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Waterfront Hall, Belfast,  Courtesy and  © Arts Council of Northern Ireland
18 Dec 2007

Belfast welcomes a first-rate Messiah

If Belfast in Northern Ireland isn’t a city that immediately springs to mind as a centre of musical excellence then it’s not for want of talent, initiative and professionalism within its cultural community.

Above: Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Courtesy and © Arts Council of Northern Ireland


It is also a city busy re-inventing itself after decades of internecine strife and is now buzzing with the optimism and investment that is part of the “peace dividend”. At a time of year when many cities in the UK and USA are churning out moderate and sometimes frankly embarrassing renditions of Handel’s great work it was a delight to see last Saturday night that the Ulster Orchestra, under the forward-thinking guidance of Chief Executive David Byers, had invited a top flight international conductor with excellent baroque credentials to meld the undoubted talents of its musicians and chorus with some world class soloists.

Martin Haselböck holds the titles of Vienna Court Organist (shades of Hapsburg splendour there) and Professor of Organ at the University of Vienna, but it is his work throughout Europe and the USA (he’s recently been appointed Music Director of the baroque “Musica Angelica” in Los Angeles) as a conductor of baroque opera and orchestras that he is best known perhaps. With just a couple of days of rehearsal with a slimmed-down Ulster Orchestra and Belfast Philharmonic Choir under Christopher Bell, he obviously gelled most satisfactorily with both, as on both nights before full houses there was evidence of like minds working together to produce a nimble, but supremely eloquent rendition of this iconic work. The modern instrument orchestra played with great Handelian style and flourish without ever over-doing the baroque gesture, whilst the choir was almost immaculate in both intonation and ensemble, with special mention going to the alto section for a particularly creamy tone. No fuzzy diction in the faster passages, crisp enunciation throughout, and a sense of true pleasure in singing came though loud and clear. Messiah is a wonderful platform for solo excellence, but it stands or falls by the quality of its less starry musicians, and Ulster has every reason to be proud of its achievements here – they stand comparison with many higher-profile European ensembles.

With this sort of solid musicianship behind them, it was inevitable that the soloists would have to shine and really live up to their individual billings and we were not disappointed, although on the second night there was perhaps a slightly less ebullient start to proceedings.

Young British tenor Benjamin Hulett is, like his colleagues Deborah York and David DQ Lee, now based in Germany and his warm, agile voice has been noticed there in a range of baroque and classical repertoire. At the Waterfront Hall last night his ease of production was particularly noticeable in the Part Two recitatives and arias such as “Behold and see if there be any sorrow” with some lovely unforced high notes being balanced by darker lower tones.

The one singer in the group who might be termed non-specialist in the baroque was the American baritone Randall Scarlata. However, he had no trouble in fitting into this sound world and indeed demonstrated a similar degree of agility in the coloratura as his colleagues, plus showing some impressive colouring and expression in the more passionate arias, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” being a prime example.

With the first alto aria “But who may abide” the Belfast crowd got their first taste of the highly promising young countertenor David DQ Lee, who made such an impression this year in the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Just a couple of weeks previously they had enjoyed the more mature talents of Germany’s Andreas Scholl, and in the young Canadian-Korean’s voice local informed opinion found a fascinating comparison to enjoy. Lee’s instrument is more in the modern American tradition of countertenor vocal production, with a warmer, more full-blooded sound than the English/Germanic one, and his operatic experience to date appears to colour his interpretations of these classic alto/mezzo arias, although always with good taste and refinement of line and ornament. Some elegant phrasing and soft, exquisitely-held cadential notes in “He was despised” were particularly impressive.

Deborah York’s Handelian credentials are well known and respected worldwide and if we have heard her less frequently in the UK recently, it is more due to her present residence in Berlin than any lack of demand within in these shores. Her bell-like, almost vibrato-free, soprano is not particularly large, but it has the ability to ping to the farthest corners of a big house, and the 1800 seats of the Waterfront held no terrors for her. She sang “I know that my redeemer liveth” with a particularly glistening tone and was an intriguing contrast to Lee’s more vibrant one in the duet “He shall feed his flock”.

With music and singing of this standard, Belfast and the Ulster Orchestra are up there with the best in Europe and America and Handel was well-served indeed.

Sue Loder © December 2007

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