One of the great benefits of the BBC Proms is the exposure it can give to an orchestra embattled in its hometown, a chance to showcase its virtues to an international audience and substantially raise its profile. For The Ulster Orchestra, regularly doing battle with an empty purse, this was an opportunity worth seizing, and seized it was. Under the charismatic baton of its Principal Conductor, the dynamic Venezuelan Rafael Payare, we were given nuanced accounts of two classic works while some interesting character was brought to a new work of a very different kind.

Rafael Payare conducts the Ulster Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Rafael Payare conducts the Ulster Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The concert opened with the world première of Belfast-based Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow, a five-movement work around 20 minutes long; the key piece is its central slow movement, cocooned and contrasted by the surrounding four. Hellawell’s writing creates a soundscape of stalagmites: sharp and initially independent of each other with no natural growth and development. Easily the most striking thing about the piece is its percussion, exceptionally well-played here: the first movement opens with a frantic chime that gave me a sense of time running out, of things not yet finished, whilst the second movement was skilfully atmospheric with a touch of horror from pulsing strings that wouldn’t be out of place in a high-quality film score; the percussion countered this with a haunting air. The third movement, in my opinion the most naturally beautiful, swept with brooding ponder, the brass and percussion giving jolts of contrasting colour. The fraught nature of the fourth, culminating in peaceful light woodwind and triumphal brass, had an air of acceptance to it. This is a piece worth hearing again.

Narek Hakhnazaryan © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Narek Hakhnazaryan
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Narek Hakhnazaryan, a BBC New Generation Artist, took to the stage for Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major, that masterpiece composed for Joseph Franz Weigl in the early 1760s which was lost for centuries. Payare drew a refined gentility from the Ulster Orchestra in the first opening, restrained and smooth playing from the strings and genial interjections from the brass as polite as a butler’s cough – classical playing at its best. Hakhnazaryan’s bowing was subtle and extremely precise, drawing out a soft-grained sound that was nonetheless searing in the instrument’s higher reaches. It was an account, though, that was badly served by the vast confines of the hall and deserved to be heard at a venue that is kinder to the more introspective player.

Payare’s choice of tempo in the Adagio was slightly too energetic for my personal taste, with an eager spirit that was marginally at odds with Hakhnazaryan’s sombre approach. The cellist’s approach was individual enough to risk division; he showed technical ability that was a delight to watch, but his approach was rather less classical than the orchestra’s which brought moments of conflict, particularly in the Allegro. He encored with Sollima’s Lamentatio, a signature piece of his which calls a raw cry from the cellist as well as rapid, extremely deft bowing.

Payare opted for a strong final work, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor. The conductor has apparently played the horn solo himself during his time as a player. His intimate knowledge of the work was visible, not just from his conducting of the symphony from memory, but from the multi-faceted, textured account he drew from the orchestra. Payare adopted brisk, spirited tempi in the first movement with gorgeous swelling in the woodwind, and rapt, focussed brass. Particularly noticeable was the intensity of the strings, blooming and then withering with great effect. The aforementioned horn solo was dispatched with controlled ease and the climax of the second movement was built up and released with dramatic force. Payare throughout was an energetic influence on the pit, and the Ulster Orchestra responded with technically brilliant playing. Belfast is lucky to still have this talented group.