The opening concert for the Ulster Orchestra's 2018—19 season was in many ways unconventional, innovative and paved the way for the exploration of two composers who are not obvious bedfellows: Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich. This was a brave, bold move for an orchestra turning around their fortunes from virtual financial collapse. For a small orchestra to tackle such large scale repertoire requires ambition, confidence in its Music Director, players and audience, along with heavy investment in supplementary players. In recent years, Alisa Weilerstein has become a regular performer bringing some new and exciting repertoire to Belfast, least of all the tremendous Dutilleux last season. Tonight’s concert was the second time in his five-year tenure that Rafael Payare has performed Shostakovich 10, closing the season with it in 2015. The programme then included Elgar’s cello concerto also performed by Weilerstein.

Rafael Payare © Luis Cobelo
Rafael Payare
© Luis Cobelo

First out of the starting blocks was a Strauss tone-poem cast as a set of theme and variations, depicting the well-known story of Don Quixote. In the preconcert talk, Weilerstein talked knowledgeably about the narrative and how the cello is cast musically as the anti-hero. Through the performance it became apparent just how deep her understanding of the music is. The piece started vividly; in the opening sections there were noticeable solos from Duncan Wilson (tenor tuba), Andrew Roberts (bass clarinet) and Christopher Blake (oboe). Weilerstein listened in intense concentration throughout the extended introduction and her first cello entrance was immaculately balanced against the orchestra, with the rich tone she constantly produces. In the duo and trio sections with the solo violin and viola, the three instrumentalists were playing as one. William Goodwin (viola), certainly played the most commendable solos throughout and led his section well. Payare’s conducting was theatrical, but the orchestral sound lacked the richness in the strings and horns that is synonymous with the Strauss' luscious orchestral palette.

The most musically convincing variations were VI and VII, with an enriching and deepening of hue. As the piece concludes with the death of the hero by a slide from high to low on the cello accompanied by a quiet ending, the audience was uncertain whether it had reached its close. Weilerstein played with such confidence and astonishing technical control, her dynamic range and speed of vibrato contrasted against the sometimes uninspired playing of the orchestra. 

After the interval was the monumental Tenth Symphony of Shostakovich. Musicologists argue over the significance of this work and its supposed representation of Stalin. The initial theme of the first movement was played with a quicker than expected tempo, with minimal shaping and a rather bright string tone. An exquisite solo came from Francesco Paulo Scola (clarinet), as he introduced the second subject perfectly, one of several moving solos from the woodwinds. As the movement progressed, the first violins became apparent as the weaker section, with vibrato inconsistencies and tremolos which felt laboured. Overall, in this crystal clear acoustic, the movement could have had greater musical shaping, contrast and impact. Despite its brisk tempo, the second movement – the supposed depiction of Stalin – felt overly safe, failing to pack a heavy Soviet punch. Further issues became apparent here with the first violins, this time some blemished intonation. The woodwinds came to the fore again in the third movement, with the two piccolos one could almost feel the cutting Siberian chill. The horn theme central to this movement, played by Paul Klein, was flawless in its execution, with each entry clear and balanced. Bringing the symphony to its climax, the tempo of the final movement perhaps too leisurely, it was only towards the end that rhythmic energy and drive kicked in, a case of too little, too late. 

At the end of a Shostakovich symphony one should feel as if one has been through a musical mangle and been pegged-out to dry. Tonight was more of a ‘hand wash and dry flat’ experience.