Studio Symphony Orchestra


St George's Singers Feb 2013 | Havelock Nelson Concert 2012 | Autumn Concert Oct 2011 | Autumn Concert Oct 2010 | Havelock Nelson Concert 2010 | Lisburn Concert Nov 2009 | Havelock Nelson Concert 2007 | Autumn Concert 2006 | Summer Concert 2006 | Havelock Nelson Concert 2006 | Havelock Nelson Concert 2005


Saint George's Singers Concert - Saturday 16th February 2013 - Ulster Hall, Belfast

Choral and solo singing on a slightly less operatic scale was also the order of the day in the Ulster Hall last Saturday as the Studio Symphony Orchestra and the St George's Singers joined forces.  Mozart's Overture to Don Giovanni opened the concert, followed by Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.  Both works were well accounted for, with a lush and detailed sound from the strings and good, balanced colour from woodwind and brass. These are attractive works, and following a characteristically long and sociable interval, Mozart's Requiem was also given a well-managed reading.  The St George's Singers make a consistently committed and rhythmic sound, and the tempi of SSO conductor David Openshaw were spot-on.  The orchestra seem to have a particularly fine feeling for Mozart, and they never overpowered the singing lines. Soloists Rebekah Coffey, Jenny Bourke, Glenn Tweedie and David Robertson each made a strong impression, giving Mozart's devotional and tuneful inventiveness the full benefit of their intelligent and skilled singing.  The idea of these two performing organisations joining forces is a good one, and hopefully will be explored again in future.


Andrea Rea

Source: News Letter

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Havelock Nelson Concert - Saturday 31st March 2012 - Ulster Hall, Belfast

The Studio Symphony Orchestra maintained its high standard of music-making in a popular programme on Saturday in the annual Havelock Nelson concert. In the first half showpiece Michael McHale, one of Ireland's finest young pianists, was totally in command of Mozart's Concerto No 20.

The second half was devoted to Saint-Saens's masterpiece Symphony No 3. Here there was much fine playing under the firm direction of David Openshaw, but the real star was the Mulholland organ itself. This Ulster Hall treasure - in its 150th year - is simply not heard often enough.

Alf McCreary

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Autumn Concert - Saturday 8th October 2011 - St. Bride's Hall, Belfast

There was an embarrassment of riches for lovers of orchestral music in Belfast last week, with a visit by the Moscow Philharmonic and the opening concert of the Studio Symphony Orchestra’s 65th season.  On Thursday, the Russians played a colourful programme that included lesser-known works by Glinka and Glazounov, the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures from an Exhibition and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  Barry Douglas was the soloist in a performance distinguished by clean, committed playing on the part of the orchestra and a thrillingly secure and richly musical reading of the work by Douglas.  The conductor was Yuri Simonov, whose work in the Rachmaninov ensured strong ensemble playing and sympathetic interpretation.  Elsewhere in the programme his work on the podium seemed more calculated to engage the audience, with graceful flourishes and an almost choreographic approach.  It was terrific to hear the Mussorgsky played by a large orchestra, steeped in the tradition from which the work emerged.

Last Saturday evening, the Studio Symphony Orchestra opened their concert with Beethoven’s King Stephen Overture, a big, satisfying piece that sat well within the orchestra’s reach and chimed with a general flair for intelligent programming.  The work begins with a declamatory passage that returns several times, and conductor David Openshaw’s interpretation created the sense of occasion and celebration that Beethoven surely intended.  The Mozart Wind Serenade in C minor represented a change of mood and gave full rein to the SSO’s fine wind players.  Although much of the resonance of this work comes from the ebb and flow of Mozart’s part-writing, I would have liked more dynamic variation.  That said, this was musically engaged, guided rather than conducted by Openshaw, whose tempi pushed the boundaries to just the right extent.

Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C is another boundary-pushing work, especially for the soloist, and Miriam Roycroft rose the challenge with concentrated elegance.  There’s no doubting her technique in fast passage-work, but it was her control of line in the slow movement that really gave this music breadth and depth.  The orchestra, after a fairly unfortunate opening few bars, settled down to finely balanced accompaniment.  The concert ended with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, a performance to lift spirits and impress with the operatic content of the second movement especially, as well as the heroism of cello and horn in the trio section of movement three.  The finale was the Studio Symphony at it’s detailed best, the story of this music singing across the 200 years since Beethoven wrote it.  The characteristically warm reception of this orchestra’s audience was well-deserved and points to a fine 65th season, which continues on Sunday November 27th in the Island Arts Centre. Lisburn, with a programme of classical favourites.

