Review: CLASSICAL Opening Concert Waterfront Hall, Belfast

There are concert halls that hide themselves away in larger complexes, others proclaim their status for all to see. Some have compared it, unkindly, to a pepper pot, others, inevitably, to the Starship Enterprise, but there is nothing shamefaced about Belfast's Waterfront Hall; free-standing in a part of Belfast oblique to the city centre that has long needed a visual focus, it will never be ignored. More than this, it actually feels like a concert hall. For all its attractive terraces, gallery and spectacular bar, the prime message on entry is that the concert hall is not part of something bigger, it is the building itself.

Circular in shape, the hall sites the audience both in front of the stage and, with wings that extend around the platform, behind the orchestra. Although seating capacity is 2,234, the shallow dome of the ceiling and the angling of seats creates a pleasant sense of intimacy. All this would be in vain, of course, if the sound were disappointing. From the mid-stalls somewhat to the left of centre, first impressions were distinctly favourable. If it doesn't have the analytical clarity of Birmingham's Symphony Hall, instrumental detail is still well to the fore. Elusive doublings in Copland's Rodeo were deliciously audible, as were the gentlest piano obbligato chords.

There is also a lot of support for the bass; the result in Philip Hammond's cleverly orchestrated new opening fanfare was a combination of crisp articulation within a warm envelope of sound. Copland's Rodeo confirmed that tutti could be powerful without being overwhelming. The treble instruments seemed to have to try slightly harder to make their mark; a slight, and surely remediable lack of vibrancy in the upper register suggests that long, slow lines might be hard to sustain. The popular first-night repertoire didn't go in for the measured and sombre; while it certainly proved that the Waterfront is a fine Allegro hall, whether it will be as responsive in true Adagios remains to be seen.

It is, however, a great acoustic for soloists. Every atom of James Galway's celebrated tone was audible. It was a pity he didn't offer something slightly more fibrous - or, indeed, locally grown - than Lorin Maazel's alternately chirpy and sentimental Irish Vapours and Capers; contemporary Northern Irish music can be just as witty and entertaining as Hammond's, as a succession of premieres by the Ulster Orchestra have shown. Barry Douglas's invigorating performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto posed more questions. A slight disjunction between the left and right of the orchestra suggests that accompaniments need real care, and the boost to the soloist front of stage shows that balance will require careful regulation.

But all things considered, this was a huge success for all concerned. Jerzy Maksymiuk and the Ulster Orchestra are clearly already rising to the advantages and challenges of the new hall. Whether audiences will follow them there is another matter. The arrival of the St Petersburg Philharmonic for concerts on Friday and Sunday should give an opportunity for the public to prove that a packed opening night was not just the enthusiasm of the moment.

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