Tuesday, 23 May 2017


Belfast's classical concert-goers are always generous with their applause. This may be because for so long we had to be grateful for whatever came our way, but I have to say I've seen standing ovations where I wouldn't necessarily have expected them. But on Saturday night at the Waterfront we all had good reason to applaud, because the Ulster Orchestra excelled itself.

It was a gala concert celebrating 50 seasons with Beethoven's 9th symphony - and what an Ode to Joy it was. Orchestra, soloists, and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir gave it their all, spurred on by conductor Rafael Payare - a magician whose rapport with his players is tangible. The music swelled, the voices soared, Payare whirled on his podium like a musical dervish, and at the end the audience surged to its feet. (Well, not Professor Gloom: he thought it was rather good but he hasn't stood for anyone since Otto Klemperer's last Beethoven concert, back in the 60s....)

Now you may be thinking, Oh God, classical music - expensive, middle class, elitist, why would I bother? Well, I'll tell you why: good music can enrich your soul and lift your heart. It can surprise you, inspire you, move you and comfort you - and anyway, the Ulster Orchestra doesn't just do classical. There's an Abba concert next season, for pity's sake; there are evenings of dance and film music, and 'Come and Play' events, and tickets are available for no more than it would cost you for a few drinks down the pub - and for this you get to listen to professional musicians: people who practice for hours and hours every day to do the thing they love as well as they possibly can. Plus, in years to come you'll be able to say, Oh yes, I saw Rafael Payare conducting in Belfast when he was still at the beginning of his career. And you might also witness moments of unexpected poignancy, as when Payare, himself a Venezuelan, quoted Schiller's line 'All mankind will be brothers' and dedicated Saturday night's concert to the people of Venezuela.

Venezuela is a country in turmoil, as this country has been, and my own, and as so many still are; as Manchester is today after another concert, one which should have been an occasion for joy, but ended instead in tragedy and horror. The hope that one day all mankind will be brothers and sisters seems momentarily fainter than ever - but then you hear about the kindness of strangers, the immediate Mancunian response of resilience and generosity, and it gives you hope.

Troubled places bleed people. There have been exiles and refugees since time began, and all too often we respond to them with fear and mistrust, but those never-ending waves of the dispossessed and wretched are just ordinary people like you and me, fleeing from war, from hunger, from the violence of madmen who do not care that children will be maimed and mangled by their pursuit of power, or lunatic ideology; who do not care about the parents whose children will never now come home. And who knows how many Picassos, Prousts, Payares, have been lost to the world in the process?

Well, in the end we all have to do what we can to make this a better place, to uphold our belief - in spite of everything - in the ideals of peace and brotherhood. So support your local orchestra if you can, be kind to refugees, and let's help beauty and artistry to work their healing magic wherever there's a chance.

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