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'Music, art and theatre are so important to the soul of a city'

Belfast composer Philip Hammond on why money talks when it comes to keeping the creative flame alive here

By Simon Fallaha

Philip Hammond seems a little preoccupied at this moment in time. The thought of "getting old" worries him. At the age of 63, the Belfast-born composer, writer and broadcaster finds himself pondering, repeatedly: 'What can you really do with your life at this stage?'

Quite a lot, actually, if you're Philip Hammond. Once a music teacher at Cabin Hill (the former prep school for Campbell College) and later an arts administrator for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Philip is enjoying an extremely busy musical month. His Piano Concerto enjoyed a hugely successful world premiere at the Ulster Hall earlier this month, and is set to be performed in the auspicious surrounds of the National Concert Hall in Dublin tomorrow.

Additionally, he has released a recording of solo piano pieces entitled Miniatures & Modulations. The album - written as a musical response to a collection of melodies by Armagh-born musician Edward Bunting from 1792's Belfast Harp Festival - was created in conjunction with Belfast pianist Michael McHale, a prominent presence throughout both the composition and the live performances of Philip's most recent concerto.

"When I saw how well the Piano Concerto was received by the people of Belfast, I realised it is everything I wanted it to be: accessible, open and romantic," says Philip. "Thanks to Michael, too, there is an added incentive. He exudes personality with no ego, playing solely because he wants to play. He has given the material a special slant. I'm extremely fortunate in that we tend to complement each other musically; no matter what I write, he plays it. It's carte blanche."

It's only the latest successful step (or two) forward on a long, varied personal and musical journey for Philip, which began at the age of six when he composed a small piece about the first ever satellite, the Russian Sputnik I. It's a composition he now regards as "kind of a flash in the pan", for he didn't compose again until the age of 18. Throughout his teenage years, he was fairly ill with ulcerative colitis, a bowel condition that still affects him every so often today. However, that didn't stop him piano-playing, a tradition carried down from his very musical mother.

"Mum was a cellist, a singer and a pianist," he says.

"Alas, in her time, from the 1920s to the 1930s, women wouldn't have entertained the thought of a musical career. My father was in farming stock, but unfortunately for my family, he didn't inherit the farm."

Unfortunate, too, in that the linen business on his mother's side - his maternal grandfather owned the Donegall Street-based manufacturers Douglas & Green - was hard hit when the industry seriously declined in the 1960s. But young Philip was still able to begin (and later complete) his Bachelor Of Music and Master of Arts degree at Queen's University, and his composition skills were rekindled here.

"In first year, the then professor of composition, Raymond Warren, asked me to write a piece," he recalls. "It wasn't particularly brilliant. It was a sort of Christmassy piece, very Vaughn Williams in character. But it was impressive enough to inspire me. On reflection, one can so easily dismiss their early work, but the signs were there."

Musically, everything has pretty much blossomed from then on. And neither his bowel condition nor the unfortunate stigma he faces as a gay man, have appeared to hinder Philip. Rather, he has come out stronger from it all. "Being gay was taboo when I was growing up, and in a way, it still is," he says. "If you're gay, black or disabled in Northern Ireland today, you don't wholly feel part of the community around you. You still have to tolerate the thoughts of the fundamentalists who insist we're 'not normal' - but they can think what they like. Because in the arts world, no one gives two hoots about your orientation. It's simply all about how talented you are."

To Philip, the joys of listening to and composing classical music stem from being able to express anything one feels. "It's a vehicle of self-communication, of the emotions, moods, ideas and images that attract you at the time," he says. "My preferred stimulus is literary. A book, a notable quotation or an engrossing poem can spark off ideas. And if you persevere, the ideas turn into compositions, just like that. "People who listen to a composition might not remember every single note but the essence and the mood remain with them. That's what's special."

Philip's own music is a melange of everything - personal experience, artistic influences and the instruments he works with all rolled into one. But although literature may be his most prominent inspiration, he doesn't set out to specifically convey a message or tell a story; his works are mainly about "responsive moods".

"In my opinion, the days of programmed, storytelling Strauss-esque music are properly passe now", he says. "Cinema takes you into another world through stories and visuals. There, you don't need music to express specifics, whereas with orchestras it's the music and the music alone. I'm what you would call a Retro Romantic; in this mostly factual, black and white age, I seek to hark back to a time that's more ambient and discursive, yet easily accessible."

It is the very goal he appears to have reached with his Piano Concerto, which he describes as "an amalgam of narrative, musical ideas and visual influences". The spark that ignited the piece, commissioned by BBC Radio 3 after Michael McHale asked Philip to write it, was to be lit in that famous City of Lights, Paris.

