Thursday, November 18, 2021

MASS – an immersive and emotional celebration of belief and creativity (Belfast Ensemble and Ulster Orchestra at Outburst Queer Arts Festival)

I felt such a privilege to see live musicians playing last night. And not just a small group. The whole Ulster Orchestra. Sitting on an island in the middle of the cavernous old Belfast Telegraph print hall, with a wide walkway around the circumference of the building that allowed the audience to stand and watch, move around to catch a different view.

Orchestras are usually kept high up on a stage, or far away in the distance at the front of a concert hall. But parked in the middle of the print hall, they were just beyond touching distance, visible from all angles, with a great PA pointing out towards the surrounding audience, yet with the individual parts and players closest to you audible over the top of the mixed sound. Immersive music.

As a Presbyterian, mass is somewhat of an unknown quantity. The preserve of the occasional funeral. Its structure is unknown but not unfamiliar. Its symbolism is reckoned to be foreign but can be guessed. Its meaning is assumed. Its Catholic purpose mirrored in Protestant liturgies and rituals that must be as unknown and foreign and assumed to anyone looking through the other side of the window.

And movements and excerpts from symphonic masses don’t seem to be that common when Classic FM or Radio 3 play the classical music greatest hits.

Conor Mitchell and the talented team at Belfast Ensemble know how to tell stories using sound, sight … and no doubt smell will be introduced at some point soon. They don’t do subtlety. It’s usually extravagant, larger than life, in your face. Yet always thoughtful, and always in the best possible taste.

MASS: We believe ... is no different.

You step into the cathedral of newsprint, with its boxlike walls on four sides stretching to heaven, with office doors and windows into another world of journalism and advertisement selling trapped like fossils in the concrete blocks facings. Already lights and video that stretches the full height and width of the space is hinting at what is to come.

The conductor steps out and rises onto his central podium. The baton is raised. And the service begins.

Those familiar with the daily or weekly (or Christmas and Easter) ritual will pick up the form from the lyrics. The Kyrie eleison, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei. Those who feel more heathen will pick up the change of mood, the praise, the reflection, the adoration and celebration.

Giselle Allen (soprano), Sarah Richmond (mezzo), Christopher Cull (Baritone) and John Porter (tenor) add human voices to the MASS, along with Spark Opera’s Hearth Chorus. There’s a rich power in their delivery of the lyrics, rising above the orchestra and into the souls of the audience.

Conan McIvor’s projection design fills the space available, enormous as it is, allowing the creation of a cyclorama that layers religious art, human heads, shadows and more around the print hall. Worldwide filmmakers Simone Harris, Paulo Mendel, Vi Grunvald, Mohammad Shawky Hassan, Mariah Garnett, Debalina Majumder and Madonna Adib provided the visuals. About two minutes from the end, the print hall transforms into what felt like a medieval cathedral space, with great curved arches, and the visuals perfectly match the mood of the music, creating an emotional response within me as the whole experience melded together and touched my soul.

While it was a privilege to be in a space occupied by cultural collaborators, it was also a privilege to be able to move around, spot friends and colleagues who have only been names in an email or squares of video on a screen for the last 18 months. There was a real sense of community and shared belief.

A privilege to watch couples holding hands as they breathed in the performance and watched the ritual at which more often than not they’d not be quite so welcome expressing their belief in a church building. There was even a spot of impromptu dancing in one corner.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the Ulster Orchestra playing new work by a Northern Irish composer of some renown. Playing in a novel configuration. Playing at the heart of the audience – and far from their average weekly concert audience at that – with everything on show as we walked around and spectated on the music being fashioned. And the national orchestra partnering with Outburst Queer Arts Festival, valuing creativity and talent where they find it. More of that relevance please.

MASS deserves to travel, to take its message and thrilling experience to far off places, to show off the best of Northern Ireland culture, and reflect the quality of queer culture, belief and expression.  

If you read this soon after it’s written, you’ve one last chance to get down to the old Belfast Telegraph building to experience MASS at 9pm tonight. Remaining tickets are available at the door.

Photo credit: Neil Harrison

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