The Ulster Orchestra is a plucky bunch. They returned to the Royal Albert Hall this afternoon still no surer as to their financial future but eager, hungry and defiant. This was a high profile gig for them, played to a near capacity audience with a conductor whose passion is reflected in his love of the art form and his gleeful attention to detail. I can think of no other concert this season I’ve enjoyed more.
This may have something to do with what else has been going on in the world today. Team GB is celebrating a second place in the Olympics medal table. BBC News headlines with the ‘Great Britain beats China’. The world is, thanks to the Olympics, standing up and taking notice of us (at least that’s what we think). What the vast majority of people are overlooking is the extent to which that success is as a result of considerable commercial investment.
I don’t deny us that. I’m not a completely cold-hearted bastard. Of course I recognise that Olympic achievement comes from hard work, dedication, passion and talent. But don’t overlook the fact that it also needs money. And don’t forget that, where some Olympic athletes and sportsmen and women are concerned, these people are now celebrities for their skill and accomplishment. We are basking in their achievement. In some cases we have assumed some of that triumph as though it is our own. It isn’t at all. All we’ve done is watched from the other side of the world.
What the Olympics has done this year, I think, is highlight what can be achieved when considerable sums are invested in the development of individuals. At the same time it underlines those areas where investment is lacking. And where it is, in the case of the arts in general, and classical music in particular, the question asked then is, why?
We don’t value our orchestras in this country. At least, I don’t think we value them enough. Orchestra concerts don’t carry with them a tangible benefit of the kind that Olympic gold medals do. Funding gets cut. Education policies get down-graded. Generations miss out. I may sound a little whiny and boring, but that is how it is. And the more we celebrate the celebrity of sporting achievement, the more the chasm between the investment necessary to get to that point and that which is sadly lacking in the arts begins to show.
The Ulster Orchestra has had its local detractors. Local government there haven’t been terribly forthcoming in their support (although I understand that this might be changing). Their management has gone through some dramatic changes too. The hard work showed in their concert this afternoon at the BBC Proms. The Ulster Orchestra shone in a way I’ve never seen before.
Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow – a BBC commission and world premiere deployed a fragmented compositional style to great effect. This was a hugely entertaining new work that conjured with exciting, inventive and immersive textures, particularly at the beginning of the second movement. Wild Flow had clearly been orchestrated with passion. The work was full of drama. I really connected with it.
Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan’s cello concerto by Haydn was a revelation. The cellist combined elegance and simplicity with a rare and enticing kind of vulnerability. The second movement in particular had a touching humility about it. Taut playing in both strings and the solo line helped maintain a breakneck third movement. There was urgency in the final bars. An enthralling performance.
The band’s numbers swelled for the symphony. Tchaikovsky 5 may have seemed to some under-powered, but this was a resourceful interpretation, with distinctive twists – notably the horn solo at the beginning of the second movement. Here conductor Rafael Payare seemed to draw something special out of the orchestra. The wind ensemble work at the end of the second movement was stunning.
In the third movement Payare showed great panache; in the fourth he showed his cards. This was an impressive combination of grace and defiance with enviable boldness, making this a distinctive performance.
We need to stop thinking of orchestras and the works they perform as miracles or some kind of historical curiosity. It’s about time we recognised that they are the product of hard work and lifelong passions. They sustain communities and livelihoods. They aren’t better or worse than sport, they are part of our culture. They deserve more respect than they currently receive. And we might start by all of us making a conscious effort not to take them for granted.
The Ulster Orchestra’s 2016 BBC Proms concert was a tangible demonstration as to why that’s important. Under Payare they appear transformed. Hearing them play today, I’m reminded about how they – the only professional orchestra in Northern Ireland – deserve more than one Sunday afternoon gig at the Proms every year. They represent an important part of the UK. We should hear from them more.