Kenneth Montgomery - The Maestro
Santa Fe Opera House is truly one of the wonders of the world. Perfectly situated on a mesa a 30-minute drive from historic downtown, and offering breathtaking views of the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Sangre Cristo Mountains to the east, its state-of-the-art design – open at the sides and back of the stage – allows not only great comfort and acoustics, but also glimpses of New Mexico’s brilliant night skies.
I’ve been around Irish America for so long now that I’m hardly surprised when I come across Irish people in unlikely places, and finding a Belfast man holding the baton in such an exotic clime is delightful but not altogether unexpected. What is surprising about Kenneth Montgomery, conductor of international renown and Santa Fe Opera’s principal guest conductor, is that he came from a family with no background in music.
Born in 1948, he grew up in a working-class family in Belfast, the son of an electrician and a mother who had spent a couple of years working for the Electric Board before becoming a full-time wife and mother. Yet, the way Montgomery tells it, from the moment it was discovered that he had an interest in music – an aunt noticed that on Sunday visits he was fascinated with her piano – not only were his parents on board, but it seems like the stars were in alignment, for he soon embarked on a journey that would lead him to a brilliant career in music.
He began piano lessons when he was seven and singing lessons when he was eight. Soon he found himself in a boys’ choir under the tutelage of Arthur Martin. “My parents were not at all musical, but Arthur Martin was not only a good vocal coach, but a very encouraging person. And he encouraged my parents to buy me a good piano. ”
They bought him a Steinway upright!
More good fortune followed. “An acquaintance of the family died and left me a whole pile of music,” he recalls. At the age of ten the young Montgomery could sight-read all this music. “Sometimes a Victorian ballad and sometimes a Bach oratorio.”
He learned to play the bassoon as well as the piano and played in amateur orchestras, but he knew from an early age that he wanted to be in front of the orchestra, not in it.
“From the age of 10 I knew I wanted to be a musician and by the age of 12 I knew I wanted to be a conductor. There was an orchestra in Belfast at the time called the City of Belfast Orchestra and they used to rehearse on Wednesday afternoons. And an arrangement was made that I could go to these rehearsals instead of sports.”
Getting out of sports was a welcome relief for Montgomery. He recalled that when he ran into the school principal in Amsterdam about five years ago he thanked him “for letting me off those nasty sports and letting me go on with music instead.” The principal was delighted to have played a part in Montgomery’s success. “He said, ‘Well, we’re very proud you’ve reached the kind of position that you have in the music profession.’”
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