Praise Aloud the Trees

Brian Irvine gets the Cultural Olympiad started with a 'wondrous, occasionally frightening' take on Heaney's poem

It's one o'clock on Sunday afternoon, an odd time for an orchestral concert in Belfast. This is no ordinary concert, however. It's Northern Ireland's contribution to the BBC Radio 3's Music Nation, a weekend of live events launching the countdown to the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Festival.

On a local level the concert is making two bits of history. It's the first time the Ulster Orchestra has ever joined forces with the Dublin-based RTÉ Concert Orchestra. This type of cross-border cultural collaboration would probably happen more often, were it not for the practical difficulties involved in bringing such large organisations together.

120 players pack the Waterfront Hall platform when the two orchestras combine in the suite from Bernstein's film score On the Waterfront. It's a raucously colourful performance, which cuts vividly across the normally deadening Waterfront acoustic in thrilling fashion.

Either side of the interval the RTÉ and Ulster orchestras also play separately, in Korngold's film suite The Adventures of Robin Hood and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol respectively.

Inevitably, perhaps, the impression is a little anti-climactic, given the power unleashed by the combination of the two groups in the Bernstein.

It makes you wonder whether, logistical considerations notwithstanding, it isn't possible to bring orchestras together more regularly on a pan-island basis.

That way the mighty tone-poems of Richard Strauss, and the great symphonic masterpieces of Mahler and Shostakovich (not to mention Stravinsky's Diaghilev ballets) could be heard more often in Northern Ireland than they are at present, which is virtually never.

The concert's other history-maker is Belfast composer, Brian Irvine, whose 'Praise Aloud the Trees', his setting for double orchestra and chorus of a text from Seamus Heaney's Sweeney Astray, is getting its world premiere performance.

Heaney himself chose the extract from his translation of the medieval Irish legend Buile Suibhne, the story of Mad Sweeney, cursed by a cleric and turned into a bird at the Battle of Moira.

Irvine divides the eleven stanzas selected by Heaney into five short movements totalling twenty minutes, reflecting what the composer calls Sweeney's 'distractedness, his inability to settle in one place for very long'.

That rootlessness and mental dislocation ('His brain convulsed, his mind split open,' as Heaney's translation puts it) is reflected in Irvine's virtuoso deployment of his vast orchestra to conjure giddy, Ivesian swirls of sound and energy, evoking Sweeney's vertiginous traversal of the tree-tops, and his crazed reactions to the different species (oak, alder, blackthorn, yew, aspen) he encounters.

An amplified choir of 16 voices adds an extra layering to Irvine's already richly textured palette, enhancing the air-borne, quasi-hallucinatory impression created by his settings.

The singers in the choir mainly sing, but are also called upon at various points to sigh, whisper, rub their hands together and make an unusual 'kik-kik' sound. This broadens further the range of mimetic effects used by Irvine to evoke the wondrous, occasionally frightening rural Ireland of the anonymous medieval writer's imagination.

Praise Aloud the Trees is undoubtedly a triumph for Irvine, a work of considerable sonic daring and imagination. It is grippingly conducted at this premiere performance by Jurjen Hempel, and played with commitment and panache by the joint RTÉ-Ulster forces.

From my ideally located seat in the terrace, the choir's contribution is occasionally occluded by the orchestra, an imbalance possibly righted in the live radio broadcast. Judge for yourself on BBC iPlayer, where Praise Aloud the Trees is available till Saturday, March 10, which also features an interview with Irvine and the BBC's John Toal. It is eminently worth a listen.