Belfast News Letter
February 22, 1993
The game is up for male posers on the rostrum - on Friday evening in the Ulster Hall, Maestra Gisèle Ben-Dor gave one of the finest displays of detailed conducting I have ever witnessed - and with far less playing to the gallery than is the norm.
While one could have pride that the home team in the shape of the Ulster Orchestra responded so splendidly to her demands, I was left with the feeling that Ms. Ben-Dor had much more to give than could be delivered with less than a full symphony orchestra and only four days of rehearsal.
Within those continuous limitations, the Ulster Orchestra has rightly won a reputation far higher than should reasonably be expected from a relatively small provincial orchestra, not least because of the first-class players who have chosen to settle here and devote their musical lives to it.
On Friday evening, both in Copland's Appalachian Spring, and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, they played above themselves under Ms. Ben-Dor's brilliant guidance, every single section delivering the colours and textures demanded in near perfect ensemble. Here was concentration without pain, under the joyful application of musical intelligence by a conductor who is an artist down to every last purposeful flick of her elegant fingers.
One could see the effect in the players' faces: they paid far more attention than is sometimes the case, and it was the concentration of musicians taking their full part in an ensemble performance, not the hunted anxiety of section leaders fearful of being plunged into a scramble.
Even players well behind their principals were keeping an eye on the conductor. Perhaps most telling of all, there was a virtual absence of that distressing tendency of some, when temporarily uninvolved, to slouch, or even to whisper to a colleague, as if they were in the rehearsal room instead of the concert hall.
As to the heralded glamour of Ms. Ben-Dor's appearance, well yes, she was obviously all of that, attractive, intelligent, elegant, poised, vivacious - but that was entirely secondary from the slow, controlled opening of Copland's balletic Appalachian Spring onward.
The fine bassoon of Charles Miller, the piccolo skill - and breath stamina - of Elizabeth Bennett, the perfect timing of percussionist Malcolm Neale were among the usually overlooked talents whose contributions were clearly realized.
And the trumpets, evident obviously in the Dvorak fanfares, had a rare chance to demonstrate their capacity for subtlety in their expansive, yet restrained, pastoral colouring of the Copland piece.
Colin Fleming's golden flute can rarely have been busier, with a variety of leading roles and in dialogue with woodwind colleagues, and it was he whom Ms. Ben-Dor singled out in the end for particular appreciation.
The one disappointment of the evening, and it hurts to record it, was the Barber Violin Concerto with Paul Willey as soloist. It can be a gripping piece, but requires a depth of attack to ensure that the soloist is never overwhelmed by either the virtuostic demands or the huge forces pitted against him in waves. Mr. Willey, popular ex-leader of the UO, now leading the BBC Welsh, is a fine violinist, but on this occasion, I fear a lack of attack and of fullness of tone left him indeed overwhelmed at times by his former colleagues.