Ulster Orchestra Launch

The Ulster Orchestra's new principal conductor's balletic style gives performances an exciting edge

Do conductors make a difference? There are times when all the baton-waving, lunging and posturing seem almost incidental to the orchestra and the music they are creating on the platform. But not always.

At the Ulster Orchestra's season launch in May JoAnn Falletta, the UO's new principal conductor, conducted a selection of short pieces, some of which re-surfaced in last Wednesday's curtain-raising 'taster' concert for the 2011-12 season.

The differences were instructive. Where May's performances seemed routine, relatively nondescript read-throughs, on Wednesday there was edge, athleticism and excitement. Melodies curved elegantly upwards, rhythms bounded vigorously. Suddenly it was impossible not to listen.

Why the transformation? Partly it's down to the extra edge of adrenaline orchestral players feel at the start of a brand-new season, not the tail-end of another. But mainly it is down to Falletta, and the additional rehearsal time she has had with the orchestra.

Hers is an unusually airborne, balletic conducting technique. Her arms describing elegant arcs of motion at face level or above, providing clear, uncluttered sight lines for even the most distantly placed players. Co-ordination both within sections and between them was palpably sharper than in May, the phrasing and articulation snapping clearly into focus.

Falletta is also entirely un-self-regarding on the podium. All her gestures are musically motivated, none relate to the projection of personal ego or image. This frees the players to express themselves more fully. This freedom could be heard in the saucy jazz sax and clarinet solos of Bernstein's 'On the Waterfront' (predictably a Falletta speciality), the silky string textures of Grieg's 'Peer Gynt', and the crisp kinetics of the 'Toreador's March' from Bizet's Carmen.

Falletta's affinity for the lighter-stepping baroque idiom was another major source of pleasure, a bubbling Handel 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' preceding an effervescent Vivaldi 'Concerto for Two Trumpets', where UO rank-and-filers Paul Young and Patrick McCarthy excelled in the busily warbling solo contributions.

More could be written, but suffice to say that Falletta's next date with the orchestra, opening this year's Belfast Festival on October 14, should go straight into your social diary. It's a Festival of the Americas, with music by Copland, Bernstein, and Gershwin - swing time with the UO's new 'maestra' from New York City.

Two days after Falletta's appearance, on Friday 23 September, the orchestra's regular season kicked off at the Waterfront. Paul Lewis played a Mozart concerto, Dima Slobodeniouk conducted Borodin's Prince Igor 'Overture' and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.

Even allowing for the dry, boxy acoustic of the Waterfront's main auditorium, the impact was a little lower here than on the Wednesday, Slobodeniouk's tendency to sweat the detail dampening forward impetus in the opening movement of the Tchaikovsky. Lewis's Mozart was suave, shapely, and elegantly finished, if a touch well-mannered in temperament.

The Waterfront's a stunning building, and a fitting venue for start-of-season celebrations. The Ulster Hall, however, knocks it into a cocked hat acoustically for classical music. I look forward to hearing the UO back in their Bedford Street headquarters for October's subscription concerts.

For more information about the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's and the Ulster Orchestra concerts check out Culture Northern Ireland's What's On.