Planetary Motions

Pianist Michael McHale and the Ulster Orchestra play Holst's masterpiece to launch the Belfast Festival at Queen's

When Gershwin is in classical mode, how much jazz do you inject into him? That’s a question all interpreters of the composer’s ‘serious’ concert-hall music, and his great opera Porgy and Bess, have to answer: Gershwin’s a one-off stylistically, fusing the popular, crowd-pleasing elements of his Broadway style with the stricter formal procedures of Central European classicism.

Such academic quandaries evaporate in the performance of Gershwin’s ‘Piano Concerto in F’ given by pianist Michael McHale, in an Ulster Orchestra concert at the Waterfront Hall to launch the 2012 Belfast Festival Festival at Queen’s.

(Actually, the festival was launched proper earlier in the evening with a performance of Michael Alcorn's specially-commissionined piece for 50 brass players, which was performed in a flash mob style at Victoria Square. See video below.)

It’s a uniquely fluid piece of playing, gliding easily between the sections of bluesy reverie Gershwin specialises in, to the rattling, toccata-style bursts of flashy fingerwork that propel the closing Allegro agitato forward.

The central Adagio is an obvious highlight, the scene set by a dreamily evocative, muted trumpet solo from Paul Young, the orchestra’s outstanding principal. McHale’s subsequent entry is magically playful, a sprinkling of stardust on the nocturnal Manhattan skyline Gershwin was thinking of when he wrote the movement.

McHale is in the form of his young life at the minute (he’s still not 30), and travels shortly to Minnesota to make his American concerto debut playing Mozart, with fellow Belfastman Courtney Lewis conducting.

This immaculately thought-through interpretation of the Gershwin concerto, tonally alluring and exquisitely attentive to the music’s shifting emotional temperatures, shows that McHale is more than ready for the broader challenges of the international piano circuit.

Conductor JoAnn Falletta’s accompaniment is unobtrusively attentive, and steeped in a native’s knowledge of the American musical idiom.

She draws stylish, idiomatic contributions from the Ulster Orchestra, who earlier open the concert with a sharp, punchy account of John Adams’s ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’, a bracing curtain-raiser evoking the rattling urban landscapes of an America locked into a fast-forward trajectory more giddy than it was in even Gershwin’s heady era.

Part two of the concert is devoted entirely to Holst’s masterpiece ‘The Planets’. But this is a ‘Planets’ with a difference – it’s accompanied by a visual installation by D-Fuse, a London-based cross-media collective. Computer-generated and photographic imagery is projected onto a back screen hung atop the orchestra and a semi-transparent, gauze-like front-drop, creating a virtual 3D effect for the audience.

Does it add much to the already enthralling experience of the inter-stellar journeyings in Holst’s music? That depends how heavily you’re into ‘the idea of spheres and circles’ used ‘to represent spheres of influence and the volumetric references to the planets and our solar system’, mentioned as the raison d’être of the installation in the programme.

At times it looks like a massive, rather engrossing game of Space Invaders, and is a touch distracting. At others, when ‘Jupiter’ spins his swirling ‘jollity’ vertiginously into the ether, the synergy of music and visuals kicks in, and the experience becomes more genuinely immersive.

The darkened hall undoubtedly brings an extra aura of mystery to ‘Neptune, the Mystic’, the extraordinary movement where Holst fades to black, the immensities of outer space seductively beckoning. The spell is broken somewhat by the ‘hidden choir of female voices’ (in this case the ladies of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir) entering too loudly, over-facing the mesmerically hushed playing in the orchestra.

Their part is marked pp in the score, which is pretty soft – the broader point, however, is that the wordless chorus needs to sound other-worldly, and musically balanced with the orchestra, and initially it isn’t. This, though, is the only blemish on a triumphant evening.