A Tale of Two Finales

The Ulster Orchestra's new season takes off at St Anne's, reports Graeme Stewart

Music by Aaron Copeland, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ludwig van Beethoven, Sep 21, 2007

With its vast booming drum call, American composer Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man opened the Ulster Orchestra's new season in St Anne's Cathedral with a bang - an experience destined not to be forgotten by those audience members who almost fell off their chairs! 

The hidden ensemble of players at the front of the cathedral played without pomp or circumstance, and without adhering to the established form of an opening concert. No orchestral leader, no conductor. Instead the music just began, as if the cathedral itself was playing to the audience. The resultant performance was one of great vigour, magnified by St Anne's mighty stone walls.

With the temporary closure of the Ulster Hall, the Ulster Orchestra is setting up camp in various venues during the coming season, making its slogan 'Music that Moves' ring truer than ever before. St Anne’s was the first spectacular stop.

Joining the orchestra, conductor Kenneth Montgomery continued with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs based on the poems of George Herbert. Throughout his life, Vaughan Williams was at heart a traditionalist, a composer who studied and respected his cultural inheritance, and who distanced himself from the ‘new music’ coming from central Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Although a student of the composer Max Bruch in Berlin, it was perhaps his association with Maurice Ravel that had the biggest influence on the young Vaughan Williams.

It has been said that when Ravel visited the young composer at his apartment in Paris, he was amazed to see that Vaughan Williams did not have a piano. Ravel is then claimed to have asked the composer how he was expected to ‘experience new harmonies.’ Ravel was a composer linked to others such as Claude Debussy and Paul Dukas, who wrote music in the impressionist style and whose grasp of orchestration and harmony brought about sound experiences as well as works of melody and structure. These qualities are displayed in earnest in Five Mystical Songs as Vaughan Williams exercises his own curiosity in what is essentially a prolonged meditation on religious belief.

The work is scored for solo baritone, choir and orchestra, and allows the composer a wide palette of colours from which to draw the necessary sounds he requires. The material quite often is made up of extended or ‘jazz-like’ chords orchestrated across a texture of undulating string lines, supported by harp glissandi and woodwind lines, essentially creating a blanket of sound over which the solo baritone sings. The choir intersperses this with small episodes, often singing together in chords.

Throughout the work, you are aware of the composer's sensitivity to the words. Indeed, until the finale the music rarely gets beyond what we would perceive as a mezzoforte because anything above this is resolutely saved for the end.

The Antiphon is generally regarded as the most famous of the movements from the songs - a choral tour de force on par with a coronation anthem. On hearing the chorus refrain 'Let all the world in every corner sing, my God and King,' you cannot help but feel that you are listening to impressionist musings no longer. Rather, you are in the realms of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and Handel’s Zadok the Priest.

The Belfast Philharmonic’s performance in the finale was a triumph. Matthew Hargreaves’ bass-baritone performance displayed great technical control and an assured sense of the work’s overall depth of meaning, complementing rather than intruding on what was a wonderful performance by the orchestra. 

Any occasion when Beethoven’s epic choral Ninth Symphony is performed is an event worth visiting and this was no different. It is hard to imagine even now that Beethoven wrote this most recognisable of works whilst suffering a long period of deafness. Montgomery’s direction of the orchestra, choir and soloists was secure and passionate, and brought about an intense and reassured performance from the orchestra, elevating an audience already charged with the echoes of Vaughan Williams’ Antiphon.

At this point we also welcomed three other soloists - the soprano Rebecca Nash, mezzo-soprano Anna Burford and tenor Joshua Ellicott. The opening Allegro ma non troppo develops from its rudimentary conception into a colossal polyphonic masterpiece of orchestral layers fighting for supremacy, aided by the vast acoustics of the cathedral. There is a sense of a struggle with brass and strings skirmishing in a desperate attempt to overcome one another, interspersed with timpani strikes, something we would again hear at the famous opening of the Molto Vivace second movement.

Montgomery produced a fantastic performance from the orchestra, allowing the audience to hear every nuance of material, regardless of the vast acoustics. This may have been helped by some artistic changes in the orchestra’s layout on stage, with the first and second violins flanking the conductor on either side, with the violas, cellos and basses in between. The use of ‘natural’ horns also provided a more earthy and traditional sound.

But the crowning achievement of the evening was without a doubt the Ode an die Freude or 'Ode to Joy'. Montgomery did not disappoint, and the orchestra provided an equally full-bodied performance, aided by the solo quartet of singers. Rebecca Nash, who replaced Giselle Allen at short notice, performed with great clarity even in the higher notes. The moments when the choir dispersed for the soloists shone through, and provided a listening experience enjoyed by all.

It was said that at the end of the original performance of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven needed to be turned around at the end because he could not hear the audience applaud him at its close. There was no need for Kenneth Montgomery to be aided on this occasion, as the audience’s appreciation at the end of the performance was obvious to all. For me, this concert was a tale of two finales, it was the best of times, it was the best of times.