Jac van Steen, the Ulster Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, returned to Belfast in a programme to bridge time and emotion. Composed in 1991 for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Lento by Howard Skempton opened the concert. It employs identical orchestration to the work it was conceived to complement: the prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal. The pristine intonation of the first violins marked the beginning of an exceptional evening of orchestral sound as an air of calm descended in Ulster Hall. This expansive quasi-Sibelian piece uses just a few major and minor chords, which unfolded organically and atmospherically in Steen’s hands as he wove a tapestry of solemnity from the muted colours. Transcending time, the tranquil and hypnotic bubble of silence hanging in the ether when the piece finished was punctured by premature applause. The composer was welcomed to the platform and received warmly.

Aptly following the Skempton, Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder (orchestrated by Felix Mottl) which created another unique soundworld of heightened emotion. Replacing the advertised soloist of Christianne Stotijn was soprano Katherine Broderick. She brought an endearing innocence to the first song, Der Engel. An animated Broderick emphasised the turbulent nature of the text in Stehe still! whilst Steen mined the orchestral details, which had echoes of Tristan und Isolde. Showing a different character in the third song, Im Treibhaus, Broderick changed the hues of her voice with subtlety and poise. Schmerzen was deeply expressive but without excessive emotion which heightened the impact of the final song, Träume, which was sung tenderly. Broderick’s clear diction was unfaltering, her voice had a rich and warm tone, projecting effortlessly over the orchestra. Steen managed the balance throughout not to overshadow Broderick, however it was the lush orchestral wash of sound which enchanted with its sheer eloquence, considered phrasing and beauty. 

Last season, Steen gave an exceptionally communicative rendition of Elgar’s First Symphony in Belfast, setting the bar extremely high for the Second. With a prevailing sense of nobility, this performance did not disappoint. An expansive work, needing careful pacing, Steen polished the jewels in this crown of Edwardian symphonic majesty to an iridescent sparkle. The tempo choices were not all as one might have anticipated, but throughout this highly engaging performance Steen knew the path he wanted to take. The first movement — Allegro vivace e nobilmente – evolved with grandeur, the darker moments present but not dwelled upon. The undulating dynamics ebbed and flowed stylistically, each crest of sound controlled so as not to peak too soon. A reserved solemnity prevailed throughout the funereal Larghetto which had a momentum and natural breath-like phrasing. In the blink of an eye, colours changed for the third movement Presto, making the most of the central section contrasting against the Rondo theme, it was unhurried but still turbulent. Bringing the whole work fittingly to an end, with echoes of the previous movements, in the aptly taken Moderato e maestoso, Steen’s insight for the journey became apparent — deeply profound with insightful understanding. The diamond was the Ulster Orchestra itself, the sonorities, balance and connection with Steen sharing his vision for this symphony making the evening a triumph.