When new principal conductors arrive at an orchestra, it can take a long time for them to make any discernible influence. Programmes and soloists are often set in stone at least a year in advance of the actual concerts, and it can be difficult to tweak them.
That’s why the recent brace of appearances by JoAnn Falletta in the BBC’s summer Invitation series at the Ulster Hall was so compellingly interesting. Falletta came to helm the Ulster Orchestra 15 months ago, inheriting an inaugural season already substantially pre-planned for her.
These August appearances, however, are different: six separate works, all by American composers, four of them infrequently programmed rarities. For Falletta, an American herself, this is very much home territory, and a real opportunity to demonstrate her musical credentials to Belfast audiences.
Falletta doesn’t disappoint them. In the best-known piece, Aaron Copland’s 'Appalachian Spring', Falletta has a surprise in store, using the little-heard, original chamber version of the ballet suite, with just 13 players.
The results are strikingly different from the big-band, full orchestration normally deployed in concerts – more intimate, more subtly textured, more touchingly suggestive of the young pioneer couple’s hopes and aspirations as they embark on married life together in the immensity of a vast new country.
Falletta’s pacing of 'Appalachian Spring' is delightfully natural, the easy flow of her tempi enabling pointedly relaxed contributions from the outstanding wind trio of Colin Fleming (flute), Francesco Paolo Scola (clarinet) and Julian Partridge (bassoon). Ben Dawson’s twinkling piano contributions ripple with vernal, al fresco prairie spirit.
The Ulster Orchestra strings take centre-stage for John Adams’s 'Shaker Loops', described by Falletta in her articulate spoken introduction (she’s a former Bernstein pupil, and knows how to talk engagingly about music) as a ‘luminous, undulating, rippling landscape,’ reflecting the qualities of ‘pacifism, kindness, industriousness and simplicity’ espoused by the Shaker religious sect.
It draws finely etched, shimmering playing from the orchestra, relaxing the tightly goal-directed perceptions of time which busy Western audiences habitually bring to their cultural encounters, and casting an almost hypnotic spell on listeners. It’s American transcendentalism in music, a fascinating essay in alternative modes of development in music, and alternative modes of listening.
Samuel Barber’s best-known vocal work, 'Knoxville: Summer of 1915', anchors the second concert. Jane Irwin is the soloist, replacing an indisposed Kate Royal at short notice. Irwin has recently converted from mezzo-soprano to the higher soprano register, and a couple of strained top notes early in the piece raise worries that’s she’s going to struggle a little with Barber’s writing.
She settles quickly, however, and the light, girlish timbre and sense of impressionable innocence that Irwin brings to Knoxville is neatly matched to the gently nostalgic flow of childhood reminiscences in writer James Agee’s text, and to Falletta’s nimbly aerated accompaniment.
The three remaining pieces are all orchestral, and allow the Ulster Orchestra to really flex its collective muscle. There are jazz inflections from the woodwind section in Copland’s jaggy, angular 'Music for Theatre', and the orchestra clearly enjoys the extensive work-out provided in Barber’s emotionally charged ballet score 'Medea (Cave of the Heart)'.
David Diamond’s 'Music for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet' is something of a find – an elegant, distinctive suite of five movements, cleanly etched in Falletta’s lithe, supple interpretation.
Throughout both concerts, Falletta is in her element, conducting repertoire from her native country with real verve and alacrity, her clear stick technique and balletic, elfin presence on the podium a distinct advantage in articulating its infectious dance rhythms and bounding syncopations.
The next opportunity to sample Falletta in Americana is when she opens this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s with more John Adams ('Short Ride in a Fast Machine'), and accompanies the rising young Belfast pianist Michael McHale in Gershwin’s 'Piano Concerto'. That’s on October 19 at the Waterfront, and is already firmly inserted in my diary.