A Chopin Festival

The Ulster Orchestra wheel out the piano for a celebration of Chopin's canon. Click Play Audio for a podcast with chief executive David Byers in conversation with Philip Hammond

Click here to listen to Philip Hammond in conversation with David Byers (MPEG Layer 3 Audio, 7.6 MB)

If you were a composer of enduring historical renown and someone said that you weren’t much of an orchestrator, how annoyed would you be? Luckily, Fryderyk Chopin isn’t around to rebuke me for raising such a negative feature of his compositional technique at the beginning of my conversation with David Byers, chief executive of the Ulster Orchestra. I was intrigued to know why an orchestral society would be staging a Chopin festival here in Northern Ireland, on the 200th anniversary of the great man's birth, when Chopin was the poet of the piano rather than the master of the orchestra.

But, as Richard Aldrich, the great music critic for the New York Times, wrote in 1909, 'Chopin’s genius always remained genius, and he never wrote cheaply or vulgarly...he was the first to find the truest and most characteristic expression for [the piano’s] peculiar powers and possibilities, its effects of sounds and timbre. The beauty and originality of his ideas have this essential quality, that they are conceived wholly and entirely for the kind of sound and sonority that the piano possesses.'

To be exact, and despite lengthy but resolved disputes over the exact date, Chopin was born in the little village of Zelazowa Wola in Poland on March 1, 1810. The Ulster Orchestra’s festival manages to miss that date but deftly anticipates the celebrations which no doubt will commemorate the actual bicentenary elsewhere.

Byers emphasises that the focus even of Chopin’s orchestrally accompanied work was still the piano. The two piano concertos or the several miscellaneous non-categorise-able pieces like the 'Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise' or the 'Variations on La ci darem la mano' continue to grace the programmes of orchestras around the world, despite the glory resting with the soloist. Who is going to object to that, especially when the music transcends such petty politics?

Byers is keen in this festival to reveal the context, hint at the musical milieu, compare and contrast the composers of the early 19th century during which Chopin wrote his music. So the festival’s two orchestral concerts – the 'pillars' of the festival, as Byers describes them – present Russian music because, as Byers points out, 'Chopin was a great influence on the Russian composers of a later generation – the Tchaikovsky’s, the Balakirev’s, the Borodin’s'.

The second orchestral concert brings Cherubini and Beethoven into the picture. 'Beethoven was in a sense the opposite of what Chopin was about,' continues Byers. 'Beethoven [was] taking apart little motifs of music and working with them, whereas Chopin was much more about melody, about variation, about harmonic colours.'

The Ulster Orchestra decided that only a pianist of superlative quality should be engaged to demonstrate the potential of Chopin’s solo piano music, and as such has chosen one of Northern Ireland’s favourite musical visitors – Nikolai Demidenko. 'It’s nice to get an opportunity to explore something in a bit more depth with one artist,' remarks Byers, 'and Demidenko is certainly a great artist.'

The Ulster Orchestra's A Chopin Festival runs over two weekends from January 29-31, and February 5-7.

In the above podcast (click Play Audio), the musical extracts are from Chopin’s 'First Piano Concerto', as performed by Martha Argerich and the Montréal Symphony under Dutoit, and Nikolai Demidenko’s performance of Chopin’s Variations on 'Là ci darem la mano'.