Concert Review of the UYO performance given on the 26th July 2014
Every few years or so, with mind-numbing regularity, the argument is trotted out again, usually by politicians: school holidays are too long, particularly in summer. Today's teenagers are listless and stuck to computer screens, we're told. They're wasting July and August, and may as well be in the classroom, getting even better (allegedly) at sitting tests and doing examinations.
Really? This past week alone I've seen three high quality events, all relying on groups of young people voluntarily working in teams from early morning to late evening, in an immersive residential setting lasting up to a fortnight. A fine, varied choral concert and a bristling, innovative production of Shakespeare's Macbeth were the result of the first two projects.
The third produced a concert marking twenty-one years of the Ulster Youth Orchestra, held on Saturday evening at an Ulster Hall packed with friends, family and supporters. The stage is packed too, with nearly a hundred players from schools and colleges all over Northern Ireland, plus music stands and instruments. It's quite a spectacle.
The programme is ideally chosen to give young players a chance to really get their teeth into some proper classical music-making, not the quickfire soundbite selections favoured in 'pops' concerts, which lose their tang as quickly as a tab of chewing-gum, and aren't much more nutritious.
It opens with an effervescent account of 'Dance of the Comedians' from Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride. It's a performance bubbling with confidence, especially in the scurrying violins of the introduction, the sharp dynamic attack, and tight ensemble playing.
Those impressively high levels of confidence bespeak hours of skilful preparation with sectional coaches. They're evident again in the violins' ripe romantic phrasing of the big tune opening Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, the item following the Smetana.
The soloist here is Michael McHale, fresh from his American concerto debut playing Mozart in Minneapolis, with the storied Minnesota Orchestra. McHale is an alumnus of the UYO, and just a decade ago played cello in the desks opposite where he now commands a concert Steinway.
McHale is one of those musicians who seems incapable of making an unmusical gesture: every phrase has been carefully weighed and considered, and slots naturally into the overall architecture of the piece that he is playing.
That’s not to imply that his approach is somehow calculated or lacking in spontaneity. The animated middle section of the Tchaikovsky concerto’s ‘Andantino semplice’ movement is marvellously puckish in his hands, and the finale goes at a tremendous clip (‘with fire’, as the composer directed), building to an adrenaline-pumped explosion of octaves at its conclusion.
The orchestra matches McHale’s beguiling mix of tenderness and intensity at every turn, with lovely solos taken by flute, cello and oboe in particular.
Part two of the concert is devoted to a selection of numbers from Prokofiev’s great ballet Romeo and Juliet. Already in ‘Montagues and Capulets’ there’s much evidence of the telling preparatory work done by the players in workshops and rehearsals.
The searing dissonances of the opening statement have an appropriately emblazoned quality, while the extreme dynamic contrast with the muted strings which answer is precisely registered. When the main ‘knights’ music kicks in, the violins dig trenchantly into their signature melody, articulating with real bite and character.
That sets the tone for a vividly colourful traversal of the nine movements selected. There are many highlights along the way – the punchy unanimity of the slashing chords launching ‘Folk Dance’; the pliantly executed string tenuti in ‘Madrigal’; the perky swagger the players find in the ‘Masks’ episode.
There’s more excellent solo playing too, from first violinist Katherine Sung in particular, who leads the orchestra with decisiveness and clarity throughout the evening.
A sustained crescendo of applause deservedly greets the musicians at the Prokofiev’s conclusion. Scottish conductor Garry Walker seems disarmed, almost embarrassed by it, but he shouldn’t be – his own part in the achievement of this year’s Ulster Youth Orchestra cohort has clearly been massive.
In fact he’s my favourite sort of conductor – unassuming, invariably precise and helpful in his directions, and totally focused on the music and its message. His unstinting commitment, and that of his young players, produce a wonderfully heartening evening of classical music-making.
Musical youth energise audience
Ulster Youth Orchestra concert in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, on 24th August 2013
Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony is shot through with the kind of muzzled political doublespeak which so often stifles untrammelled emotional expression in his music. It is, though, raucous and sizzlingly orchestrated, and must be fun to play. That, at least, was the impression given by the 100 musicians of the Ulster Orchestra who packed the stage at the Ulster Hall for their annual concert in Belfast. They fairly ripped into Revolutionary Petrograd, the opening movement, with fiery string contributions and appropriately strident commentary from the brass section.
The confident articulacy of the playing was impressive, betokening a week’s hard work with the orchestra’s sectional tutors beforehand, and the energising influence of Takuo Yuasa, the dynamic and technically incisive conductor. Yuasa’s vast experience showed also in the big, bold and vividly colourful performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in Ravel’s orchestration.
Their enthusiasm and expertise made for an invigoratingly enjoyable evening.
Terry Blair for the Belfast Telegraph 26th August, 2013
Ulster Youth Orchestra concert in the Ulster Hall, Belfast on the 20th of August, 2011
More than 90 young musicians celebrated the 18th anniversary of the Ulster Youth Orchestra (UYO) at two weekend concerts in Londonderry and Belfast.
