Ulster Orchestra

Philip Hammond enjoys the youthful energy of principal conductor Rafael Payare 

Rafael Payare, the newly established principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, holds the baton for two concerts, one of which is presented as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, during a very difficult time for the orchestra, with its very future in the balance.

I have lived through many UO crises during my four-decade career in music composition, journalism and arts administration in Northern Ireland: this is definitively the most serious crises I have experienced.

There is increasingly less money being designated by the public purse to everything in our society, but particularly to the arts. I do not say 'given' because this money comes from all of us – without public subsidy, there is not a chance that the arts will flourish, or even survive at a high level of quality, in a small community like Northern Ireland.

The campaign to save the UO continues to gather momentum and, as thousands of people have signed the online petition, countless others have explained why this orchestra has meant so much to them in their lives. These stories make a point; it is not elitist to enjoy something artistic which challenges and stretches the boundaries of everyday human understanding, it is mere common sense.

Until there is clarity around the future of the UO – and for this we are relying on the politicians, because this is a matter of 'national' significance – we supporters of all the arts must not become complacent, and nor must we allow ourselves to be fobbed off with weak excuses about how everyone is suffering from the recession and with the irrational comparisons with other worthy causes.

So it is especially noticeable and particularly refreshing to see so many people in the audiences for these two UO concerts. Yes, there is a majority of people who are of a certain age – and being one of them myself, I see nothing unusual or untoward in that. Longer life experience aids deeper appreciation of the arts in general, in my opinion.

What moves me, however, is the sense of commitment, and the atmosphere of support from the audience at these concerts – there is a genuine response from ordinary people who realise what is at stake at the moment. The spontaneous standing ovation at the end of the second concert proves this.

It strikes me as being ironic that at a time when we may well lose one of the highest quality ensembles in the land, their current music-making is completely devoid of maudlin defeatism, of empty despair, of dire pessimism. During both concerts I feel uplifted and refreshed.

Payare, a 34-year-old Venezuelan, is young and enthusiastic. In the JTI Lunchtime Concert he shows his worth, bringing the best out of his players. It is a programme of entirely brass and woodwind music, with percussion, perhaps not the type of music that may normally draw such a large audience, but its vibrancy, its electricity, is contagious.

Payare has a clear and concise beat; he is quite a physical conductor but not in a simple, extroverted way. (That can lead to unsavoury, egotistical showmanship – beware!) Rather, he is frequently athletic in his energetic movements but almost equally balletic at times.

I do not detect any hint of overstatement in gesture, however – and this seems to me to point towards an endearing modesty in this young conductor’s musicianship. It seems to me that he regards the music as more important than his platform profile. He should take advice on his tendency to be distractingly vocal some of the time, though – I wonder if he realises he can be as noisy as Glenn Gould?

The 16th century brass music has a sonorous opulence about it, a level above the sometimes bombastic brashness, which can be an infection of some brass band performances. But what really blows me away, and indeed most of the audience, is the colourful 20th century harmonic palette of Henri Tomasi in his 'Fanfares Liturgiques'. The playing is, in the literal sense, 'brilliant'.

During the Friday night concert, entitled A Fanfare to Fate, towards the close of the Belfast Festival at Queen's, the same generous musicianship from both conductor and players is on show yet again. Here Payare proves his ability to accompany the soloist, who on this occasion is none other than local hero, award-winning pianist, Barry Douglas.

A master of fluid playing, with fluent technique, Douglas is also a thoughtful performer, witnessed by his calm, serene but disturbing encore of an intermezzo by Brahms. He is truly outstanding in his performance of Beethoven’s lyrical 'Fourth Piano Concerto', but his reading is neither commonplace nor predictable. Payare, however, is up to every twist and turn, every nuance, every subtlety that Douglas produces. It is a winning combination.

In Simon Mawhinney’s 'The Pot of Pulgarve', Payare keeps the momentum of the music well-paced, being aware of the contrasts of the work’s musical landscape and controlling the balance of what is an extravagantly scored work. Passages of dark Messiaenic brass choruses are placed beside light reflecting woodwinds; perhaps the piece engenders more a sense of awful power than the exhilarating exuberance intended by the composer.

What could be further from the restraint of Brahms, the robustness of Beethoven, than the melodrama of Tchaikovsky? The contrast is well illustrated by the latter's 'Fourth Symphony', which loses not a moment in establishing right at the outset the fateful character of his symphony – how pertinent to our present situation.

Payare shows us another side to his own character in this striking work, and conducts the score from memory. Maybe it is this that allows him to give full rein to the emotional powder keg that is Tchaikovsky.

It is clear that the UO follows their new conductor's lead as he brings to light the web of counterpoints which are woven through this music. This attention to detail pervades Payare's approach to the unfolding drama; his care about even the smallest change of tension is what defines this performance.

Despite all of Tchaikovsky’s gestures – the outpourings, the climaxes which sit on the edge of being too much – Payare imbues this music with a sincerity that balances the Romantic exaggerations, blurring the false distinction between the stage and the platform music. He permits his players room to let their phrases blossom and bloom, and in so doing engenders a feeling that everyone is in this together – including the audience.

These are indeed testing times for the UO, and the outcome for it is far from certain. But meantime, we can continue to savour the real pleasure of live orchestral music in concerts such as these under the optimistic and enthusiastic musicianship of the orchestra's new musical leader.

Visit the Ulster Orchestra website for information on forthcoming concerts.