Montgomery moves orchestra into a new era
The Ulster Orchestra has just announced the appointment of a new principal conductor for next year's concert season. Kenneth Montgomery was appointed principal guest conductor just last year, so the announcement is a bit of a surprise, though not an unwelcome one.
This 40th anniversary year is an important one for the Ulster Orchestra, and the process of choosing a principal conductor has been a major consideration for the orchestra administration and board for much of the last two or more years. In many ways it has been an exciting time for audiences, who have had a chance to see more conductors working with the orchestra than would normally be the case. It has been interesting hearing the orchestra play under the baton of a number of different people, wondering from time to time if this or that musician might be "the one". The players have also had the experience of playing for this wide variety of conductors, and their response is obviously an important part of the decision. For a time it seemed as if the Finn Tuomas Ollila was a front runner, or possibly Christian Gansch or Rumon Gamba.
In the end, we have someone from close to home with a long history with the band and an obvious rapport with the musicians. Ken Montgomery was born in Belfast and decided to become a conductor at a very early age. His early experiences in music (playing bassoon and piano) led him to the Royal College of Music, where he studied conducting with Sir Adrian Boult. He continued his studies in Germany and Italy and began his career in opera at Glyndebourne and Sadler's Wells. It is opera which has been a constant in his musical life and which informs his style.
There is a vocal sensibility in his technique, a tactile approach which uses no baton and shapes phrases gently and musically. As much as anything, Montgomery's interpretations are governed by breath and dramatic context, as well as a unique commitment to scholarship. His knowledge of the history of specific works can be quite exhaustive, and his interest in historial performance practice has been a feature of recent projects with the Orchestra.
In addition to conducting a proportion of concerts each year, a principal conductor has a substantial input into choice of repertoire and the construction of an orchestra's season. Each organisation will vary as to the extent of the principal conductor's involvement in the day-to-day running of the orchestra, and an individual's personality will also have a strong bearing on the role they ultimately play. As it happens, Montgomery has personal qualitites that should make him ideally suited to the job he's about to undertake. He's a born communicator on many levels without flamboyance or arrogance. He seems to understand the importance of connecting with people in many contexts, on the public stage and behind the scenes. He's expanded the role of principal guest conductor over the last year and played a vital part in the Orchestra's outreach activities. By taking on the conductorship of the BBC's Last Night of the Proms for the past two seasons he has increased his visibility locally and nationally, conducting an extraordinarily wide variety of repertoire. This is in addition to his undisputed reputation for calm concentration in the face of unpredictable circumstances and the vagaries of live television.
Indeed, Montgomery has been somewhat of an oasis of calm and quiet purposefulness in his approach to the orchestra over the years. His passion for the music, however, has not been disguised and many of his concerts are remembered for their sense of breathing new life into standard repertoire. Now we can all look forward to Kenneth Montgomery, a true gentleman of the podium, breathing life into many more concerts to come as the Ulster Orchestra's new principal conductor. Welcome home Maestro Montgomery.
Andrea Rea, 9-06