Born: October 28th, 1943
Died: March 5th, 2023
Belfast-born Kenneth Montgomery, the doyen of Irish conductors, had a distinguished career in the opera house and the conservatory, teaching opera as well as conducting, and in the concert hall. He was the first local musician as well as the first Irishman to become principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra (2007-10), having been appointed principal guest conductor in 2005. He had first conducted the orchestra in March 1967.
At school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, he was a talented bassoon player as well as a pianist. He sang in the choir of St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, and he was still a boy when he appeared in the children’s chorus of Bizet’s Carmen, in a touring production by the Carl Rosa Opera Company.
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At the age of ten, he said, he knew he wanted to be a musician, and at the age of 12, that he wanted to be a conductor. By that time, he had already managed to digest a large collection of scores that came his way after the death of a music-loving neighbour.
Montgomery trained at the Royal College of Music in London under Adrian Boult and also had lessons at the Hamburg Staatsoper with German conductor Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, who had been an important guest conductor with the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra (today’s NSO) in the late 1940s. He also studied with the British conductor John Pritchard, and in Siena with the legendary Romanian, Sergiu Celibidache, with whom he shared a fondness for keen observation of fine orchestral detail and slowish speeds.
Both characteristics were well in evidence in the last opera he conducted in Dublin, Carmen for Irish National Opera last year. In recent years, he had also become a regular guest with the National Symphony Orchestra, and his work with them included the first performance of Jane O’Leary’s unfolding soundscapes, with Finghin Collins as piano soloist.
Aged 20, Montgomery joined the music staff of the Glyndebourne Festival as a répétiteur. “In my first week at Glyndebourne,” he told this newspaper in 2006, “I had to play Strauss’s Capriccio, Verdi’s Macbeth, Monteverdi’s Poppea, Mozart’s Zauberflöte, Rossini’s Pietra del paragone, and something else, Mozart’s Idomeneo, I think.” He did this so well that, given his interest in conducting and the availability of a position, he was appointed assistant conductor, too.
Three years later, as assistant to Carlo Felice Cillario in a production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore directed by Franco Zeffirelli, he conducted the final two performance of the run. Glyndebourne would prove to be a long and fruitful relationship. The festival’s website lists 137 performances by him between 1967 and 2003.
In 1967, he also took up a three-year contract as staff conductor with Sadler’s Wells Opera, the company that would later become English National Opera. In 1970, he was appointed assistant conductor to both the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Sinfonietta, and he made the first of three consecutive annual appearances at Wexford Festival Opera in 1971.
In my first week at Glyndebourne, I had to play Strauss’s Capriccio, Verdi’s Macbeth, Monteverdi’s Poppea, Mozart’s Zauberflöte, Rossini’s Pietra del paragone, and something else, Mozart’s Idomeneo, I think
His work on Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at Glyndebourne in 1968 led to his conducting the opera, which spearheaded a revival of interest in the 17th-century composer’s work, for Netherlands Opera in 1970. Subsequent major orchestral and choral appointments with Dutch radio would cement his relationship with the country, where he would later settle.
Montgomery’s operatic repertoire for Dutch radio included works by Gluck, Donizetti, Rossini, Britten and Dutch composer Peter Schat, one of the teachers of Irish composer Gerald Barry. In 1991 a chair of opera studies was created bearing his name at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and he was also co-founder of the Dutch National Opera Academy in association with the Conservatory of Amsterdam.
In 1973 he succeeded French cellist and conductor Maurice Gendron as principal conductor of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, and began his long recording career with works by Arne, Johann Christian Bach, Percy Grainger and Handel for EMI and RCA. His Bournemouth album, Serenade for Strings, was issued in 1976 in the then cutting-edge, four-track Quadrophonic LP format.
Montgomery made his Covent Garden debut in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro 1975 and the same year was appointed music director of Glyndebourne Touring Opera. He was involved in the then controversial introduction of surtitles by the Canadian Opera Company, when he conducted Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea in Toronto in 1983.
After his 1982 debut with Santa Fe Opera, he developed a long-term relationship that saw him serve as interim music director in 2007 and be named conductor laureate in 2013. He conducted 19 productions there between 1982 and 2014.
His first major appointment at home came in 1985, when he was appointed artistic director of the newly-formed Opera Northern Ireland (no relation of today’s Northern Ireland Opera), and during his term he gave Ireland its largest offering of Mozart operas to mark the bicentenary of the composer’s death, which fell in 1991.
In person, Montgomery was soft-spoken and mild-mannered, save for occasional attacks on colleagues he regarded as overrated. He was always as interested in asking questions as in answering them, and his curiosity about music and the best way to perform it was insatiable.
He delighted in restoring early practices of orchestral performance when older instruments or orchestral layouts offered experiences that he found superior. He explored transformative layouts in Dublin with the Orchestra of St Cecilia, including a performance of Mozart’s Requiem with the choir at the front under a second conductor, and the vocal soloists in what would normally be the choir’s place, at the back.
Montgomery was always as interested in asking questions as in answering them, and his curiosity about music and the best way to perform it was insatiable
He was generous with colleagues, and helpful to any young musician who sought his advice. During his widely-praised time with the Ulster Orchestra, he helped fund early instruments for brass players, and once even supported a young conductor with money from a fictitious award.
His repertoire in concert was as catholic as it was in the opera house. In 2010, he conducted the first performance of Ina Boyle’s Violin Concerto with Catherine Leonard, presaging the upswing in interest in Boyle’s work.
His widely-praised final performances, in January, were of Haydn’s L’isola disabitata with students from the Dutch National Opera Academy and the Orchestra of the 18th Century, with whom he worked regularly. In 2010, he was made an OBE in the New Year’s Honours and given an honorary doctorate in music and literature by Queen’s University Belfast.
Montgomery is survived by his husband, Jan van Dooren.