It is a cliché in music commentary to say that youth orchestras bring vitality, fearlessness and chutzpah to the programmes that they play. But as with most clichés, it does appear to be based in truth, and that is perhaps one reason why the BBC Proms continue to give such support to young players as well as young composers. The Ulster Youth Orchestra opened Prom 28 with an energetic performance of Emmanuel Chabrier’s España: Rhapsody for orchestra. Their confident treatment of the swaggering main themes, and exploitation of every solo, however short, reaffirmed the orchestra’s reputation for excellent musicianship and verve. With a piece as liberating as España it is only right that it be played freely and without constriction, so there were occasions where the accompaniment came a little loose from those sections carrying the melody, particularly where fast double-tonguing was required. Overall, though, the piece was well served by the orchestra’s attitude, and I most looked forward to the evening ahead.
In the first of a number of ensemble changes, the Ulster Youth Orchestra were then replaced by the Ulster Orchestra and Sir James Galway. The popular flautist has not played at the Proms for over ten years and has said he was most looking forward to his return. His performance of Mozart’s Flute Concerto no. 2 in D major rather suggested he was glad to be back. Galway dramatically leant into some of the first movement’s choice melodies and shook his hands with excitement at some of the trickier passages of fingering. His insouciant style perfectly matched the orchestra’s bright, immediate accompaniment (excepting minor intonation issues), and climaxed perfectly in each cadenza. The cadenzas were played quickly and were all the more impressive for their speed and precision, encouraging the audience to applaud between movements.
The remainder of the concert presented what must have been a great challenge to conductor JoAnn Falletta, as the two orchestras combined forces, in two different calibrations, to perform two quite difficult works. For Dark Hedges, a BBC-commissioned world première by Elaine Agnew, the now massive orchestra had heft in every department, not least in the percussion, which has spilled out onto a temporary stage in the Royal Albert Hall’s Arena (behind the back of the conductor). Such a central position was appropriate given their prominent role throughout this most engaging piece. Bowed cymbals and gong created the eerie setting to which the piece’s title refers, and the same players then went on to drive through the second and third sections with power and syncopation. Alongside interesting orchestration and unusual percussion effects, the emergence of Sir James Galway from amongst the prommers in the arena added to the sense that this was a composition of events following one another, rather than causing one another. As such this unpredictable piece was compelling from beginning to end.
Faletta’s careful, steady direction was well advised for Dark Hedges, but I felt that the same approach was not so suitable for Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird. The passion of the first two numbers was gone, as the sheer weight of numbers, particularly in the strings, dulled any impact that an entry might otherwise have had. I found it to be a rather straight performance, which lacked in dynamism and shape, except in the case of solos, where members from both orchestras played out clearly and with great sensitivity.
Tonight’s concert was varied in programme and in personnel, demonstrating the ambition of both orchestras and their conductor. For the most part the music was played in a most decisive manner, with Galway’s masterful Mozart recital a real highlight, but the Stravinsky was partially weakened by an uncharacteristic meekness. I’m not able to point to any old reviewing cliché to explain that, because this concert, with all its contrasting parts and affecting new music, did not fit the mold of any concert I’ve seen before. Credit should go to all involved for the production of this most individual evening.
with talented young musicians
working alongside experienced
professionals, we hear this
afternoon’s two Ulster orchestras
separately before they join
together in Elaine Agnew’s
brand-new Dark Hedges and in a
colourful suite from the folk-tale
ballet for the Ballets Russes, which launched
Stravinsky's international career. American
JoAnn Falletta, the Ulster Orchestra’s new
Principal Conductor, makes her Proms debut,
while Sir James Galway returns for his first
appearance here for over a decade.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP
The Ulster Youth Orchestra of Northern Ireland and the Ulster Orchestra side by side at the BBC Prom © BBC / Chris Christodoulou