Polish Passions

Michal Dworzynski and Tasmin Little storm the stage in an outstanding concert, but do enough people appreciate it?

Ignoring its misnomer, the closing concert of this year’s Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s on Friday October 30 makes it clear to those of us who crave the hit of live classical music why the festival is so important. Thanks to Graeme Farrow, it seizes the opportunity to present works which, in Northern Ireland, are outside the normal repertoire, especially in terms of orchestral music. 

Even Debussy’s 'Prélude à l’après midi d’un Faune', the so-called first piece of modern music and an accepted standard anywhere else is, sadly, outside the normal repertoire here. Why? Because it requires extra players beyond the Ulster Orchestra’s contracted strength – and that costs more money than the orchestra can afford. 

As I watch Polish conductor Michal Dworzynski tease Debussy’s subtle shades and exotic timbres from the players, I can hardly believe this is the same Ulster Orchestra which so disconsolately ploughed its way through the Longley/Heaney event earlier in the festival. What a magical transformation an inspiring conductor and stimulating repertoire can make. 

The incongruity of including this French delight in an otherwise totally and gloriously Polish programme does cross my mind – but I pass on quickly, a question rather than a complaint. The high value, high calibre, beautiful, shiny, turquoise-clad Tasmin Little sweeps on to the Ulster Hall platform, performing as soloist in Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto. 

The violinist soars above the enveloping, sometimes folk-inspired landscape of this one-movement work, punctuating the washes of orchestral colour with stylish and virtuosic interludes. This is a composition which has never been performed here to my knowledge – Szymanowski’s lusciously refined oeuvres usually require orchestral augmentation. 

A welcome addition to the advertised programme is Gorecki’s 'Three pieces in old style', an object lesson in the combination of density and clarity from the composer’s early works. I wonder if it was added in an attempt to woo an Ulster public who may recognise Gorecki’s name from his pop-charting Third Symphony some years ago? Dworzynski and the strings of the Ulster Orchestra draw out the warm resonance of the writing, complemented by the generous acoustic of the less than half-full Ulster Hall. The ploy obviously didn’t work. 

Like all good hosts, the Polish Institute (the main sponsor of this concert) has kept the best to the end. Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra is more than a match for its Hungarian counterpart - Bartok’s similarly-titled masterpiece predating this one by only ten years. 

It is an orchestral tour de force, and in this fine performance under Dworzynski it pulsates with energy, vitality and brilliance. Rarely are we afforded the chance to hear such an expansive - and expensive - array of forces in such stirring, exciting and approachable twentieth century music. What an excellent bookend this concert makes, in contrast to the opening Gergiev concert. 

The comparison unfortunately also relates to audience numbers. Does this concert make it clear that it is unwise to offer a competing classical or operatic event either on the same evening as or too close to another similar event? 

If that is the case, what a depressing fact would be revealed. And there are depressing questions which follow on. Is the audience for this musical genre so surprisingly small, despite years and years of education and outreach activities? Or is that audience just not very adventurous? 

Philip Hammond