CLASSICAL REVEW: the Ulster Orchestra Opening Concert

Graeme Stewart discovers an orchestra in fine fettle at the start of the 2009/10 season

In Belfast's Waterfront Hall at the opening of their 42nd concert season, the Ulster Orchestra do not disappoint, delivering a programme full of colour and vigour.

Beginning with a lively performance of Dvorak’s exuberant and festive Carnival Overture, the orchestra rises to the occasion with a dynamic rendition of one of the composer’s most celebrated and loved works. There is a reflective quality to the mid-sections that enhances the opening and closing passages, with the percussion section (particularly the tambourine) a major feature of the final bars.

If that wasn’t enough to bring in the new season, the next piece certainly is. Russian pianist Alex Kobrin is no stranger to the Ulster Orchestra, having performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 with them last year. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s grand and epic Piano Concerto No.1 is equally accomplished.

Kobrin’s mastery of this powerhouse of a work through his stunning technique is displayed from the towering first movement, an excellent opportunity for the Russian to rise to one of the piano concerto alumni’s most fascinating and enduring challenges. Tchaikovsky never really regarded himself as a pianist, so perhaps he enjoyed making it difficult for the soloists who dare to perform his work.

The beautiful chromatic lines of the more poignant and personal moments provide a distinct dichotomy to the majestic and soaring string melody of the opening bars, or indeed the fiery third movement finale. 

The elegiac second movement, with its pizzicato strings and fantastic flute solo by principal flautist Colin Fleming, is surely one of Tchaikovsky's most famous melodies. All the while, Kobrin’s ability to move from musical flamboyance to intimacy is palpable. 

Although some intonation issues with the orchestra come through slightly, the tone and pace of this movement is spot on. Clearly principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery enjoys the challenges of the work.

One thinks of Tchaikovsky and immediately thinks romanticism and refinery, something also true of the next composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Perhaps most famous for his timeless Sheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov was a dramatist at heart. His penchant for melody and lush orchestration are evident in much of his work, largely due to his interest in Berlioz, whose daring use of orchestral instruments and timbral choice find parallels here.

Sadko: A Musical Portrait certainly owes much to Rimsky’s naval experience, and is another fine example of his ability to write narrative music - though it doesn’t quite show off the orchestration and colour of some of his other best works, particularly the completion of Borodin’s Prince Igor. That said, the piece is still a gem, and the orchestra give a superb performance, vividly portraying the medieval legend of the merchant Sadko’s wager with the Sea King.

The finale, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 is the evening's crowning achievement. A composer of astonishing versatility and mastery of orchestration, Jean Sibelius is perhaps the greatest musical son of his beloved Finland. Sibelius is like a Finnish musical equivalent of Jackson Pollock, huge broad strokes and a feeling of freedom run through much of his work.

The kaleidoscopic tonality of the fifth symphony is one of the work’s most endearing qualities. The heroic final movement is an affirmation and declaration of the beauty of nature.

Conductor Montgomery’s ability to bring out these qualities shines through, and the orchestra respond with a stunning performance. Special mention must go to the brass sections (in particular the French horns) whose sonorous and resonant tone ensure the closing bars are suitably epic. The Ulster Orchestra have confirmed that their season is off to a stylish start. Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats.

The Ulster Orchestra's 2009/10 season has begun. Check out the Culture Live! listings for full details.