Vibrant, energetic and driven were just three words to describe Daniele Rustioni’s formidable performance of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The rhythmic precision from the Ulster Orchestra’s first notes were utterly unified and purposeful. This sense of direction coloured each of the dances and musical episodes evocatively depicted in riots of orchestral colour. The more lyrical moments were gentle, whilst the Mambo and Cha-Cha were more aggressive. Everything was carefully rehearsed, from the clicks to the exclamations of “Mambo!” but the occasional momentary brass blemishes were noticeable within the high standard of overall playing. A nice touch, causing a chuckle, was Officer Krupke’s whistle played from the podium by Rustioni himself.

Michael Collins, Daniele Rustioni and the Ulster Orchestra
© Ulster Orchestra

Contrasting and completely changing the mood, the orchestra reduced to a modest number for a touching performance of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Michael Collins was placed very much in the centre, Rustioni allowing him to shine. He balanced the orchestra very subtly to ensure Collins was not overpowered. Soloist and conductor shared the same vision which was well portrayed with the gentle, but natural rubato which was very effective. In the final section, emotions were pushed to their limits, but never beyond them in what was a tasteful, respectful and brilliant rendition. 

After the interval a work by Jessie Montgomery open the second half. Montgomery is a recipient of the Leonard Bernstein Award and takes inspiration from many sources for her music. Banner!, a single movement, rhapsodic work of around ten minutes, which was billed as “a tribute to the 200th anniversary of The Star Spangled Banner”. For a reduced orchestra once again, it followed naturally from the preceding Copland. It has constantly changing textures and harmonies, none of which are predictable. Rustioni gave a very sensitive rendition, which was enjoyable and went down extremely well with the audience, but the work lacks anything to make it especially memorable. 

Daniele Rustioni conducts the Ulster Orchestra
© Ulster Orchestra

Concluding the evening was Robert Russell Bennett’s suite of music from Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. The Ulster Orchestra absolutely filled the platform with the extra percussion, saxophones, harps and banjo. Containing the most famous tunes, it is a real snapshot of the opera. The banjo was highly effective in “I got plenty o' nuttin” and the brass playing throughout was suburb, highlighting how Rustioni judiciously balanced the substantial orchestra on stage, never allowing any section to overpower the other. The orchestra were well rehearsed, their dexterity and adaptability in the quicker sections shone through with precision and musicality. 

Despite all the wonderful music making, which brought the orchestra’s season to a close, comes the ‘but’. The Bernstein and Gershwin required huge orchestras with extra percussion and woodwind. The extended platform was full-to-bursting with players which were balanced appropriately. However, to do so the sound was often overpowering, and on occasions too loud — a complaint muttered in the corridors by other members of the audience. If this concert had been in Belfast’s larger Waterfront Hall the experience would have been more comfortable for all than the more modestly proportioned Ulster Hall. Combined with the short programme, it sadly prevented a good concert from being that truly special season finale.