"I'm a big Francophile," Philip says, "and I read plenty of French literature to improve my language skills. So when I was at a residency at Paris's Irish Cultural Centre, I found myself reading a poem called Renouveau ('Renewal') by Stephane Mallarme. It's about contrasting winter with the renewal of springtime, and my concerto moves in a similar direction.

"I was also inspired by the sound of blackbirds in a courtyard, and a Bach Prelude. The Prelude was kind of dark but its rising scales appealed to me in a very visual sense; the mood of Bach's work gelled both with Mallarme and the surroundings of Paris. You really can't plan all this out; as life goes on around you, you adapt and respond, and before you know it you've a composition."

Unsurprisingly, the piece is important to Philip, although as far as atmospherics go he will never forget his Requiem For The Lost Souls Of The Titanic, performed in St Anne's Cathedral on April 14, 2012, to mark the centennial of the sinking of the famous ship.

"The venue, the timing and the 200 participants came together and created something unique. Like Political Mother in the City Of Culture 2013, it was an experience to remember; and it reminded me why live music, art and theatre are so important to the spirit and soul of a city."

A spirit and soul that remains in danger of eroding further after the recent arts cuts, which Philip, as a former member of the Arts Council, is understandably hugely concerned about. "What will we have in Belfast if the arts are allowed to simply die away?" he wonders. "And the people in charge don't seem to care."

More than three years ago, Philip had already feared the worst for classical music in Northern Ireland; that young musicians would no longer find a place to study and that there would be no established platform for them. Today, those fears have been exacerbated.

"The young will have to move away to kickstart their careers, and the older generation like me, who enjoy watching the Ulster Orchestras of this world, will have nowhere to go. What will we listen to when there's no Ulster Orchestra?"

While he of course lauds the successful efforts of the #13pForTheArts campaign, the Arts Matter NI meeting and the #SaveTheUlsterOrchestra initiative, he remains decidedly downbeat about the whole state of affairs: "We're not out of the woods yet."

"What difference have they really made?" adds Philip. "Diddly squat. And I say that in a purely factual way. The campaign for the Arts Council was the second most subscribed to campaign on the whole budget, yet the arts were still cut. Now I've been told on the radio 'If you want the arts, you should pay for it', but then I would retort with 'You want the NHS, too - what's the difference?' It's all very grim, but ultimately, it's in the hands of the politicos, and if they don't want to do anything about it, we are done for."

Maybe, I wonder, there is room for crossover artists and popular musicians to give classical music more of a helping hand on these shores? Philip believes the jury is still well and truly out on that one: while he acknowledges that the likes of Katherine Jenkins would make money for orchestras, and Van Morrison playing with the Ulster Orchestra would definitely bring in the crowds, he is concerned that the presence of such big names would detract from the point of the experience.

"The individual style of these artists wouldn't draw the audience towards seeing the orchestra on its own," he says. "An orchestra is like an animal created to play classical music above all else. Now I understand that it's an awkward area to get into because people can accuse you of being snooty.

"And the appeal of pop music is all very well. But we are capable of so much more. There's a big difference between Enid Blyton and William Shakespeare."

  • Philip Hammond's new Piano Concerto will be performed at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, tomorrow at 1.05pm. For details visit www.nch.ie

Keys to capturing the public's imagination

Other famous piano compositions which have caught the ear of the public over the years include ...

  • Clair De Lune by Claude Debussy - translating as "light of the moon", Debussy's soft, dreamy and gently impressionistic piece has featured in well-known movies like Ocean's Eleven and American Hustle. It also inspired the off-Broadway play Frankie and Johnny In the Clair de Lune, which was first performed in 1987
  • Fur Elise, by Ludwig van Beethoven - otherwise known as Bagatelle In A Minor, this is a popular piece for piano students. It is said that its inspiration came from Therese Malfatti, a friend and student of Beethoven's who he proposed to in 1810
  • Rondo Alla Turka, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Mozart's prodigious, mischievous nature combined with then-trendy Eastern European influence for this fast-moving, energetic and rhythmic work. It's not certain when and where he composed it, although Vienna or Salzburg around 1783 is currently believed to be most likely
  • The Entertainer, by Scott Joplin - Joplin's 1902 ragtime classic gained prominence when used as the theme music for George Roy Hill's 1973 Oscar-winning film, The Sting. Composer Marvin Hamlisch's adaptation of the tune reached Number 3 on the Billboard pop chart and thanks to both the film and its score, Joplin's music came to be regarded as a "classical phenomenon"

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