Belfast Philharmonic Society

Christopher Bell, outgoing artistic director, signs off in style and leaves a lasting legacy

A choral society is a demanding beast. It relies for its energy on the enthusiasm and the dedication of its members, who are usually amateur musicians with all sorts of other calls on their time.

When you join a choral society, you are not just there for the personal ride. You have to contribute to the general good of the whole group; produce a quality outcome, especially if you are singing with professional musicians and be 100% committed. When it comes to the concerts, if you are not sure of your score, you are a liability. Missing the odd rehearsal should not be an option.

It always strikes me as remarkable that there are so many new people in the Belfast Philharmonic Society willing and eager to audition and take on membership – if offered it. Nowadays, continual assessment of one’s vocal prowess is also part of being a member of the Society and, thankfully, gone are the days when you could sing on until you dropped due to old age or infirmity – or both.

So, why has the Belfast Philharmonic Society enjoyed such a musical renaissance? It comes down to two things. The dedication of its unpaid management and the inspirational leadership of its artistic director. Over the past seven years, both have worked together to reprofile and reinvest the Society with a sense of purpose, direction and good musical standards.

The benefits have been amply demonstrated by its public appearances, when a steady and sustained improvement in vocal quality and ability has been the order of the day. Not only that, but the Society has initiated succession planning in the shape of the Philharmonic Youth Choir and its even younger grouping The Phil Kids.

The BPS is currently at a crossroads, symbolised at this concert in the Ulster Hall with the Ulster Orchestra, when Belfast-born Christopher Bell conducted his last concert as its artistic director and Chorus Master.

In a short but pertinent preamble, Bell gave his thanks to the diverse partnerships necessary for such an organisation to flourish. He paid a special tribute to the Society’s Chairman, Ethel Ruddock, who, coincidently, is also retiring.

Of course, both posts have already been carefully filled in good time. Tactfully the new Chorus Master, Stephen Doughty, sits in the background at the organ, providing fine continuo accompaniments when required.

But if you were looking for proof of the present state of the Phil, you could take as paradigmatic the clarity of its diction, its dynamic and expressive responsiveness to the conductor's demands, the precision of its tuning and the overall strength of its sound - youthful and bright, firm and full-bodied.

At the concert, all this is projected on to two main works - Vivaldi’s 'Gloria' and Howard Goodall’s 'Requiem'. Northern Irish soprano Rebekah Coffey is soloist in both, showing to good effect her continuing vocal growth and maturity. Of the two other young soloists, Scottish mezzo soprano Debra Stuart and Scottish baritone Andrew McTaggart, I prefer the latter.

Of the two works on the programme, perhaps unsurprisingly I prefer the Vivaldi. Relatively concise, it has real substance and a strong musical structure, which means that you can listen instinctively to the many contrasting colours and timbres and be drawn into them at all sorts of interpretational levels.

With Goodall’s 'Requiem' what you see and hear on the surface is exactly what you get, because that’s all there is. It is probably a work that offers more involvement for the participants than for the audience and on this occasion the BPS sing with gusto.

Goodall is a past master at exploiting evanescent melodic and harmonic clichés to elicit a popular accessibility, but there is no substance here and it is not great music by any stretch of the imagination. Jenkins and Rutter do this sort of thing infinitely better.

However, on this Saturday night, that is not the point. It's obviously an emotional evening for the Society, and the standing ovation at the end of the concert is a much deserved appreciation of two people in particular who have worked hard to make the Society reach its present fine vocal state.