Romeo & Juliet

Ulster Youth Orchestra perform music from Provofiev's great ballet and more at the Ulster Hall

Every few years or so, with mind-numbing regularity, the argument is trotted out again, usually by politicians: school holidays are too long, particularly in summer. Today's teenagers are listless and stuck to computer screens, we're told. They're wasting July and August, and may as well be in the classroom, getting even better (allegedly) at sitting tests and doing examinations.

Really? Only recently I've seen three high quality events, all relying on groups of young people voluntarily working in teams from early morning to late evening, in an immersive residential setting lasting up to a fortnight. A fine, varied choral concert and a bristling, innovative production of Shakespeare's Macbeth were the result of the first two projects.

The third produces a concert marking 21 years of the Ulster Youth Orchestra, held on Saturday evening at an Ulster Hall packed with friends, family and supporters. The stage is packed too, with nearly 100 players from schools and colleges all over Northern Ireland, plus music stands and instruments. It's quite a spectacle.

The programme is ideally chosen to give young players a chance to really get their teeth into some proper classical music-making, not the quickfire soundbite selections favoured in 'pops' concerts, which can lose their tang as quickly as a tab of chewing-gum, and aren't much more nutritious.

It opens with an effervescent account of 'Dance of the Comedians' from Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride. It's a performance bubbling with confidence, especially in the scurrying violins of the introduction, the sharp dynamic attack, and tight ensemble playing.

Those impressively high levels of confidence bespeak hours of skilful preparation with sectional coaches. They're evident again in the violins' ripe romantic phrasing of the big tune opening Tchaikovsky's 'First Piano Concerto', the item following the Smetana.

The soloist here is Michael McHale, fresh from his American concerto debut playing Mozart in Minneapolis, with the storied Minnesota Orchestra. McHale is an alumnus of the UYO, and just a decade ago played cello in the desks opposite, where he now commands a concert Steinway.

McHale is one of those musicians who seems incapable of making an unmusical gesture: every phrase has been carefully weighed and considered, and slots naturally into the overall architecture of the piece that he is playing.

That’s not to imply that his approach is somehow calculated or lacking in spontaneity. The animated middle section of the Tchaikovsky concerto’s ‘Andantino semplice’ movement is marvellously puckish in his hands, and the finale goes at a tremendous clip (‘with fire’, as the composer directs), building to an adrenaline-pumped explosion of octaves at its conclusion.

The orchestra matches McHale’s beguiling mix of tenderness and intensity at every turn, with lovely solos taken by flute, cello and oboe in particular.

Part two of the concert is devoted to a selection of numbers from Prokofiev’s great ballet Romeo & Juliet. Already in ‘Montagues and Capulets’ there’s much evidence of the telling preparatory work done by the players in workshops and rehearsals.

The searing dissonances of the opening statement have an appropriately emblazoned quality, while the extreme dynamic contrast with the muted strings that answer is precisely registered. When the main ‘knights’ music kicks in, the violins dig trenchantly into their signature melody, articulating with real bite and character.

That sets the tone for a vividly colourful traversal of the nine movements selected. There are many highlights along the way – the punchy unanimity of the slashing chords launching ‘Folk Dance’; the pliantly executed string tenuti in ‘Madrigal’; the perky swagger the players find in the ‘Masks’ episode.

There is more excellent solo playing too, from first violinist Katherine Sung in particular, who leads the orchestra with decisiveness and clarity throughout the evening.

A sustained crescendo of applause deservedly greets the musicians at the Prokofiev’s conclusion. Scottish conductor Garry Walker seems disarmed, almost embarrassed by it, but he shouldn’t be – his own part in the achievement of this year’s Ulster Youth Orchestra cohort has clearly been massive.

In fact, he is my favourite sort of conductor: unassuming, invariably precise and helpful in his directions, and totally focused on the music and its message. His unstinting commitment, and that of his young players, produces a wonderfully heartening evening of classical music-making.

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