‘It would be a tragedy if a society which for half a century has been the means of making chamber music available to all at a very low subscription rate, were to fail for want of support, particularly in a year when the Queen’s University Festival has been cancelled.’
Worrying words from the outgoing BMS chairman Austin Brown. The 1969/70 season had begun with declining numbers: 440 full members, 10 student members and a deficit of £580 against reserves of £287.
Nor was it the best time to reinvigorate the BMS. This third quarter of the society’s first century would play out, in its entirety, against the backdrop of the ‘Troubles’. The earliest were some of the bloodiest and worst years, but against so many odds, the BMS, under its new chairman Cyril Ehrlich of QUB, continued to serve its audiences, bringing significant artists to Belfast despite weather-induced travel problems, artists’ illnesses and last-minute cancellations.
In the 1971/72 season alone, the recital by the Janacek Quartet was cancelled on the previous day, Alfred Brendel withdrew at very short notice but was replaced by David Wilde, and the advertised Fine Arts Quartet also seemed to be a ‘no show’.
In 1979, clarinettist Alan Hacker pulled out because of an upsurge in violence; his replacement, flautist Stephen Preston, then cancelled because his accompanist wife ‘couldn’t make it’. Not giving up, the then BMS honorary secretary, Linda Salem, booked Austrian cellist Florien Kitt. With just a week to go, Florien’s wife persuaded him that going to Belfast for just one concert wasn’t worth his while. So it must have been a huge relief when the Ulster Soloists Ensemble, a wind quintet of principal players from the Ulster Orchestra, stepped in and saved the day.
Membership was important – after all, for 50 years it had been the membership subscriptions alone which supported the financing of the recitals. With the uncertainties of the Troubles, fuel crises and strikes, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) provided a helpful insurance in 1971 with a £250 guarantee against loss.
Given a divided society at war with itself, there must have been some who were off-put by a so-called ‘British’ music society, despite its honourable history and its concentration on European classics. Yes, the BMS may have failed in its initial ideals of supporting ‘British Music’ (usually meaning music by English composers). Instead, it had more often brought great European chamber music to the Northern Irish public at an accessible price – and usually covered its costs.
The concept of a membership society also rankled with some who felt, by definition, it was maybe a clique of friends. That might indeed have been the outward impression to those who had never experienced the recitals. How to correct misguided beliefs? The BMS committee made several attempts across this quarter to change the image of the society through its print design. The biggest change came in the 1983/84 season when the BMS acronym was now an abbreviation for the newly named Belfast Music Society – and thus it has remained ever since. The transition was made easier because the press music critics during the 1970s mostly referred simply to the ‘BMS’, reserving the full title only for ‘What’s on’ listings.
The world, never mind Northern Ireland, was changing across these years. Aside from joining the European Community, there was the huge increase in home entertainment with colour television, VHS video cassettes and the compact disc. The ‘classical’ live music marketplace too became much more competitive with the launch of the annual Belfast Festival based at Queen’s University. There was the revitalisation of the Grand Opera House in 1981, the launch of Opera Northern Ireland, the increased frequency of concerts by the relatively new Ulster Orchestra (founded in 1966), increased activities from the music departments of both universities, and the addition of free BBC Invitation Concerts which included both orchestral and chamber music concerts.
Fortunately, the BMS had its own distinctive niche or USP, promoting major artists in Belfast (including often in association with the Festival) and, at the same time, providing an important platform for the best musicians with local connections, particularly from the younger generation. The roll call of names was impressive and included Norma Burrowes and Ingrid Surgenor, Barry Douglas, James Galway, Fionnuala and Una Hunt, Roy Holmes, Daphne Arlow and Philip Hammond, Emer Buckley, the all-female Fairfield Quartet (with Ruth Ehrlich), Cambridge Musick (with Robert Ehrlich) and many more.
From season 1972/73 the BMS’s main venue had been the Elmwood Hall at Queen’s, though Rathcol of the Belfast Telegraph complained regularly: ‘Cannot someone do something about the bleak platform arrangements of this lovely hall so obligingly provided by the University?’ or ‘Cannot someone spare a few potted plants?’
In the early 1980s Queen’s University refurbished the Elmwood Hall, and the BMS moved variously to the Harty Room, the Whitla Hall, Fisherwick Presbyterian Church and the Members Rooms at Balmoral. Then, just as the 1988/89 season was about to start, the university leased the Elmwood Hall to the Ulster Orchestra. An accommodation was eventually reached with the Orchestra, but there was now a hire charge for the piano-less hall and transport costs each time the Arts Council piano was required.
ACNI support was more important than ever. The initial 1971 guarantee against loss grew to £4,000 plus a grant of £2,000 by 1987/88. Just one year later the grant was £7,000 and by season 1989/90 it was £12,000. No wonder, given the new venue costs and ever-increasing artists’ fees.
But what artists! The many great names the BMS brought to Belfast across these years ranged from Elly Ameling and Gérard Souzay to Mitsuko Uchida and Myung Wha Chung; and the many fine string quartets included the Brodsky, Endellion, Smetana, Fitzwilliam and Lindsay. A more detailed listing may be found in Da Capo, the fine little volume published in 1995 to mark the BMS’s 75th birthday. Well worth a read.
As the 1990s came into view there was a series of BMS commissions with ACNI financial assistance for NI-based composers. The BMS recitals were themselves renamed as ‘Celebrity Concerts’ and none more so than the advertised Amadeus Piano Trio in January 1991. Alas, the violinist Norbert Brainin took a tumble in the Elmwood Hall just before the concert and hurt his shoulder. At the very last minute, Arnaldo Cohen, the Trio’s pianist, rescued the situation with a memorable solo concert.
So, with luck on its side, with a new logo, educational workshops and a Young Musicians Concert, the future was surely looking good for the fourth quarter of the BMS centenary.