] in the first rank of neo-classical designs in the whole of the British Isles'.

In a bold move to restore and preserve the building, a group known as Friends of Portaferry Presbyterian Church was formed in 2007, which included a certain Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Queen's University, Neil McClure. His own grandfather had been a member of the congregation and, together with his friends, McClure bravely set out to raise the necessary cash and profile.

That profile at least was to be gained through music. Despite being an amateur musician still well versed in organ playing and choral study through his own early education at Regent House in Newtownards under the tutelage of the redoubtable Alfie Burrowes, McClure's particular gifts are obviously focused elsewhere professionally.

Yet McClure can see the potential of using this unique building in Portaferry and its fine acoustic as an attractive music venue, especially for chamber music. He is optimistic about its future.

'The building may be down-at-heel at the moment but that belies its spirit. There has been a century of music making here and we, in the Friends, see music, the arts and the heritage of the region, as a large chapter in this outstanding building's story.

'It seems to rise to the occasion, and there's an intimacy about the performances that is perhaps missing from larger concert halls. Would our forbears approve? mostly, yes, I suspect.'

The church can hold an audience of several hundred people in relative comfort – if you bring a little extra padding for the nether regions that is – and the interior is beautifully proportioned and classically embellished. This, of course, helps you get over any religious overtones, if you so wish.

With the added incentive of an informal ambiance to all the concerts, and with post-concert receptions, a winning formula has been developed by the Friends, which has successfully attracted audiences for some years to a continuing series of musical events, now encompassed under the title of the Portaferry Proms.

On Saturday, May 18 at 7.30pm, the Friends of Portaferry Presbyterian Church are presenting one of the finest string quartets in the UK, the Endellion, which can boast a 34-year history as a performing ensemble. The programme for the evening consists of Haydn Op.50 No.2, Beethoven Op. 127, and Leoš Janácek's first string quartet.

The Endellion's programme is not for the casual listener; it is not geared towards the lowest common denominator of musical tastes. What is admirable about the Friends is their commitment to saving this fine building and at the same their refusal to compromise on the excellence of their product. In following this line, they are matching the original vision of the builders of the church – but this time through the medium of music.

Visit the Friends of Portaferry Presbyterian Church website for more information.