Ulster Youth Orchestra Easter Concerts

Graeme Stewart enjoys classical music's great architects, performed by the stars of tomorrow

The Old Mill in Mossley, Newtownabbey stands as a lasting memory of the once thriving industry and cultural heritage of the area. It is fitting that on the grounds surrounding the complex, a theatre has been built to help others enjoy a new generation’s art, and on Saturday night saw the second performance of the Ulster Youth Orchestra’s Easter concert, having performed the previous night in Enniskillen.

Opening with two Ulster airs arranged by Joan Trimble, the musicians under the baton of conductor Michael Thompson, bringing to life pieces which are not often heard.

Trimble was an influential composer in Northern Ireland throughout her career, contributing both original compositions and arrangements to the repertoire. Her work as a teacher was also an important part of her life, so it is fantastic that these young musicians have a chance to explore and enjoy it.

Both works are from a wider collection she completed for BBC Northern Ireland over twenty years ago, but they sound as fresh as when they first went down on manuscript.

They are contrasting pieces. 'Rosa Breathnach' is a traditional folk tune, with the main melody interspersed among the various solo instruments of the orchestra while the rest of the ensemble weave a lyrically delicate accompaniment, a set of variations on a theme. The second, 'Bellaghy Fair', is a jaunty and excitable piece, showcasing pizzicato strings and rhythmic joviality in the woodwind.

The intonation of each section of the orchestra is fantastic, with the musicians clearly listening to one another as an ensemble. That is important for the next piece: Mozart’s 2nd Violin Concerto. Joining the orchestra is a former member, violinist Ciaran McCabe, who is currently making waves on the UK stage and wider afield. As with much of Mozart’s music, there is always room for laughter, and the comic nuances of this concerto are no different.

Mozart is having fun with the orchestra and soloist, and especially when both combine. There is a light and featherlike quality to the music and McCabe’s subtle performance also displays a technical veracity showing the many faces of the music.

The orchestra seem to be galvanized by his performance, showing an intensity which we have not yet seen. This is a technically challenging work for any soloist and although a couple of tiny slips occur this in no way detracts from an immensely enjoyable performance. The acoustics of the theatre do not help, but nor do they hinder. McCabe is a player to watch out for in the future.

In the second half we have a work from one of Mozart’s contemporaries, or depending what way you look at it, Mozart was a contemporary of his. Beethoven's Second Symphony in D Major. Beethoven is perhaps one of the great musical architects. If Haydn was the father of the Symphony, then Beethoven was the eccentric and wild son who took something good and made it great.

Although Beethoven was growing ever more deaf at this stage, it's hard to believe there was anything wrong with his hearing when he sculpted the beautiful passages through the woodwind and strings in the opening Adagio. And the music explodes with life at the Allegro con Brio, full of the energy of a man half Beethoven's age. The orchestra bring their own energy to the performance, particularly the strings sections whose pounding tutti sections really bring Beethoven’s vision to life. The solo passages are also brilliant, with the first oboe deserving special mention for solo line beautifully performed.

The final movement is definitely one of the reasons you would want to listen to this piece, and another reason for it holding an important place in Beethoven’s music.

The audience who first attended this concert in the 18th century liked gowns and dresses, parties and social soirees... they also liked 3/4 and 4/4 bars. So when Beethoven unleased the opening of the finale on them, they probably didn’t know what had hit them!

Rhythmically angular, the music folds in and across itself, giving nothing away as to the direction it is going in. The music is in the form of a rondo, and this recurring opening motif comes back again and again, and each time gets better, and better. The orchestra’s final bars are full of the excitement this pieces needs, and certainly a triumph.

The Ulster Youth Orchestra musicians put on a fantastic show considering the fact they only had a few rehearsals to prepare. Contrary to the name on the front of the theatre, this was certainly no ‘run of the mill’ concert.

Graeme Stewart