Andrea Rea

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Autumn Concert - Saturday 9th October 2010 - St. Bride's Hall, Belfast

Rachmaninov concertos have been coming along here like the proverbial number ten bus lately.  Audiences have been treated to performances of all of the piano concertos in recent weeks at Ulster Orchestra concerts, and this weekend the Studio Symphony Orchestra weighed in as well. Both orchestras enjoyed full houses, due at least in part to the popularity of their soloists.

On Friday evening, Barry Douglas joined the Ulster Orchestra for the powerhouse that is Concerto No. 2, and his performance was one of nuance and exploration, fully in the moment, as if discovering each melody as a fresh construct.  The concert had opened with the Vaughn-Williams Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis, a lush and reverent pastorale for two orchestras.  Michal Dworzynski conducted, allowing the warm interior of the work to emerge logically from its rather cool exterior.  The Waterfront was an ideal space for this music, its generally muddy acoustic for once put to good use.  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was the final piece in the concert, and like the Rachmaninov, it moved from one movement to the next with some energy, leading the audience willingly across each composers special terrain.  Dworzynski at times has the happy demeanour of someone at home in their living room conducting a favourite recording.  Make no mistake, however, he controls the performance and mines each work for instrumental detail, every gesture packed with meaning, setting the pace with freshness and energy.

On Saturday night, the Studio Symphony took to the “stage” in St. Bride’s Hall for their first concert of the season, beginning with Mozart’s Overture to the Magic Flute, giving a gallant and detailed reading of this for such a large orchestra.  The Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 followed, with Michael McHale as soloist.  This is a terrifically lush work, as you’d expect of Rachmaninov, with the composer’s own extraordinary technique behind every thrilling note.  Giving voice to that technique on this occasion was Michael McHale, a young man with a strong following among music lovers here.  The wonderfully lush sound he produces is never strident or forced, and both sides of the equation, orchestra and soloist, found full expression in a fluid and flexible performance.  Conductor David Openshaw kept his players on track, and the ovation received was for a job well done by all concerned.  Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was a dramatic finale to the concert, a fitting work for this ensemble which never dodges a challenge and always plays with complete conviction, placing musical values first and providing moments of genuine beauty.

Andrea Rea

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Havelock Nelson Concert - Saturday 17th April 2010 - Campbell College, Belfast


The Studio Symphony Orchestra has a reputation for occasionally throwing caution to the wind and programming music that would make most other ensembles think twice.  The result can be mixed, but never boring and occasionally quite thrilling.  Their recent Havelock Nelson Concert, named for their founder and first conductor Dr. Havelock Nelson, was a prime example of a thrilling result.

Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture was the opening music, performed at a white-knuckle speed that challenged the Great Hall at Campbell College’s acoustic.  Conductor David Openshaw knows his players and obviously wanted to share with them the joy of the headlong rush one can get from this work.  Most impressive was the string players’ ability to sit back and play with light and grace where needed, in the context of such a fiery tempo. The fire was just starting to take hold, however, (and I’m not talking about the delightful welcoming blaze in the fireplace of Campbell College’s impressive entrance hall).  “Rach Two” is a piano concerto that wears its heart and passion very much on it’s sleeve, and the arms and the sleeves belonged on this occasion to pianist Cathal Breslin.  Ireland is very blessed with exciting piano players and judging by this performance, Breslin might just lead the pack. He caught the shifting moods within the Rachmaninov concerto without forcing the issue, and had a clear sense of purpose that didn’t falter.  On occasion, this placed him a bit at odds with the orchestra and also the room’s challenging, often muddy sound, but each side of the equation was so sure-footed, it didn’t really matter.  The “big tune” of this work allowed the heart of the Studio Symphony Orchestra to also climb out onto its collective sleeve, playing with the lush and elegant sound they’ve developed together across many seasons.  

The second half of the concert began with another work well suited to this orchestra’s temperament, Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia.  After a moment or two of unease in the first section, this trundled along nicely, a camel journey depicted with exotic melodies and the wonderful timbre of cor anglais.

The concert finished with Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird.  Suffice it to say that this is a work with “kids, don’t try this at home” written all over it.  Demanding of both interpretation and technique, it sits tantalisingly out of reach of most amateur ensembles.  Enter the Studio Symphony Orchestra, who played with strong unity of purpose that comes not of total mastery of the notes but a sense of trust in their conductor and in each other.  The SSO challenge themselves all the time, and this paid off wonderfully in this performance, which had its edgy moments but never lost Stravinsky’s elaborate plot. The finale was when the acoustic of the great hall at Campbell came into its own, another marvellous tune introduced by the SSO’s excellent horn section, taken up by strings and spread outwards towards brass, woodwind and percussion as this family of players really did bring the work home.  Bravo, bravo to all.

