Belfast welcomes a first-rate Messiah

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 ìpeace
dividendî. At a time of year when many cities in the UK and USA are
churning out moderate and sometimes frankly embarrassing renditions of
Handelís 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 Haselbˆck 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 (heís recently been
appointed Music Director of the baroque ìMusica Angelicaî 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 ñ 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 ìBehold and see if there be
any sorrowî 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, ìWhy do
the nations so furiously rage togetherî being a prime example.

With the first alto aria ìBut who may abideî 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 BBCís Cardiff Singer of the
World competition. Just a couple of weeks previously they had enjoyed the
more mature talents of Germanyís Andreas Scholl, and in the young
Canadian-Koreanís voice local informed opinion found a fascinating
comparison to enjoy. Leeís 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 ìHe was
despisedî were particularly impressive.

Deborah Yorkís 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 ìI
know that my redeemer livethî with a particularly glistening tone and was
an intriguing contrast to Leeís more vibrant one in the duet ìHe shall
feed his flockî.

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

Sue Loder © December 2007

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