Magazine article The Spectator

Polyphony in Belfast

Magazine article The Spectator

Polyphony in Belfast

Article excerpt

The longed-for regeneration of Belfast may not yet have come to fullest fruition - and it may not be hitting the headlines like other initiatives in Kosovo, Kabul and Basra - but the signs are there for everyone to see. The Europa hotel (aka 'the most bombed hotel in Europe') has lost its erstwhile external defensive aspect, while the locks on its guest-room doors no longer need to be engaged in quintuplicate. The Crown pub opposite, now a National Trust property thanks in part to the efforts of the late John Betjeman, reminds one more strongly than ever of riding in a fully restored 19th-century railway carriage, with all the brass fittings in place and functioning. The new Waterfront Hall only needs some seats in its foyer to represent the epitome of contemporary concert-going. In fact, the main noise on the street is that the new international airport is about to launch its first direct flights to places other than mainland Britain. Prague for £19 seems to be the one everyone likes to mention to make a lifestyle statement. And we discovered that David Trimble is not only looking relaxed at parties these days, but is also an ardent opera-lover.

In support of this brighter mood the BBC descended on Belfast this last week in impressive force. The whole command structure of Radio Three as we know it seemed to have settled into the Europa, bringing with them players, singers, conductors and announcers from London, as well as featuring local ensembles like the Ulster Orchestra and home-grown soloists, among whom one should list Scan Rafferty. They also brought with them about 35 million orange flags, which declared their purpose from every open-air vantage-point, at their most intense in the pedestrian streets filled with piped music.

I was there to conduct the BBC Singers in a programme of Renaissance polyphony, which had been chosen, without a hint of irony, to highlight the Catholic situation in the reign of Mary Tudor. It was while trying to find the few well-chosen words required of me in two live interviews (one with Sean, the other with Catherine Bott) that I appreciated just how tricky the quagmire of religious strife can be when confronted with its modern real-life version. All those received verities that one trots out about the state of play in a remote time can come vengefully home to roost in a place like Belfast. …

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