Over the past 25 years, the Ulster Youth Orchestra has nurtured the youthful talents of a number of instrumentalists from across Northern Ireland who have forged careers as international soloists, orchestral musicians or highly prolific teachers. In a celebratory evening, players from each year of the UYO's existence came together to give a memorable concert of core Russian repertoire. The evening was conducted by Paul McCusker, a former UYO violinist and leader. The orchestra was led by its first ever leader, Joanne Quigley McParland — a rather fitting touch. Pianist Michael McHale, who in younger days led the cello section back in 2000 and 2001, was the soloist in Prokofiev’s dazzling Third Piano Concerto.

Michael McHale
© Leon Gerald

Prokofiev completed this concerto in 1921, having started sketches for the pieces as early as 1913. Finished in Brittany, as a composer in exile, it was premiered in Chicago and soon after become a staple of the repertoire. A solo clarinet opens the work, the lyrical melody played with an air of mystery as it carried with clarity and certainty through Ulster Hall. The clarity of McHale’s playing was pristine, judiciously balancing his hands, at times bringing out the bass and at others projecting the melody. He had consistently clean and crisp articulation in the all the semiquaver passages. McCusker varied the orchestral colours which added depth. Both soloist and conductor worked together to allow the piano to come to the fore and at other times blend into the orchestral palette.

A slightly broader tempo opened the theme and variations forming the central movement. The woodwinds excelled here with a warmth of tone from each member of the section. The theme was carefully pronounced by the flute with meticulous attention to detail. McHale was able to create different moods and atmospheres in each variation, subtlety aided diligently by McCusker. The third movement had a safety and security, but was initially not overly thrilling focusing on the ma non troppo. McHale impressed further here with the quality and precision of his passagework at such high speed. The tempo quickened, creating the necessary excitement to bring the movement fully to life towards a fitting and rousing conclusion.  

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony wasn’t always popular. Premiered in Moscow in 1878, with its dedication to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, it didn’t initially win over audiences, but today it is one of the most popular Romantic symphonies. The bold fate motif that opens the symphony was mostly secure, however there were some unfortunate blemishes from the horns. The aptly paced Allegro was perhaps missing the vivo marked in the score, but was full of rhythmic clarity. McCusker balanced the sections to perfection allowing each layer of the texture to be fully appreciated. Andantino can be a rather ambiguous musical instruction, here McCusker opted for the quicker understanding. A superb and highly expressive oboe solo opened this second movement. The strings played with style, but a slightly broader tempo would have intensified the emotional impact, enriched the colour and created a darker melancholic mood. The precision with which the woodwinds imitated each other towards the end was commendable.

The third movement Scherzo, in which strings play pizzicato throughout, was duly brisk. Playing with close attention to dynamics ensured there was much rise and fall. In the trio the woodwind shone again. McCusker took the Allegro con fuoco marking of the fourth movement literally. When the fate motif of the opening returned, there was greater precision, emotional depth, stronger focus and a real determination to push through triumphantly to the end, filling the hall with a luscious orchestral sound the coda was emotionally sweeping and laden with uplifting joy.

This was a memorable concert for three reasons: firstly, the quality of the playing from the woodwinds and strings was exceptional; secondly McHale’s dexterity and agility in the Prokofiev, and thirdly — but most importantly of all, what these unpaid players — who were a mix of seasoned professionals, students and highly accomplished amateurs, did on a single rehearsal. There was a sense all evening this was music-making with friends old and new and demonstrates why youth orchestras are as important as ever. These alumni were a real testament to talents of Northern Ireland along with the opportunities the UYO has given them, an admirable way to mark their milestone.