Andrea Rea

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Lisburn Concert - Saturday 14th November 2009 - Island Arts Centre

Classic renditions make for memorable concert

GEORGE Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany, and grew into one of the great composers of all times. He wrote his Water Music, always a favourite, in 1717, after he had spent time I in different countries and was living in London. Many folk would listen to this I music at home, enjoying it in the background but then going to hear live music would be a treat and so it was in Lisburn on Saturday night when the Studio Symphony Orchestra opened its concert.

It was playing in the Island Arts Centre to a receptive audience and it was played beautifully. The orchestra, conducted by David Openshaw, then treated us to Mozart's Exultate, jubilate. This motet was composed when Mozart was only a teenager but it did display his versatility and talent for composing. The audience was delighted, and Marcella Walsh sang beautifully. She was so much appreciated that she was urged to sing an encore, and did to everyone's delight. The audience all seemed to know it but, like myself, the words would not come, except for 'Vilia', so we had to sit and enjoy Marcella.

Jean Sibelius was born in 1865 in the fair country of Finland. By 1899, the Russians, yet another imperialistic power, virtually crushed Finnish independence by severely restricting the right of assembly and freedom of speech. At the end of the year a theatrical pageant was staged in Helsinki, and Sibelius composed Finlandia to accompany the final tableau. That piece of music is still a great success to this day and because of the circumstances it is almost a second national anthem for many Finns. It is also internationally famous and very highly regarded everywhere.

The concert ended with one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's great symphony, the lovely 39th. Ottoline Maas, the leader, encouraged the orchestra from start to finish and all the musicians followed her lead to give us most wonderful music during a truly memorable concert. The Studio Symphony Orchestra is a recognised leader in amateur music making in Northern Ireland, attracting skilled musicians from across the north and performing regular public concerts in a number of venues. The orchestra is professionally directed by members of the Ulster Orchestra. The next concert will be a 'Come & Sing' project with the Belfast Philharmonic in Belfast on Saturday February 6. Full details on Tickets are available now from the Belfast Philharmonic Box Office on 07925 515584.

Pol Cormacain

Source: Irish News

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Havelock Nelson Concert – Saturday 3rd February 2007 – Ulster Hall, Belfast

The Ulster Hall was the setting for the Studio Symphony Orchestra's annual Havelock Memorial Concert.  There's always a sense of occasion about this concert, which is the centrepiece of the orchestra's season.  On the programme were Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, Schumann's Concert Piece for four horns, and Job - A Masque for Dancing by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In so many ways, the programme was vintage SSO - meaty works that are not all within the ordinary reach of every orchestra.  As ever, David Openshaw presided over the evening with a mixture of relaxed encouragement and solid musicality.

The Tchaikovsky, not an easy piece to interpret in part because of it's familiarity, was well paced and wonderfully sustained.  The Schumann was of course a delight, primarily because of the chance it represented for us to hear and see the Ulster Orchestra horn section specially featured.  This is an unusual showpiece, bold and happy, with all the colour that these remarkable instruments can deliver.  Particularly special was the sense of ensemble brought to the music by Christopher Blake, Martin Wall, Paul Klein and Derek Parkins, who have played as a section for some years now and are a formidable team in this solo context.  Their encore was a very poignant contrast, Bach's 'Bist du bei mir'.

The concert finished with a remarkable work, Vaughan Williams's Job - A Masque for Dancing.  This is for orchestra and narrator, who tells the biblical story of Job as it unfolds in nine contrasting scenes.  Noel Thompson provided a genuine dramatic focus with the readings.  Orchestrally, this is demanding stuff, held together by Openshaw and leader Ottoline Maas who played the violin solo in Scene 7 with a beautiful smoothness.  The Ulster Hall organ was put to good use and the might and agility of the whole orchestra brought to the fore.  Special mention must be made of the brass who could have overdone things but didn't, and oboe which was evocative and true of tone.  A wonderful finish to a thoroughly good concert, enjoyed by an audience made up of a whole spectrum of ages, another feature of the SSO's work that is so vital and cannot be praised too highly.

Andrea Rea

Source: News Letter

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Autumn Concert – Saturday 14th October 2006 – Elmwood Hall, Belfast

Sibelius and Strings make a great combination

The Studio Symphony's 2006-07 season got off to a promising start on Saturday evening with an interesting and well- presented programme of Elgar, Richard Strauss and Sibelius. The Elmwood Hall was very nearly full for the occasion, which is as it should be when this orchestra performs, especially in this, its 60th season.  Elgar's Serenade for Strings opened the concert, an early work which was one of Elgar's own favourites.  As much as anything, this is music that needs to be played from the heart.  The writing cries out for nuance and the kind of inflection that only string music can give.  Whatever the exact qualities of the playing, the point of this serenade was well made. Conductor David Openshaw chose buoyant, credible tempi which were not allowed to wallow and slow.  Moments of inaccuracy in the tuning were just that - moments, and didn't take away from the sheer enjoyment of the players and, as a consequence, the audience.

