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.’”
Montgomery left Belfast for the Royal College of Music in London after high school. “My teacher was from there, and I made it my aim to get in there,” he said.
It could have been rather nerve-wracking for a young man from Belfast, a city far from the center of things musically, but by this time, Montgomery had acquired a really wide musical knowledge, and soon he was making a name for himself. In fact, in his third year at the Royal College he was asked to go to the Glyndebourne Festival Opera as assistant conductor. That exposure helped him get a scholarship to study in Germany. And by the time he had done that he was working with the famed English National Opera (then known as Sadler’s Wells), which he did for three years.
Montgomery also made a name for himself in the Netherlands, following his 1970 début with the Nederlandse Opera in Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. In 1975 he was appointed principal conductor of the Dutch Radio Symphony Orchestra and subsequently of the Dutch Radio Choir with some 80 singers, as well.
Back to Belfast
He found “a very healthy climate of music making” in Holland and in 1979 decided Amsterdam would be his base. It’s remained so ever since.
“Music is subsidized in Holland, so there was a lot of contemporary music, commissions of Dutch composers and important world composers, constantly being performed, and at the same time there was a move towards learning to play early instruments,” he said.
Montgomery was also becoming well-known internationally. He was a regular guest conductor with the main orchestras in Europe, Canada and the U.S.
Then in the mid-80s he was asked to help redo the opera company in Northern Ireland, and he returned to Belfast. He recalls that period in his life fondly.
“I enjoyed that period very much and we managed to get very good reviews from the British press. It was very heartwarming. They would say, ‘You should go to Belfast to see a wonderful production of The Magic Flute.’”