City celebrates Mozart's 250th birthday in grand style
The Ulster Hall was the scene of a birthday bash at the weekend, attracting large and appreciative audiences over three days.
As Mozart fever spreads throughout the world from its epicentre in Austria, the occasion was the Ulster Orchestra's celebration of the composer's 250th anniversary. All three concerts were presided over by a sculpture bust of Mozart perched above the organ console, suitably spot-lit and sporting a party hat set at a jaunty angle.
The concerts on Friday and Saturday followed a programme order that consisted of an overture, a piano concerto, a solo piano sonata and a symphony. This was a successful formula which created a nicely sustained sense of flow and focus for the packed audience. Friday's Magic Flute overture would be better known than Saturday's Idomeneo, but conductor Kenneth Montgomery drew us in to the drama of both pieces, with the right amount of flexibility of tempo melded with terrific clarity of purpose. You could imagine the evening moving straight into act one of the opera, so sure-footed was the pace and style of the playing. Thoroughly warmed up, the orchestra seemed to really enjoy playing this exacting, detailed music.
Hugh Tinney and Finghin Collins were the soloists on Friday and Saturday respectively, each bringing a distinct sensibility to two very different concertos. Tinney captured the stormy, epic quality of Concerto No.24, projecting the piano line up and out of the middle of the orchestra where the piano was situated. His performance was balanced and mature, mirroring the balance of the orchestra which was divided equally to the left and right of the piano. This seating arrangement worked well for all three concerts, at times creating the feeling of chamber music and evoking the intimacy that would have informed performances of Mozart's own time.
Intimacy is a word that captures Finghin Collin's approach to Concerto No.27, which he performed with intense concentration and a velvet touch. The inclusion of a solo piano sonata in Friday and Saturday's programmes gave the audience a chance to experience yet another dimension of Mozart's art. It also gave the pianists a unique opportunity to share in greater detail their thoughts and feelings about Mozart's music - thought more in the case of Hugh Tinney, and feeling from Finghin Collins.
When the Ulster Orchestra returned to the stage, most of the musicians' chairs had been removed and those musicians who could stand to play did, in the manner of performances in Mozart's day and beyond.
Conductor Kenneth Montgomery spoke to the audience at each concert and explained this point, as well as speaking about the music itself, focusing on keys and the stories and moods behind Mozart's music.
On Friday the joyful Linz Symphony emphasised the dexterity of the Ulster Orchestra's wind players while Saturday's Jupiter Symphony was complex and stylish, a triumphant end to a concert that was truly a celebration from start to finish. Special praise to the Orchestra's trumpets who played wonderful looking and sounding valveless trumpets.
Sunday's programme emphasised Mozart's writing for the voice and soloist Mary Nelson was in excellent form for her concert aria, Exsultate, Jubilate. This was coloratura singing at its best and all her singing, Mary Nelson projected warm feeling for the text. Pianist Andrew Smith created lovely textures for the song accompaniments and the showpiece Concert Aria. The ever-popular Eine Kleine Nachtmusik opened Sunday's concert and Symphony No. 25 was the finish, both wonderfully detailed and dextrous. Most importantly, there was a quality of joy and energy in the playing, all carefully and compellingly led by conductor Montgomery. His enthusiasm was utterly infectious and these birthday celebrations couldn't have had a more able master of ceremonies.
Andrew Rea, 31-01-06
This 250th birthday year could well become a defining juncture in the public appreciation and understanding of Mozart.
The weekend was saturated with the enigmatic composer, of course, and Radio 3's CD Review highlighted the many diverse approaches on offer.
On recommending a recording of the Ninth Piano Concerto, for instance, Jeremy Siepmann felt the need to say that a pure, non-eccentric or neutral rendition would only do for newcomers to Mozart.
On the other hand, a couple of hours later, on that same programme Andrew Manze - who dazzled Belfast audiences a couple of weeks ago at the Waterfront - offered an A major Violin Concerto that was complex and playful, full of association and never patronising.
The truth is, Mozart is far from being an unproblematic composer. The Ulster Orchestra's own tribute spanned the weekend and stood between these two extremes; traditional in intent it nevertheless introduced some effective and telling pieces of authentic practise.
The valveless trumpets and eighteenth century timpani in Friday night's Overture to The Magic Flute signalled a weekend that was to be thoughtful and questioning if not radical.
And what further endeared the series to the dedicated audience was its assemblage of home grown talent, from the pianists Hugh Tinney and Finghin Collins to soprano Mary Nelson under the baton of the orchestra's Principal Guest Conductor Kenneth Montgomery.
Montgomery is an inveterate Mozartian and he was in his element here working with responsive players to produce Mozart that was sometimes serious and respectful - the Piano Concerto No.24 - sometimes light and graceful - Eine kleine Nachtmusik - and other times surprisingly vigorous - the opening of the 'little' G Minor Symphony was a revelation.
But Mozart's music comes alive most fully with the human voice and Mary Nelson's performances of secular and sacred song yesterday afternoon was an exposition in miniature of the best and most directly moving work of the great man.
An affectionate and rewarding celebration.
Rathcol, Belfast Telegraph, 31-01-06