In her pre-concert discussion conductor Sinead Hayes laid out with infectious enthusiasm her collaborative approach to conducting and proceeded, with the the help of a user-friendly program and a selection of unmasked, socially-distanced musicians from the Ulster Orchestra to demonstrate what congenial company Stravinsky, Mozart and Haydn make.

Sinead Hayes
© Ulster Orchestra

It was noticeable right from the start in Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto which was played with such outstanding clarity and individual nuance and color in the winds that it sounded fresh and bright like something inspired by the Brandenburg Concertos should; curiously, the Stravinsky came off more like a distillation of Mozartian than Bachian abstraction – without the heart but with a wicked sense of humor – and the musicians responded with glee to the music's circus atmosphere.

The actual Mozart was a bit of novelty: his Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major with the alternative slow movement, the exquisite Adagio in E major K261, which was composed by Mozart a year later in response to a request from a violinist who found the original “artificial”, and is now usually played as a standalone piece. The two movements are outwardly similar with one major exception: The opening bars of K261 are suffused with radiant perfumed beauty accompanied by cooing flutes, the opening bars of the Adagio of K215 are merely lovely. The orchestra's concertmaster Tamás Kocsis played with an integrity of line infused with sober élan which seemed aligned to a personal vision that was somewhat at odds with the flashy cadenzas by Franco Gulli.

Sinead Hayes conducts the Ulster Orchestra
© Ulster Orchestra

It was a pleasure that Haydn's Symphony no. 85 in B flat major, “La Reine”, was not relegated to a warmer-upper spot on the program, as Haydn symphonies too often are, followed by something like Shostakovich. Instead, it was placed so that it could emerge as the star of the evening. There may be more pure beauty in Mozart than in Haydn, of a type that will seduce the audience even if it's not played too well. There is pure beauty in Haydn too but it's not as automatic that his music will engage the audience unless it is played with a theatrical approach that includes actors and dialogue, as Ulster increasingly did as the symphony progressed.

If there had been an audience Thursday, they would have been thrilled by the first movement, charmed by the second. But best of all, before the orchestra made it through the intoxicating Presto finale mostly precise and properly intoxicated, the audience would have heard a special Haydn moment illuminated. It took place towards the end of the Trio when the woodwinds, which had been carrying on an enchanted conversation, were joined by the strings. It was pure magic.

This performance was reviewed from the Waterfront Hall video stream