Selling out weeks in advance, this was Daniele Rustioni’s highly anticipated debut in his new role as Chief Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. There was an electric buzz of anticipation from the Belfast audience. He lifted the proverbial curtain with a nod to his Italian roots, and his love of opera, with the dramatic overture to Verdi’s I vespri siciliani. Fitting the orchestra like a glove of the finest Italian leather, this vivacious overture was finely shaped with detailed articulation, superb rhythmic precision and brimmed with colour.

Daniele Rustioni conducts the Ulster Orchestra © Carrie Davenport
Daniele Rustioni conducts the Ulster Orchestra
© Carrie Davenport

Rustioni made an unexpected but brief address to the audience. Speaking with genuine sincerity he described both the orchestra and its musicians as “wonderful”. He promised a season of “surprises”, producing the first one as an extra item in this programme, showcasing oboist Christopher Blake in a deeply emotional rendition of Ennio Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe. This provided the most ingenious bridging link tempering the energetic Verdi to the melancholic Elgar.

Johannes Moser joined Rustioni for an invigorating performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, given an almost operatic narrative, the cello being central as the tragic heroine. The broad first movement was dark and emotionally intense throughout; unfolding naturally, its sense of spontaneity prevailed throughout the vivacious and capricious second movement. Moser, indicated the tempo of the third movement to Rustioni who mirrored, giving the impression it was Moser who was driving this performance. A beguilingly phrased and melodious Adagio developed into a theatrically dark finale. With a sound full of intensity and resonance, Moser brought a fresh approach with vividly contrasting dynamics and clear articulation. Time stood still in Moser’s contemplative encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite in G major.

Belfast audiences are no strangers to hearing Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony in the Ulster Hall. The Mulholland Organ, although physically dominating the space, never overshadowed this performance. From the hushed and mysterious beginning of the Adagio the melody unfolded vocally. The Allegro moderato with its tightly played rhythmic ideas had a palette of Schubertian colour intensified by the orchestral unity. The music dissolved beautifully into the languorous Poco adagio. With such an air of tranquility, the organ was prominent, but balanced judiciously against the sweetness of the strings. The Scherzo, characterful and vivid, expanded the kaleidoscopic spectrum of colour. Taken literally, the Maestoso finale was brimming with grandeur, never hurried. Stephen Doughty’s organ playing was well-tempered dynamically against the orchestra. The orchestral and organ sounds were so varied there was no need to over-exaggerate the loudest passages of the climaxes; all the proverbial stops were pulled out without having to do it literally. Rustioni brought a classical refinement and romantic lyricism to this very familiar work.

This well considered programme made each work feel like an operatic scene, musically satisfying in themselves, part of a bigger musical account, peaking at the end of the evening. Smiling continuously, Rustioni’s joy for the music was infectious and communicative. His modest, clear conducting brought a breath of new life, the players interpreted and executed each gesture with definition and understanding. If this is indicative of Rustioni’s style, the Ulster Orchestra is in for a surprising and thrilling season.