Friday, 13 September 2013

CLASSICAL REVIEW: Ulster Orchestra

A local musical hero joins the professional symphonists for their season opening concert in Derry-Londonderry

Relatively fresh off his success with At Sixes And Sevens, Camerata Ireland's Barry Douglas finds himself
tinkling the ivories tonight during something more traditional; a world famous piano concerto composed by none other than Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky.

Book-ended by the music of Johannes Brahms, the composition provides rich sounds, warm sights and welcome insights into the world of 19th century classical music for a moderately sizable Millennium Forum audience. The rather epic arrangement of string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments around the grand piano on centre stage is a feast for the eyes in itself.

A fun treatment of four student drinking songs, aka Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, opens the night. Merrily topped by a rampaging, string-dominated opening, which raises thoughts of a troubled or troublesome youth running away from danger, is followed by triumphant brass and flowing strings. There are few truly audible harmonies yet, but one is struck by the consistency of the tempo and the surprising stateliness of the violin playing. Like a good witch waving her wand, conductor JoAnn Faletta comfortingly eases the orchestra into a soulful sea of synchronic sound. Both cellos and double basses lend themselves well to the Forum's acoustics in what on the whole is quite an impressive overture.

When it is time for the centerpiece of this grand affair to begin, Faletta becomes hidden from view as our eyes turn to Barry Douglas' hands, reflected in the piano itself. Though he seemingly struggles to adapt to the heady and passionate nature of the opening in the Tchaikovsky piece, he very quickly adjusts to the consistently varying pace in the composition, while all four sets of strings strum away in a quadriad.

By the time his piano gently dies out as gentle string-playing leads us into the first movement proper, Douglas has everyone enraptured. The tension-filled and tonally varied Ukrainian folk slant of the first movement is the perfect test for Douglas' reflexes, and he is up to the task, sweat pouring from his head as he encloses himself in pure and absolute concentration. He is confident enough by now that the bipolar boundaries of the piece, reminiscent of a rippling brook one moment and thunderstorms the next, appear to pose little or no problem for him.

One is always fascinated by his sharpness, speed and skill, particularly in the very Clair De Lune-esque second movement. If Douglas' presence slightly overshadows the orchestra's efforts, with the exclusion of a rather sweet flute solo, it is no fault of Faletta and the instrumentalists, who are keeping up with him every step of the way.

The restless, breathless lyrical melody of the finale brings the piece to a tremendous conclusion, and when Douglas, Faletta and the orchestra stand up to prolonged applause, you know they've earned it.

Difficult though it is for Faletta and the musicians, barring Douglas, to match what we've just heard with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, they do a commendable job. If it lacks the power of Tchaikovsky and the dominant piano, the symphony is remarkable in many ways, beginning with a rather Godfather-ly opening that leads the way for virtuous violins and numerous overlapping harmonies. As such, Faletta is forced into a slightly more controlling style of conducting while retaining her trust in the orchestra’s ability.

The middle of the first movement, laced with darkness, symbolizes a troublesome, tentative then heroic march, with gentler and more charming second and third movements preceding a strong finale. Highlighted by speedy cello plucking, woodwinds and a sensual string symphony, this composition confidently closes the evening both for Faletta and the orchestra. The applause is long and loud, reflecting a job well done by everyone involved.

The Ulster Orchestra will perform their grand opening concert featuring Barry Douglas in Belfast tonight at the Ulster Hall. For more information, check out their official site at