Content Middle

Main Content

2006-02-17 Belfast Ulster Hall

concert with Ballyclare Male Choir
reviewed by John


Ulster Hall has a reputation for the best acoustics in Ireland. The Hall is tall and long, oblong with rounded ends, not overly ornate, and with and a circle level with side extensions which extend almost as far forward as the stage. It's clearly a very versatile venue - the chairs are not permanently fixed, and next Saturday, for example, there is a boxing evening. The stage has steeply angled seating behind it (with doors way up leading to dressing rooms almost in the attic); but the feature you first notice (well, I did, because I have a fascination for them) is the huge organ behind the stage. It is, of course, the upright pipes which are large, not the keyboard itself. For those who know about these things, it is a Mulholland Grand. And when it gets revved up, let me tell you, it THUNDERS the bass notes out until your chest vibrates. Impressive and monumental.


The gala concert is an annual event, to which the Celtic Tenors and Donna Malone had been invited as special guest performers. The programme started before the scheduled start time with an organ recital of four pieces, including Aria from The Water Music by Handel, and Toccata from Symphonie V by Vidor. This latter piece didn't seem to be holding too much attention until the organist opened all those stops and the whole building shook. There was a very cordial and unstuffy welcome from the choir's Chairman, which included acknowledgements to choir member Finlay Hall, who receives dialysis in a centre which received regular financial donations from the choir members, and who was in the audience after treatment earlier in the day, and another former chorister who is 92 and was also in the audience (and not looking anything like his age!) The tone of this introduction seemed to set the scene for the rest of the evening, which was casual, warm, and extremely friendly, and which was perpetuated by the CTs later on.

The first half of the concert consisted of alternating mini-sets by the prize-winning choir, and, initially, the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra. They were magnificent, and featured amongst others two pieces by Vaughan Williams, and the rousing Liberty Bell March by Sousa (always one of those rousing songs that makes you want to bounce along to the music in an exaggerated manner). The choir gave us a varied selection, from Deus Salutis, through Aznavour, to spirituals like Amen/This little light of mine. They also performed two clever new songs written by Alan Simmons whom they met at a festival which yielded them the huge silver shield which was on display last night. The second, called Bring back the Beguine, was a contemporary plea to slow down and smell the roses - beautifully witty lyrics, and not the sort of material one would necessarily expect from a male choir, so all the more effective as a result.

After a short interval, the choir returned for two further numbers, then took seats on stage to observe (and later support) The Celtic Tenors. They were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm from the outset, and as an example, they hardly had to sing 'The Wild Rover', because the audience were too eager to participate. You could see the delight on Niall's face especially. Introductions too were interactive - no reliance on jokes about being from the location where they were appearing tonight, but real ancestral snippets - the families of James' parents, for example, each have strong connections to the Bangor community. As each tenor revealed his links to the (relatively) local area, the audience 'whooed' and then laughed heartily. By this time (maybe 2 songs into their act), there was a well-established connection between performers and audience. James mentioned a few weeks ago, this venue is one where the tenors do not feel the need for individual microphones. The acoustics really are excellent, and seem to enhance the power of the performances. We are all used to hearing fortissimo high notes as climaxes to songs, but at nothing like the levels of last night. There were at least two occasions (the end of 'Granada' was one, the end of 'Time to say goodbye' another) when the forcefulness of the delivery created the same impact on me as the organ had during the preliminary session. Such vocal prowess is awesome to experience first-hand. James has remarked before in his columns how performing in a concert can be the equivalent of a vigorous physical work-out -last night was testament to that.

The choir returned for a very poignant (for me) moment. I have never heard the CTs perform 'In the gloaming' on stage, though it is one of their most sensitive performances on record in my opinion, and the lyrics are from a different age - an ethereal one. Last night the choir sang the song, which will have to be enough for now. Love songs of that level of delicateness and sensitivity come along all too infrequently, and I for one was really delighted to hear it. Then the tenors returned with Donna (in that gorgeous deep cerise basque top - she wears it VERY well) for their final scheduled numbers, ending with 'Time to say goodbye' together.

Then a lovely touch - the choir supported the CTs and Donna in a performance of Molly Malone (the programme calls it 'Cockles and Mussels' - perhaps someone can confirm which is the correct title). This worked wonderfully, with the tenors and Donna standing at the right (for the audience) of the stage and moving forward to sing their irespective solo contributions. I took very few photographs, but the one of this particular period is representative of the general gently happy atmosphere which had prevailed throughout this concert.

The tenors were brought back for two encores - the first was 'All out of love', which was surprisingly even more powerful than usual - how do James and Niall hit those notes? - and the second was for 'Phil the Fluter's Ball'. It is a measure of the comfort level which existed at this stage that Niall was forced to direct the audience to stop clapping until he 'allowed' them to do so.

Lovely concert, beautifully and enthusiastically received by a very partisan audience, it seemed to me. I can say that because we are of the same nationality - though it was pointed out to me by one performer, who shall remain nameless for his own protection, that although technically that is true, the reality is that they all live on 'their' island!

One final observation and plea - all pray please for Mr. Munro tomorrow. Lord alone knows he needs divine intervention on so many fronts, but on this occasion he is nursing a rather badly bruised hand as a result of a domestic accident (actually plain clumsiness). His playing was magnificent nevertheless, and had I not heard of the injury from the horse's mouth (I hope I have the right end!), I should not have guessed that anything was amiss.

The song list I picked up from the stage is reproduced below. I don't think it is complete, and I know that it isn't wholly correct, because the original lists Danny Boy and Remember me, neither of which was performed. But since I went to the trouble of stealing it, I am going to type it!


Star of the County Down
Non siamo isole
Nella fantasia

You raise me up
lassie go
Spanish lady
Time to say goodbye
Cockles and mussels/Molly Malone
All out of love
the Fluter's ball.