On the 30th of October, UCD welcomed the Universitair Symfonisch Orkest Leuven, or University Symphony Orchestra Leuven. On this occasion, they played a repertoire of three of Tchaikovsky’s greatest works: ‘the 1812 Overture’, ‘The Nutcracker Suite’, and ‘The Tempest’.
UCD’s own director of music Dr Ciaran Crilly described the evening as ‘brilliant’. Opening with the famous ‘1812 Overture’, an often raucous and loud piece famous for its cannons, some slight slip-ups in the brass section at the start quickly gave way to a powerful strings section. Conductor Edmond Saveniers masterfully handled the tempo of the piece, always knowing when to adjust the tension. For the grand finale, easily the most well-known part of the overture, the orchestra was able to restrain themselves from the note-bashing that so many interpretations of this piece are prone to. The resulting energy was excellent yet steady, mighty yet balanced.
Following that, the orchestra moved on to ‘the Tempest’, not as well known as a Tchaikovsky piece but no less demanding. Slight tuning issues again showed up in the brass section but the introduction remained perfect for the theme of the piece, brooding and dark. At points it was clear that the orchestra was straining to keep it all together, a perfectly reasonable problem given the extreme technical challenges of the piece. The woodwind section cooperated deftly and blissfully with the strings on many occasions. For a piece that swings wildly between the serenity and calm of gentle rains to the ferocious tension of thunder and lightning, the contrast was wonderfully executed with heartfelt and chaotic violins maintaining an excellent sense of tension throughout to conclude with a lovely finish, in particular, the closing bars in sublimity.
‘The Nutcracker’ opened with a nice chip start, the strings continued to perform the heavy-lifting of the orchestra with the miniature overture given a refreshing playful interpretation. In the marche, more brass tuning issues seemed to arise (perhaps the Irish weather did not agree with their instruments?) while the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy employed an unorthodox choice. The iconic glockenspiel was replicated by a synthesized keyboard but still maintained a pleasant delicacy throughout.
For the finale of the evening, ‘the Waltz of the Flowers’, the iconic harp introduction, unfortunately, had to be mimicked on the keyboard- a further disappointment considering the vast array of harpist talent available in UCD. This would be the strongest piece of the evening by far, with the brass overcoming their issues from before and delivering excellence while the strings perfectly captured the dreamlike sound of the piece. As the finale approached, all sections perfectly encapsulated the emotional tendency of a tremendously difficult piece.
As is apparently tradition in USO Leuven, the audience was treated to an additional piece. On this occasion, it was ‘Lord of the Dance’. The piece featured something rare in classical music- an orchestra clearly enjoying themselves. Even from the top of Astra Hall, the smiles on the performers’ faces were clear and this was reflected in the sound. The tone was well-rounded and balanced with no one section dominating the sound at any point, despite a slight slip-up at the end.
Feedback from the organisers was positive; Dr Crilly, UCD’s orchestra conductor, described the evening as ‘brilliant, ambitious’, citing ‘The Tempest’ as a personal favourite of his. He also applauded the ‘ambassadorial role’ that the orchestra plays for Leuven, as well as that of UCD’s own orchestra who played in Leuven two years ago. One violinist, Karen Raeymaekers, said she found the evening to be a lovely opportunity to cooperate with UCD while describing an ‘enthusiastic connection’ to the other performers. This sentiment was shared by orchestra leader Elisabeth Heremans who, despite thinking that the rehearsals were better than the actual performance, found the audience’s enthusiasm and the energy within the orchestra to be wonderful.
Leuven’s conductor, Edmond Saveniers, commented that despite the unfamiliar acoustics of the Astra Hall, he found the audience inspiring and the orchestra well-prepared. In particular, he gave thanks to the cooperation of the UCD orchestra in filling in numbers for Leuven who could not get their entire retinue to Dublin, with problems such as only one Dutch trombonist being available. The performers had only a few days to practise with the rest of the orchestra to get up to speed, an effort of international music cooperation that he described as ‘a pleasure’.
By Iain Clowes – Music Writer