Belfast Telegraph

The dead-end day that segued into classical music nirvana

By Mike Gilson

All plans for the weekend have gone wrong. I am supposed to be in London for a celebration, but there is no way I'm going over in this weather.

I'm a terrible flyer at the best of times. But now I'm in Belfast on my own, with nothing to do. Rain falls unmercifully. I force myself out of the flat and wander down Botanic Avenue, bending into the gusting wind.

Everywhere people are crammed into cafes, drinking eye-poppingly expensive, tasteless coffee, filling time. This is going to be a long weekend. Out the corner of my eye I see a notice in a shop. Apparently, Belfast is in the middle of an International Festival of Chamber Music. Who knew? Certainly not me.

There's a concert this lunchtime in the Great Hall at Queen's University. I'm in time. It's somewhere out of the storm.

Now, classical music wouldn't be the biggest category on my iPod, filled as it is with what my Dad still calls "head-banger" music, although when you boil it down that really means anything that isn't trad jazz and Johnny Mathis.

But I'm not immune to the power to move that seems to these untutored ears intrinsic to well-played strings. I head, soaking, to the Great Hall. Never been there before.

Some wonderfully polite people of the Belfast Music Society, for it is their festival, seem delighted and a little surprised that I've turned up on the door looking to buy a ticket.

Inside the Great Hall, the first treat. It's magnificent, portraits of former vice-chancellors stare down from the walls, a giant painting of St Peter the Martyr dominates at the end.

The room is half-full with grey-haired aficionados. We are to listen to the Vertavo String Quartet from Norway play three little-known pieces. I'm no Rathcol, but they seem to me to play beautifully, I'm genuinely moved by their virtuosity as the rain steams from me.

The women are sweet and charming and, of course, astonishingly accomplished.

A quartet seems to me like a classical high-wire act; the players must all be perfect, otherwise none of them are. Love of the music shines from them, the thousands of hours practising together has them as one.

I marvel at their unremitting dedication to their art. I'm envious of it. It's hard to take your eyes off Berit Cardas on viola, so passionately does she play, so lost in the moment is she, a different expression for every note.

The quartet play Hurum, Janacek and Smetana and, as they do so, the sun, occasionally breaking out from behind storm clouds, filters through the cross-hatched windows, bathing the hall in stunning light.

When the clouds swallow the sun in this unequal battle, it is the women alone who are picked out by the stage bulbs and we return to the shadows. Did Vertavo order this show from the Gods?

Just a little over an hour later, I'm clapping enthusiastically, thrilled as these modest players take a bow, the inspirational music they have brought to life from these long-dead composers filling my head.

I wonder at chance that has delivered me here and give thanks that the unsung volunteers of groups like the Belfast Music Society are around to offer us new experiences.

As I step out into grey reality, a police car, its siren blaring, speeds by as it begins to rain.

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