Music From The Heart

Domingo Hindoyan stands in to conduct pianist Inon Barnatan at the Ulster Hall

In his pre-concert talk the Ulster Hall – a precursor to the Ulster Orchestra's Music From the Heart – Israeli-American pianist Inon Barnatan refers frequently to the freshness and vibrancy that live performance should and can induce in both performer and audience.

The young performer stresses that it is this great unknown – the possibility of anything happening, albeit in a controlled environment – that makes music-making for him so involving and so much a pleasure. Modestly, he compares performing to surfing: to riding the wave which is, in reality, the music of the composer. The player is merely the vessel for that music and everything stems from that premise.

It is a particularly cold, wet and wintry evening outside. The Ulster Hall is not that warm, the audience gradually fills the auditorium but, unlike recent concerts, it is not a full hall tonight. It may be the weather; it may be the unusual Wednesday evening gig. Live music-making is an experience which has its drawbacks.

It also involves last minute changes. Rafael Payare, the Ulster Orchestra's chief conductor, was to have been tonight's conductor but another engagement in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic is (it has to be said), a fairly valid reason for his absence. In his place is Domingo Hindoyan, a fellow Venezuelan and fellow product of the amazing El Sistema publicly-funded music education programme. (They value their artists in South America.)

In Schumann's 'Manfred' overture, which begins this Ulster Orchestra / BBC Radio Three concert, Hindoyan presents an attractive figure on the podium, suggesting the emotional freedom of the South American that Payare also exudes. 

There is no sign of stilted European reserve and at times maybe his gestures are exaggerated beyond the point of necessity. Yet Hindoyan gives a well-judged performance of this overture, permeated as it is by the dramatic restless energy of Byron's dark hero, Manfred.

Beethoven's First Piano Concerto brings Barnatan back to the Ulster Hall platform. The concerto sounds positively optimistic by contrast to the overture. Hindoyan adopts a light-filled approach to the orchestral sonorities and sets the scene perfectly for the soloist's entry.

There is an atmosphere of chamber music-making – that similar sense of intimacy about the experience. This is not a case of soloist versus orchestra, more a matter of interactive music-making with carefully shaped phrasing, responsive dynamics and delicate balancing of all the little subtleties which abound in this first movement.

Barnatan has a fluid technique, a very discerning attitude towards pedalling, never overexploiting the huge power of the Steinway Model D. Rather he shapes his interpretation, or so it seems, to the prevailing tensions of the live moment. He reacts to the feeling in the air as it flows from the written music.

Listening to his playing, I can understand why Barnatan concentrated on the particular joy of live performance in his pre-concert talk – this is exactly comes across in his playing. What occurs almost seems a surprise, or at least an 'amusement', as if he and perhaps his audience are experiencing the music for the first time.

The slow second movement in particular stretches real time in the most delicate and absorbing way, the players enjoying each phrase without obsessing but with sentiment in the best sense of that word. This allows the music to breathe, to sink in to our heads without us noticing.

What a great contrast the ebullience of the not exactly frivolous but certainly humorous last movement provides with its jolly 'cops-and-robbers' tunes, its syncopations, its rhythmical tricks, its quicksilver changes of mood.

There is a dramatic broodiness to much of Dvorák's Seventh Symphony, which after the interval offers yet another emotional colour to this evening's live performance. Dvorák's symphonies are perhaps the most intensely formal outpourings of Czech nationalism – the Czech flavouring is always there in the background, permeating each harmonic shift, each melodic shape. But Dvorák raises the simple to the sublime at times.

Hindoyan has the feel of this music, giving it enough grandeur and monumentality to impress its audience. This is not the monumentality of Bruckner or Mahler but flavoured more with the intensity and spare physicality of Brahms. As Dvorák himself points out, there is not a wasted note in the entire score. It is full of wonderfully expressive phrases and passages which seem to appear out of nowhere.

Again, so much of this must be a reaction and response to the moment, just the way one's mood and environment correspond with the live music-making, those incidents of the unexpected which you can never get with even the best recordings.

Hindoyan guides the Ulster Orchestra through the myriad moods of the symphony. He turns out to be a fine replacement for Payare. He has the ability to search out the interest in a musical score and bring it to life, even in a programme like this one, which is not especially challenging except in its familiarity.

And so back again into the wintry weather outside, back to that reality. I am glad I managed to park immediately in front of the Ulster Hall door. That, of course, is one of the benefits of attending pre-concert talks before the crowd arrives.

Visit the Ulster Hall website for information on forthcoming concerts.