For a Prom aimed at those experiencing classical music for the first time, this season’s Free Prom had an odd programme. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in the first half were accessible pieces that are typically played for first timers. But the second half presented an unknown work by Arnold Bax and a questionable symphonic arrangement of the music from the stage show Riverdance. This Prom’s friendly atmosphere presented a further challenge too: could van Steen and the Ulster Orchestra still treat these works seriously despite the Prom’s casual tone?

Opening with three of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, this matinée performance had a fiery start. Each lasted only a few minutes, and the Ulster Orchestra immediately produced the high energy these fast-paced works require. However, especially during the more tranquil second dance in E minor, van Steen insisted on giving every rigid beat. It became auto-piloted, turning the performance into something to get through so the rest of the concert could continue. Visually, van Steen’s flamboyant gestures overpowered the orchestra. They fell into the trap of making these popular works sound routine. Though short, they still deserve a dedicated performance. 

Fortunately, the entrance of pianist Zhang Zuo for Grieg’s Piano Concerto encouraged van Steen and the Ulster Orchestra to take the remaining of the first half more seriously. Zuo owned the stage. The piano might not have been able to match up to the orchestra’s in volume, but Zuo's massive chords and ferocious climaxes meant she could hold her own against the masses of orchestral players. Neither was Zuo afraid of high speeds, and it was thrilling to watch her fingers dance flawlessly through Grieg’s fast and nimble passages. The presence of this magnetic soloist forced the Ulster Orchestra to match her efforts. 

Whilst the first half’s quality was bumpy, the performers should be praised for supporting the concert’s anti-snobbish spirit. Van Steen and the Ulster Orchestra gratefully accepted applause between the Slavonic Dances when in other situations conductors would barely disguise their annoyance at an audience for showing their appreciation. Whilst Zuo made no outright bow after the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, she did at least acknowledge her applause with a cheerful nod. 

Arnold Bax was born and brought up in England, but Roscatha displays the heavy influence of Irish literature and its landscape on the composer. This may explain why the Northern Irish Ulster Orchestra chose this work which evokes their musical heartland. Nevertheless, it is an unfamiliar work even for regular concertgoers. Written in 1910, this was its first performance at the BBC Proms. Its inclusion, then, was a risk for a Prom that aimed to entice new listeners to classical music. 

Roscatha or ‘Battle Song’ depicts the march of an approaching company. It might have been easier to programme a selection of Elgar’s more familiar Pomp and Circumstance Marches. But the inclusion of Bax’s far more sophisticated work ensured that the concert avoided becoming patronising. Challenging an audience with unfamiliar music is a part of classical music, and this aspect should be presented to new audiences. Its unfamiliarity also meant that it did not turn it into a routine performance. The opening horn and percussion portrayed the approaching march as well as the sense of unease felt as we anticipated its arrival, and the work allowed the strings to display their rich sound as they revelled in Bax’s romantic melodies. 

If Roscatha presented a challenge, the same cannot be said of Riverdance: A Symphonic Suite. It is an arrangement for orchestra of the themes from the stage show Riverdance by Bill Whelan. Most frustrating was how this was not really concert music but an extended piece of dance music. I am sure that it can be thrilling when complete with dancers and theatrical effects. But in a concert hall, it became repetitive and criminally dull. Whelan’s insertion of exotic percussion, including castanets and what I think were bongo drums attempted to spice things up, but they stuck out in this traditional symphonic arrangement.

Van Steen and the Ulster Orchestra did their best to give a considered performance. Even in moments heavily tinged with sentimentality, van Steen coaxed from the strings a sweet and nostalgic sound that could only be pulled off if treated utterly seriously. Unfortunately this was not enough to stave the boredom of this monotonous work.

Prom 51 was an admirable attempt for a concert aimed at newcomers. It had mixed result, but I have to admit that I was not its target audience. The audience left feeling pleased with a fairly enjoyable afternoon. But if it was their first time, I lament how they only experienced a tiny amount of what classical music is capable of.