The Belfast concert in the Ulster Hall on Saturday the 20th of September was attended by Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile.
The UYO, under the baton of Scottish conductor, Garry Walker, began with a sparkling performance of Shostakovich’s Festival Overture - one of the most scintillating entrees in the classical repertoire.
In the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no 2, Michael McHale added to his growing reputation with an assured performance of this popular and demanding work. Initially, the orchestra at full throttle threatened to overpower the soloist, but maestro Walker maintained a subtle balance.
The UYO changed pace with Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous setting of the legend of Scheherazade. The darkness of this tale was quickly banished by this UYO performance which flowed in a sea of gorgeous music, until its dramatic and finely subdued ending.
The orchestra’s leader, Tara McNeill, was the excellent violin soloist throughout. Under Garry Walkers challenging direction, the entire orchestra, with other outstanding soloists, combined superbly to guide the troubled but beautiful Scheherazade to her safe haven at last.
The prolonged standing ovation for this fine group of young musicians was thoroughly deserved.
Alf McCreary for the Belfast Telegraph 22nd August, 2011
Ulster Youth Orchestra concert in the Guildhall, Londonderry on the 19th of August, 2011
The first of this year’s Ulster Youth Orchestra summer concerts featured music by three very popular Russian composers. Conducted by Scottish-born Garry Walker, who has experience with all the BBC orchestras and more, Friday night’s concert, in the Guildhall in Londonderry, began with the suitably vivacious Festive Overture by Shostakovich. Right from the start this overture demonstrated the incredibly strength of each section of this year’s young orchestra. The strong brass opening, followed by the racing string theme and bubbly clarinet solo, backed up at every turn by the sparkling percussion department, gave the audience a rousing opener. The cheers from the audience at the end of this piece set the tone for the rest of the evening which oozed excellence at every turn.
Michael McHale was the soloist in Piano Concerto No 2 by Rachmaninov. This emotionally charged, romantic masterpiece was given a virtuosic performance by this Northern Ireland born pianist and former Methody student. His brilliant technique was demonstrated in the faster passages while the slower sections were simply sublime and obviously heartfelt. It is such a great experience for these young players to play with an artist of this calibre. McHales’s world-class performance moved me to tears. The conductor had a great rapport with the players who were incredibly sensitive and responsive to the soloist.
Rimsky Korsakov’s famous Scheherazade was a substantial piece for the UYO to tackle in the second part of the concert. The beguiling voice of the solo violin guided the audience through storybook tales from Arabian Nights, the orchestra's dramatic colours depicting perfumed gardens, bustling bazaars and an unforgettable shipwreck at sea. Tara McNeill was a superb leader and suitably bewitching soloist. The UYO excelled in this real tour-de-force, playing with precision and style. This is real talent, real X factor in my book and the standing ovation at the end said it all.
Ruth McCartney for the Irish News
Ulster Youth Orchestra concert in the Ulster Hall, Belfast on the 20th of August, 2011
Just now, many students are dreading the beginning of the school year and the work and study that comes with it. One particular group of young folk, however, has already got a lot of hard work under their belts in the form of intensive rehearsals with the Ulster Youth Orchestra. Their Concerts last weekend, in the Guild Hall in Londonderry and the Ulster Hall, Belfast proved that miracles do happen, with a challenging programme performed with an unfettered musicality that made for a thrilling evenings music. This is a big orchestra, formed 18 years ago when most of the current membership was in nappies or possibly not even born yet. Concert repertoire for such a group is necessarily on a large scale, and ‘War Horse’ is a cliché one could apply to any of the works on offer. The Shostakovich Festival Overture is an ear-warmingly big listen with fabulous tunes and plenty of colour. The opening fanfare set the tone for a performance that “did not hang about”, courtesy of conductor Garry Walker, a man with strong musical ideas and obvious charisma. Inspiration and perspiration in proportion to the task pulled a strong performance from the players, with every little to suggest that they have less experience than the professional musicians they emulate. Pianist Michael McHale, charismatic and powerful, was the soloist for Rach 2, the concerto so universally loved it is almost a cliché itself, but for the scope it allows for the individual interpretation. I feel that McHale was possibly not allowed as free a rein in this as he deserved, and it became more the orchestra’s piece than his, but then, it was so clearly their night, and McHale, a former UYO member, knows this well. The audience was large and exceptionally clued-in, captivated by the music and the performances. I spotted some of the UYO tutors in the hall as well, intensely focused mentors, nervously willing these youngsters to play as well possible. After the interval, the best was yet to come, as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade took centre stage with its seascapes and tales of the mythic orient. Orchestra Leader Tara McNeill was the soloist, as confident a story-teller as any young performer I’ve heard. She was joined at various points by soloists from within the orchestra: shimmering flute, scintillating oboe, bright trumpet, warm sonorous bassoon and elegant cello sounds, among others. There was, of course, a standing ovation and in context, it was a well deserved and warm reception for these musical travellers whose summer might have ended early but who, I’m very certain, didn’t mind one bit.
Andrea Rea for the News Letter 26th August 2011
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