review details
 •  23 May 2008 - Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Ulster Orchestra

Copland El salon Mexico, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4, Prokofiev Symphony No. 5

  • The Ulster Orchestra Finale Concert

    A diverse collection of classics and Barry Douglas close the Ulster Orchestra's season


    The Ulster Orchestra's 2008/2009 programme looks to be one of the most eclectic in years, with performances from artists including violinist Tasmin Little, clarinettist Julian Bliss, and the Dankworth family.


    Let's not forget the closing concert of the current season, however, featuring one of Northern Ireland's most popular classical exports, pianist Barry Douglas.


    Opening the concert is Copland's 'El salón México', a charming homage to a Mexican dancehall the composer visited in 1932. It contains all the hallmarks of his music, quirky rhythms and dissonant chords with a light-hearted touch.


    Following this, Beethoven's exquisite 'Fourth Piano Concerto in G Major', one of the great concertos in the repertoire, in its day an incredibly progressive work. This concerto is distinctly Beethoven - a composer endeavouring to re-invent one of music's great genres. In doing so, Beethoven created a work of harmonic invention and formal uniqueness, something which would become a signature of his later work. Douglas's recital is right on the money, a fantastic performance of both technical dexterity and skilful musicianship. Douglas has a fierce respect for the classical form and his fellow musicians. Soloist and orchestra move as one, with excellent direction from principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery, whose interpretative energy and flair marks him as one of the finest conductors around.


    Diversifying the evening's proceedings is Prokofiev's 'Symphony No 5', a triumphant, sterling performance of what Ulster Orchestra chief executive David Byers describes as 'one of the great symphonies of the 20th century'. The number five has a special place among symphonic composers, particularly those writing in the years following the First World War. Consider Shostakovich's 'Fifth Symphony' or Vaughan Williams's fantastic 'Fifth', with its nostalgic wink back to his earlier pastoral style. For many, Prokofiev's 'Symphony No 5' is a definitive work, a culmination of style and character. The same can be said of his magnum opus, '100', a vast work encapsulating the composer's personality and style. The symphony is an enigma, both dark and colourful. It recalls other Prokofiev works including Romeo and Juliet, and some of his work on motion pictures. Of particular note during this piece is the 'Allegro giocoso finale', an intrepid orchestral engine furiously running toward the finish. Clarinettist Paul Schumann's performance provides the giocoso element with flair, and with Prokofiev's spectacular finale flourish, the orchestra end their 2007/2008 season in fine form.


    Principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery has said that 'innovation, participation and creative enrichment' are the key words of the forthcoming season. The future certainly looks bright.


    The Ulster Orchestra will shortly return to its spiritual home, the modernised Ulster Hall, allowing for a greater relationship with the public. And as far as creative enrichment is concerned, with the enduring support of the Arts Council and other sponsors, the Ulster Orchestra can only go from strength to strength.

    Graeme Stewart / Culture Nothern Ireland

  • Prokofiev's symphonies tend to be overshadowed by those of his compatriot Shostakovich. The Fifth is one of his most frequently heard works; even so, it is a far less familiar piece than Shostakovich's equivalent. The reasons for this lie within the works themselves, which was strongly suggested by this performance of the symphony from the Ulster Orchestra and principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery.


    Prokofiev's Fifth is an enigmatic work, lacking the overarching narrative drive and dramatic resolution of a Shostakovich symphony; for a piece written near the end of the second world war, there is little in the way of epic struggle, heroism or black despair written into the music. Montgomery took a moderate, primarily lyrical approach. Though the acidic sharpness of the bouncy scherzo was still heard, it did not overwhelm, but was part of the overall musical colour, underpinned by a deep-rooted warmth. Only the slow movement was less successful; the high string writing needing more than Montgomery's laid-back approach to bring out its film score-like intensity.


    While the Prokofiev was a good choice in the orchestra's temporary home of the Waterfront Hall, Copland's El Salon Mexico, which opened the programme, fared less well in the dry acoustic, the sound harsh and even approaching brutal at times.


    Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto was more happily accommodated: local boy-turned international soloist Barry Douglas gave a distinctly personal performance, juxtaposing delicacy with grandeur and making the familiar seem new and even strange, although entirely appropriate.

    Rowena Smith / The Guardian, 29/05/08

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