Flights of Fancy

Ulster Orchestra opens its new season with a fantastique voyage at the Waterfront Hall

Fresh from a busy summer of concerts and recordings with BBC Northern Ireland, the Ulster Orchestra are back with a new season that looks to both engage and inspire audiences, and in the coming months we can expect some great performances by international soloists including Tasmin Little, Natalie Clein, Julian Bliss, David Grimal and Alfie Boe performing music from Mendelssohn and Elgar to Weber and Puccini.

Flights of Fancy, though, is a very French affair with Berlioz’s epic Symphonie Fantastique crowning a programme of Dukas and Saint-Saens. Principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery joins the orchestra as the season gets off to a magical start with Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The orchestra gives a solid performance of the work, with some great solos by brass leader Paul Young and the horn section playing animatedly – however, the performance could use more passion and zeal to really bring Dukas’ creation to life.

Pascal Rogé then takes the stage for Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2. The Parisian has had an outstanding international career and is an eclectic recording artist of many of the French masters including Ravel, Poulenc, Satie and Debussy - the latter of which he has recently recorded a complete cycle of work. Who better, then, to perform one of Saint-Saens’ most enduring works?

The concerto is a much more refined and restrained work than the Dukas, yet retains the same vitality of tone. Written for chamber-sized forces, the composer’s sense of orchestral economy of sound through orchestration is palpable, and something that ultimately became synonymous with Saint-Saens throughout his career. The piano here is the focus of his, and the audience’s, attention as it weaves through its delicate counterpoint with the orchestra throughout the Andante Sonstenuto.

After its flamboyant opening cadenza, the piano and orchestra seem to smelt together and, with both Rogé and Montgomery communicating effectively, the orchestra responds to produce a fantastic musical conversation. Of particular note is the animated second movement, Allegro Scherzando, where the music comes alive and really shows off the intonation of both soloist and orchestra, as does the vibrant Presto finale.

Undoubtedly, the chamber-sized classical musings of the concerto take flight much more swiftly and energetically than Dukas’ grand Apprentice, and Rogé’s fine performance and Montgomery’s technically assured understanding of the work make for a confident and vibrant performance.

Crowning the night is Berlioz’s marathon symphony - more commonly known as the Symphonie Fantastique. In his time, Hector Berlioz was larger than life, a dreamer and fantasist with an amazing ear for orchestral writing and a passion for the euphoric and ecstatic. This may have been down to his own skill as a guitarist, often hearing harmonies and melody far different from his contemporaries who were mostly composing at the piano, but if one was to compare composers to artists - where Debussy would have been akin to the likes of Monet, Berlioz came from the landscapes of Salvatore Dali.

In his Symphonie Fantastique Berlioz looked to musically convey various episodes ‘in the life of an artist”, and the movements are broken up into various scenes. The opening 'Dreams and Passions' concerns the artist seeing the love of his life, falling madly in love with her, only to never be with her. In this way we see parallels with the Italian poet Dante in La Vita Nuova (or 'new life') where we find Dante himself utterly besotted by a woman he will never have.

In La Vita Nuova Dante saw an opportunity for a path to much greater artistic freedom and personal outpouring, writing in Italian instead of Latin for the first time, and thus marking a change in the direction of European literature. The same is true of Berlioz’s work, he created something very unique and individual in the symphony, fashioning a work for huge orchestral forces including two sets of timpani and two harps, among others. This sense of artistic indulgence may have its roots in the idea of the excesses of love that is undoubtedly one the work’s central themes.

At the Waterfront Hall, the orchestra steps up to the occasion with fantastic enthusiasm that comes across in their performance, and with some great solo moments - particularly Paul Schumann’s giocoso-like E flat clarinet solo in the final movement, Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath - which really draws out one of the work’s more fantastical moments.

Overall a superb performance for the orchestra’s opening concert in the new season, setting the mark for what should be another year full of musical surprises and one that, after some turbulence at the beginning, took a most fantastique flight. 

Graeme Stewart