For the BMS, survival has long been an essential requisite. In the face of challenges, international, national and local (the Second World War, Great Depression, strikes, ‘The Troubles’) – not to mention geographical add-ons like weather, travel problems and additional costs, a.k.a. ‘financial constraints’ – it had sustained a regular subscription series of chamber music concerts in the image conceived by its founders, 75 years earlier. It had maintained the highest standards of music-making and, hopefully, a greater musical awareness in the public’s perception.
Certainly no bad thing. Indeed, as previously noted, ‘the future was surely looking good’. But long before the financial crisis of 2008 and the pandemic of 2020, questions were being asked about sustainability and even the contemporary relevance of the BMS. In December 1989, a Music Ireland article about the BMS’s 70th birthday recognised its funding shortfall, rising costs (artists’ fees, venue costs, etc.), public expectation for the ‘big’ (equals expensive) names, and the drawbacks of being run on a voluntary basis.
Partnerships with Arts Council tours had recently been instigated, publicity improved, new subscribers sought. The Music Ireland article concluded with the question: ‘Has the society done enough? Combining high performing standards, varied programming, local and international interest, and generating a high profile is a lot to ask of a small six-concert series. If the society is really to look to the future, it might have to be more radical still and risk losing some of its stalwart subscribers to reach a new audience, who have yet to realise that chamber music can be exciting and fun.’
The will was certainly there. A strategic five-year plan, BMS 500, was launched and the 75th anniversary concerts, beginning with a concert and supper at Belfast City Hall, were overseen by Concerts Manager Margaret (Peggy) Langhammer. The season offered a refreshing mix which included Ensemble Bash, in partnership with a BT tour, Irish soprano Suzanne Murphy with Belfast-born pianist Ingrid Surgenor, the Škampa Quartet, and Kurt Roger’s Violin Sonata included in a recital by Hagai Shaham and pianist Arnon Erez.
With the opening of Belfast’s Waterfront Hall in January 1997, the BMS promoted the first public concert to be held in the new Studio space. The soloist, guitarist Julian Bream, was in suitably celebratory mood: the recital marked 50 years since his public debut. Critics enjoyed the performance; unexpectedly the acoustic was good and clear; but the seating was described as ‘physically restricting’. Alas, BMS patrons were less than happy with the new venue, though that was as much to do with car parking facilities and attendants who walked noisily through the space during concerts!
The following season, 1997/98, opened with pianist Marc-André Hamelin and also included a memorable recital by Romain Guyot, principal clarinet with the Paris Opera Orchestra and Philippe Cassard, winner of the 1988 Dublin GPA International Piano Competition, broadcast a week later on BBC Radio 3. That season also marked a change in chairperson from Leonard Pugh to Elizabeth Bicker who would serve for two four-year terms.
Programme choices remained ambitious, maintaining the highest standards and incorporating many connections from nearer home. A recital with a refreshing texture was given in November 1998 by Canadian accordionist Joseph Petric with Derry-born saxophonist Gerard McChrystal. The October 2000 recital by the Dublin Piano Trio was dedicated to the memory of Enniskillen-born composer and pianist Joan Trimble who had died two months earlier. External partnerships were well-illustrated by a Red Priest concert in March 2000, part of a Music Network tour.
And so the New Millennium dawned. The 80th birthday concert, given by violinist Tasmin Little with pianist Martin Roscoe in the Great Hall of QUB, presented a new BMS commission, a set of three variations on a theme of Hamilton Harty by David Byers, Deirdre McKay and Philip Hammond. ‘Ardently performed’ said the Irish Times, which described Hammond’s final variation as ‘a bluesily mechanical pattern which manages to incorporate an element of rhythmic intrusion like a Nancarrow study for player piano’. Elizabeth Bicker, who was page-turning for Roscoe, remembers his plea when he came to that closing movement: ‘Pray for me!’
Eventually there was another changing of the guard – and indeed the refreshing of the model and its governance, helped not a little by funding restraints and the resultant impetus or necessity to forge new partnerships. Randall Shannon succeeded Peggy Langhammer as Concerts Manager.
In February 2005 a weekend-long International Festival of Chamber Music in partnership with the BBC and QUB replaced the season subscription series – ‘consolidation’ was the politically correct term! That first year the Nash Ensemble, guitarist Xuefei Yang, baritone Matthias Goerne with pianist Alexander Schmalcz, and the Lindsay String Quartet performed at QUB, using both the Harty Room and the Great Hall. The Lindsays also gave a masterclass for student quartets. A new pattern – and a successful one at that – had been established.
Details of subsequent years are detailed on the BMS website ‘Past Events’, but I vividly remember in 2006 a masterclass by soprano Norma Burrowes and performances by pianist Imogen Cooper and the Belcea Quartet. The 2007 Festival incorporated a Young Prize Winners’ Recital and there were more add-ons to come.
Elizabeth Bicker recalls that prior to 2005, artists had been selected by personal recommendations from the voluntary committee, friends, and agents endeavouring to place their own artists who were touring with specific programmes. Subsequently, with BBC involvement, there were additional planning considerations as the BBC sought broadly based programme themes, often involving its New Generation Artists. ‘That has meant more persuasion and cajoling of artists to fit repertoire to specific themes.’
A good example was the 2012 Festival theme of ‘Patrons, Passions and Performers’, with the Apollon Musagète Quartet, soprano Susan Bullock and pianist Malcolm Martineau, Michael Collins’s London Winds, pianist Nikolai Demidenko, and Ensemble Avalon. Quite a line-up.
Sheila Sloan succeeded Elizabeth Bicker as chairperson and in 2008 Pamela Smith, formerly Music Officer for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, was appointed BMS Concerts Manager. External partnerships, new committee members and challenging external factors often result in a new dynamic. And so it was. The Summer Celebrity Recital launched in 2009 with built-in outreach to different communities along with masterclasses for young people. In 2010, as part of the BMS’s 90th anniversary and linking to the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and to QUB Music, the first of the annual Northern Lights Mini-Fest took place, showcasing musicians with a Northern Irish connection.
There were further initiatives in 2014: Chamber Babies created an access point to live music for the youngest family members with their parents or carers (enhanced the following year with a special Chamber Babies CD); Night Music, a 9pm informal concert series, in partnership with Moving on Music and the Contemporary Music Centre in Dublin, provided a platform for composers across the island with pre-concert discussion and interviews.
Throughout its existence, the BMS has proudly promoted musicians in live performances. It’s good to see in the most recent quarter-century that living composers (with an emphasis, but not exclusively so, on Northern Irish) are now an established part of the BMS formula, including through regular commissions. Details of BMS commissions are available here.
The BMS has surmounted many problems in the past. Most recently, 2016, the Summer Celebrity Recitals were replaced by a very successful Chamber Music course, designed and led by the Benyounes Quartet. Alas, funding constraints put paid to its development.
Just this year, 2020, the Night Music series has been suspended – also because of funding constraints. The BMS has begun its next century with a disrupted season because of an unforeseen pandemic. There will likely be even more funding constraints ahead.
Musicians, creators and performers, along with administrative teams, more than ever need our/your support. The important role played by the BMS over the last 100 years should be celebrated, but above all built upon as a great foundation for the future.