Grosvenor Plays Britten

At a time of uncertainty for the Ulster Orchestra, this 'outstanding classical programme' kickstarts 2013

For the players of the Ulster Orchestra, it can’t have been the happiest of Christmases. First came apparently well-sourced speculation on the internet regarding possible downsizing and redundancies. Then interim chief executive, Ed Smith, confirmed publicly that ‘some losses to the core orchestra and administrative staff’ were indeed being contemplated.

A new chief executive, Rosa Solinas, has also just been appointed. She’s the fifth individual to occupy the post in a little over two years, a fact bespeaking considerable institutional instability at the orchestra’s Bedford Street headquarters. You could forgive the players for feeling a tad uneasy about their immediate job security, as they take the platform at the Ulster Hall for the first lunchtime concert of 2013.

Anxieties about the future seem temporarily forgotten, however, as the American conductor, Andrew Litton, mounts the podium, cueing the orchestra into Rossini’s ‘Silken Ladder’ overture with a whippy downbeat. Litton’s a no-nonsense, energising musician, and probably just the tonic that the players need at this uncertain period to sharpen their collective focus.

His Rossini zips along, eliciting precise, spirited playing, and impressively dextrous contributions from oboist Christopher Blake, who spins elegance and witticism from the manic swirl of notes that the composer puts in front of him.

Tunes written by Rossini are the raw material of Britten's ‘Soirées Musicales’, included as an early doffing of the hat to the English composer in a year when his birth centenary is being widely celebrated. The five short movements are punchily dispatched by Litton, with ringing contributions from first trumpet Paul Young.

Bruch's ‘Scottish Fantasy’, the filling in this particular lunchtime sandwich, brings a sharp reminder of how outstandingly the orchestra's section leaders habitually acquit themselves when called upon to act as soloists. On this occasion it's leader and first violinist Tamás Kocsis who steps into the spotlight.

Kocsis's account of the ‘Scottish Fantasy’ is warmly communicative and full of sweet-toned poetry, particularly in the singing melodies Bruch writes for the violin's E string. The concluding movement, marked 'fast and war-like' by the composer, is a particular triumph, Kocsis's double-stopping secure and snappily executed, Litton exerting a firm grip on the orchestra in the skirling, dance-like accompaniment.

More Britten is wheeled out at Friday evening's subscription concert, in the shape of the relatively under-played Piano Concerto. The young English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is luxury casting here, and plays the solo part with panache, wit and fluidity. His magical gradation of dynamics in the repeated glissandi of the opening movement’s cadenza is of the highest quality technically.

Britten’s Concerto has few moments of calm or introspection, but when one does arrive, in the solo introduction to the third movement, Grosvenor shows a poise and artistic maturity belying the fact that he is still only twenty. Litton elicits a fizzing accompaniment from the orchestra, completing a hugely inspiriting performance.

Friday also brings a rare and welcome opportunity to hear ‘Aus Italien’ ('From Italy'), an early entry in the gloriously sumptuous series of tone-poems by Richard Strauss. Romantic music is another speciality of Litton's (he made a marvellous recording of the Rachmaninov symphonies when he was younger), and he draws a thrilling, vividly pictorial response from the players.

Like much music of the Romantic period and after, ‘Aus Italien’ requires a large orchestra of gifted musicians, playing a wide variety of different instruments to a very high standard. The type of orchestra, in fact, that we'd no longer have in Northern Ireland should the public funding axe be wielded further.

As an audience depleted by the first seriously inclement weather of the winter ambles reluctantly out into a snowy Belfast evening, I cross my fingers, hoping that outstanding classical programmes of the type staged in the Ulster Hall this week can continue to be offered in the city for a long time into the future.

Visit the Ulster Orchestra website for more information on forthcoming concerts.