Sunday, May 18, 2014

Ulster Orchestra's principal conductor JoAnn Falletta sets down her baton (and interview with a couple of players)

I interviewed JoAnn Falletta during the interval of the Ulster Orchestra’s opening concert of their 2013/14 season … back in September.

I’m sure other bloggers carry a similar sense of guilt about events or ideas that they meant to post about but didn’t. Some things have a sell-buy date: delay a couple of days and they’re pointless to talk about. Other times family and work – and indeed other thing you’re blogging about – take over and once you fall behind, good intentions slip off the bottom of the list. But not out of your mind. No, I carry with me countless books, films and events that I wanted to share.

The opening night of the Ulster Orchestra season was one of those moments.

Given a ticket for a seat in the back corner of the Ulster Hall, I’d listened to the pre-concert talk by JoAnn Falletta, explaining the background to Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (a work composed as a begrudging thank you for an honorary doctorate awarded by the University of Breslau which contains a “potpourri of student drinking songs”!) and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 which was to be performed by Barry Douglas.

I enjoyed the concert and recorded interviews with a couple of players as well as the conductor, planning to splice it all together into an audio piece. But it wasn’t to be.

Fast forward eight months. On Friday evening (16 May) after three years in charge, JoAnn Falletta conducted her last concert as principal conductor of the Belfast-based orchestra. The Belfast Telegraph published a recent interview with her by Alf McCreary. As well as discovering Belfast’s hospitability very early on in her tenure, she holds the Ulster Orchestra in high regard. Here’s what she told me back in September.

They’re quite an amazing orchestra in terms of the speed in which they learn music and they absorb it . Their rhythmic sense is impeccable. Their sense of understanding music, their intelligence is really amazing …

Very few orchestras in the world could play music so quickly so well as they do. And in this [Ulster Hall] they have a very special quality, a very special sound that they get, a depth of richness that’s really lovely to be in the middle of … This is a jewel of a hall and they are a very special orchestra.
World-class conductors like JoAnn Falletta work with many orchestras. During May she’ll conduct 12 concerts with four different orchestras. And in June, Falletta will direct Buffalo Philharmonic three times as well as the Virginia Symphony and the Detroit Symphony.

And Friday night doesn’t mark the end of Falletta’s relationship with the Ulster Orchestra. She’ll be back on 1 May 2015 to guest conduct a programme of Mussorgsky, Taverner and Mendelssohn.

It’s been an eventful year of change for the Ulster Orchestra. On the management side, their chief executive Rosa Solinas departed. And on stage they announce that Rafael Payare would be their new Chief Conductor, and Jac van Steen has recently been appointed as the new Principal Guest Conductor.

Back in September, first violist Thomas Jackson and trumpeter Patrick McCarthy spoke to me about how playing in an orchestra was an inspiration and an unbelievable privilege as well as discussing some of the orchestra’s outreach work with schools and new audiences.

"What inspires me? Such great music." (Thomas Jackson)

"If it didn’t still excite me then I ought to go and do something else. What we do – we’re unbelievably privileged in that we get paid to go this brilliant thing and share all this fantastic music. If someone’s looking at us and thinking “they’re not really loving this, they’re not really pouring themselves absolutely into it then why have I bothered coming out of the house, turning the TV off and taking the trouble to get into town”. And that’s what I always think when I come to a concert. I want to see people really tucking into their instrument and really giving their all. I think we owe it to an audience to behave like that in every single concert that we do ...

When this hall is full, there’s nothing quite like it. And the orchestra definitely responds to a full audience. The Ulster Hall, despite its size, is quite an intimate hall. The lights are always on, a lot of the audience are quite present on the stage – the sides of the auditorium come right around the stage – and so there’s a real feeling of intimacy and of sharing this music with people. When you can see the whites of their eyes ... it’s quite nice to look out and actually deliver it to one person as well as the thousand people who are there as well.

With the orchestra for Belfast and for Northern Ireland we have to offer something to absolutely everyone who would ever consider coming to a concert and people who haven’t even considered coming to a concert before. So that’s while you’ll see the film music, why The Snowman’s always there, lots of other education work we do, and family friendly concerts. As well as the core repertoire which again is open to anyone. This is just the world’s most fantastic music. It’s not about being elitist: it’s music that’s there for everyone." (Patrick McCarthy)

If you want an aural taster of the Ulster Orchestra, why not try their £6, hour-long lunchtime concert. The next one is on Wednesday 4 June at 1.05pm in the Ulster Hall: Robert Houlihan conducts Borodin, Prokofiev and Debussy with a solo performance by the orchestra’s associate leader Ioana Petcu-Colan.

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