Marking the date of what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday, there is no more fitting way to open the evening than with the exuberant overture to Candide. It was conducted by the Belfast-born conductor Courtney Lewis at a brisk tempo. There was nothing cautious about the playing without it feeling rushed. Brimming with enthusiasm, the orchestra romped through the piece, but at times the percussion became too prominent. That contagious vigour generated appreciative applause from a proud audience of teachers, family, friends and Belfast regulars.

This was followed by Debussy’s Première rhapsodie for clarinet, performed by UYO alumnus, William Curran. Giving the orchestra a piece that requires such subtlety was an ambitious choice but the string players showed maturity in handling the delicate palette. It was an admirable reading producing a subtlety varied hue of sound but the clarinet playing occasionally retracted too deeply into the texture. 

Bringing the first half to a fitting conclusion was Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Whilst there were initial blemishes at meter and tempo changes, Lewis’ conducting was clear and kept the players on track. The orchestra played with increasing confidence and a real sense of fun capturing the vivacious spirit with a youthful glee. In the solo violin passages, Susanna Griffin showed what a capable player she is. The brass here were commendable too; technically secure and truly understanding the spirit of jazz. Andrew Milligan on tuba and Joshua Cargill on bass trombone shone through with shapely and detailed phrasing. 

After the interval the concert championed music from two Northern Irish-born composers. The first, a 25th anniversary commission supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, was from Ryan Molly. The piece entitled Ogham, draws inspiration from the Irish stones of the same name which are inscribed in their own unique alphabet. Putting a new commission in the hands of inexperienced orchestral musicians, let alone younger players can be brave, but this piece played to the orchestra’s strengths. Whilst giving the musicians the thrill of a première it allowed them to engage wholeheartedly with a piece of contemporary music. Ogham avoids the cliché of something overtly celebratory, but this was a weightier, more substantial composition. The piece created a sombre, monumental mood with dark and cold colours; textures were varied and as complex as the stones themselves. On occasions there were echoes of Britten’s Sea Interludes in the strings and percussion. The young players, in the capable hands of Lewis, showed maturity beyond their years, appearing to have a real empathy with the music, capturing all the nuisances admirably. The brass again were excellent in the fanfares, the woodwind assured in their complex overlapping polyrhythmic parts. The prominent piano part played by Michael Burrowes was played wonderfully. 

Concluding the concert was the very substantial tone poem The Children of Lir by Ulsterman Hamilton Harty. Premiered in 1939 and based on the Irish legend of the same name, this tragic tale of the four children of King Lir is captured in Harty’s rich tapestry of brooding orchestral colour and mood.

The turbulent opening depicts the Sea of Moyle, as seen from the hills of Antrim – not a million miles from Ulster Hall, a landscape perhaps in the blood of these musicians. The UYO with Lewis really understood the Irish character with its folk-like tunes, laments and reels which were played convincingly; the violence of what Harty himself describes as “storm and tempest” depicted using a battery of percussion against some brash brass chords came across realistically. A wordless solo voice, projected effortlessly from behind the orchestra, by another Belfast born and UYO alumnus, soprano Aoife Miskelly. She created an ethereal quality characterising the voice of Finola, Lir’s daughter as she cries out from the swan in which she has been trapped. With the toll of a church bell the spell is broken and the swans are transformed into their true selves but no longer as children, now they are old and close to death. Approaching the end, a toll of bells and violin solo create an elegy in a real moment of poignancy portraying the death of the children. Concluding the piece are a dramatic and rousing few bars (with three timpanists) which filled the Ulster Hall with the sound of crashing waves, bringing us full circle to a vision of the sea.

The concert showcased the diverse and immense talents these young people possess. It gave the young players an aspiration of what could be ahead of them. Nothing can replicate the thrill of being part of a 90-strong ensemble and the invaluable experience it gives. In terms of the changing political landscapes this group show the continuing cross-generational and cross-community harmony brought together through the unifying entity of music.  

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