Creating Space for Collaboration
Settling into its fifty-seventh year of music-making, the Ulster Orchestra continues to prove a significant force in the curation and dissemination of new music. This concert at the Ulster Hall last Friday (24 March), with guest conductor Jamie Phillips, was a keen example, with the theme ‘Open Spaces’ operating on two levels. The evening was topped and tailed with two twentieth-century classics by Aaron Copland and Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Framed in the centre were two twenty-first-century additions by Samy Moussa and Piers Hellawell – the latter a world premiere Ulster Orchestra co-commission for pianist Clare Hammond.
It was initially surprising to see a mere thirteen musicians take their seats for Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944) – a glance at the programme notes revealed the treat that is the suite arrangement of the ballet, but in its original chamber orchestration. We were led through eight connected musical vignettes, each depicting the colourful pioneers of America’s Midwest. Of note were the woodwind ‘trio’, rising to the surface of the texture when called upon and sinking back once their story was told – their delicately synchronised vibrato allowed one to subsume the other without detection. Phillips’ conducting captured the balletic energy of each section – pointed precision in the square dancing ‘Allegro’, and sweeping figure eights in the climax of the famous ‘Simple Gifts’ rendition. Occasionally, a more reactive approach would have been welcome, as the ensemble were sometimes driven onward before the moment was polished off. The extended C major chord of the final coda was serenely balanced: dappled light at sunset.
The anticipated work of the evening was Hellawell’s Rapprochement for orchestra and pianist Clare Hammond. As explained in his pre-concert talk, the work reflects a growing connection between composer and performer – Hammond was artist-in-residence at Queen’s University Belfast in 2013, where Hellawell is Professor of Composition.
A ‘chain’ of six brief movements, the work traces a relationship between piano and orchestra, from ‘remote forces’ to ‘inseparability’. Intriguingly, Hellawell subtitles the work ‘Concerto for Piano into Orchestra’ – this is achieved through a kind of gradual augmentation throughout the first, third, and fifth movements: his ‘Russian doll technique’. Despite a rather diverse output, the work was somewhat modest in its sonic exploration – the second movement begins with a rousing microtonal sigh in the strings and solo oboe (as if the Mulholland Grand Organ in the Ulster Hall was suddenly alive), yet this technique was swiftly abandoned, leaving us wanting more.
Hellawell’s inventiveness is more apparent with the piano, firmly inspired by popular repertoire of the last eighty years. At its most frenzied, the work has both hands dart unexpectedly around the keyboard like Messiaen’s Études de rythme, and at its most indulgent and jazz-inflected evokes the rich dissonance of Carl Vine’s Five Bagatelles. Hammond’s clarity as a performer was on full display, executing break-neck chromaticism with gentle poise.
Glancing back in time
The complimentary piece for piano and orchestra that followed was Orpheus (2017) by the Canadian composer and conductor Samy Moussa. Like the Copland, this work was titled retroactively, calling into question its relation to the ancient tale – nevertheless, there were subtle allusions to a glancing back in time. The programme notes point out the ‘baroque sized orchestra’, including a wind section of two horns and two oboes. The former were limited to distant a war-like fanfare and two-part pedals, marking the climax of the piece when the strings drop out to reveal a bare and blaring fourth (by far the loudest point of the evening). Hammond approached this introspective work with a meditative passion: seventh chords endlessly inverted over gentle pizzicato strings, drifting softly upwards into emptiness. The role of the piano was diverse, from rippling arpeggios over a strident bass (Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 immediately sprang to mind), to modest accompaniment under a melancholic oboe line (like the final moments of Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata).
The antique synthesis of the previous work rendered the final performance of the evening – Vaughan-Williams’ Symphony No. 5 (1943) – fresh and invigorating. Against a wartime backdrop, this symphony is intentionally un-programmatic, but it nonetheless evoked the nationalistic character so attributed to the composer. The rose-tinted halcyon of the English countryside seems to break through, be it through the bristling folk song of the ‘Scherzo’, or the wash of parallel thirds at the close of the ‘Passacaglia’. Ultimately, it is the bittersweet ‘Romanza’ that pulled the evening together, its climax filling any remaining space with its overlapping suspensions and accented dissonances. The wistful violin solo and repeated progression that drew the movement to a close are closely reminiscent of the composer’s famous The Lark Ascending: misplaced hopefulness of nearly three decades previous.
The Ulster Orchestra benefit from their ability to hand over the artistic reins to composers and performers alike, creating a feeling of genuine collaboration and exploration. It is this kind of open space that enables the creation of fresh, balanced and thoughtful programming such as this.
For upcoming Ulster Orchestra concerts, visit www.ulsterorchestra.org.uk.
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Published on 30 March 2023
Thomas Neill is a freelance educator, performer, and writer on music. His focus includes choral leadership, singing facilitation, and music within opera and theatre.