The second piece on the programme was Richard Strauss's Horn Concerto No.1, a well-known work that shows off many of the horn's qualities as a solo instrument, especially its tremendous tone and impressive range.  Soloist Paul Klein managed to make those qualities seem easy to produce, with a performance that was skilled and understated.  The orchestra were deft in their accompaniment, once the opening chord (which could have been better pitched) faded.  The players captured the sweep of the music without getting in the way of the solo line, and betrayed none of the difficulties associated with the slow movement with its 7 flat key signature.  Paul KIein's encore was part of an unaccompanied Bach cello suite, a rare treat heard on horn and very graciously offered.

Symphony No 5 by Sibelius was the final piece in the concert, an ambitious and mighty work, composed during the second year of WWI.  The character of the music is one of optimism winning out over suffering, couched as ever in Sibelius's heroic terms.  This work is demanding for all concerned.  The wind and brass carry most of the tunes and the strings create a constant atmosphere, busy and even ghostly at times.  In one or two places one felt the sense of chaos rather too strongly and although the momentum didn't fag, the focus did.  However, the sense of the piece as a journey was always clear and things came together stunningly when it really counted.  The orchestra is attentive and has a grasp of the tone and style needed for this music.  The woodwind especially have very individual qualities which make for compelling listening, while the brass present a more united front.  All in all, Sibelius was well served by this and the orchestra were justifiably proud of their performance, as witnessed by the exhausted and happy smiles following the quirky but precisely executed series of final chords.

Andrea Rea

Source: News Letter

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Summer Concert – Saturday 27th May 2006 – Elmwood Hall, Belfast

Symphony shine with panache and conviction

The Studio Symphony Orchestra gave a Summer Concert on Saturday evening in the Elmwood Hall at Queen’s in Belfast, the last in their present season. The first half of the programme was divided between wind and strings, beginning with the Richard Strauss Suite for Wind Instruments. This is a challenging work, scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons plus four horns and a contrabassoon. There was much to commend in this performance, the demanding rhythms especially well  presented and cleanly marked. The upper and lower registers were sometime at odds with one another where absolute tuning was concerned, but the connecting tissue of the clarinet line provided a much needed bridge at critical points. David Openshaw guided the performance with sensible tempi and clear beating. It was the turn of the strings next with Tchaikovsky’s glorious Serenade for Strings. In this, speed was dictated by the music rather than the moment, and the players kept up admirably. There were some wonderfully atmospheric passages, and the celli were especially sure footed and sonorous.

After the interval, Dvorak’s Symphony No.3 brought the Studio Symphony together for what they are really best at, the large romantic scores with plenty of meat on the bones. This is a wonderful symphony, full of big sweeps of colour and atmosphere. Philip Walton conducted, demonstrating a very complete knowledge of the score and it’s potentials. Once or twice in exposed passages the upper strings became a bit faint of heart, but this was always more than made up for with the next big moment. And despite an uneasy bar or two in woodwind tuning, wind and brass generally rallied and made much of the grand moments.

It is always a pleasure to hear the Studio Symphony Orchestra. Each concert is full of evidence of great achievement, a sense of concentration and care that gives the music a buzz and atmosphere unlike any other orchestra we might hear regularly. As well a providing a platform for some of the best amateur players from all over Northern Ireland, it gives audiences a chance to hear great repertoire presented with real panache and conviction. Long may it continue!

Andrea Rea
Source: News Letter

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Havelock Nelson Concert – Saturday 18th March 2006 – Ulster Hall, Belfast

On Saturday night the Studio Symphony Orchestra performed an ambitious programme of Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Mozart as part of their annual tribute to their founder, the late Havelock Nelson.  In doing so they reminded the Ulster Hall audience of their commitment to high standards of musicianship and just how important this non-professional orchestra is to Belfast's cultural life.

Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien opened the proceedings with the composer's trademark dichotomy of brilliant string writing and sombre lyricism highlighting the orchestra's ease of technique and melodic discipline.  There were tangible gasps within the audience during the acceleration into the final tarantella, which allowed conductor David Openshaw to display his command over the orchestra and it's well-marshalled percussion section.

This was followed by Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, with the respective solo parts being performed by Ulster Orchestra regulars Dervilagh Cooper and Jonathan Simmance.  Unlike some of the composer's virtuosic violin concertos, this work saw a conversational tone between the soloists being set in lieu of the dazzling passages one would normally expect in a soloist work written for concert hall performance.  Both soloists performed well with Simmance's stately playing in the second movement conjuring an atmosphere of introspective poignancy which, helped by some excellent horn playing, contrasted deeply with the inventive wit of the outer movements.

This excellent orchestra made up of some of Northern Ireland's finest amateur musicians will next perform on May 27 in the Elmwood Hall.

Paul O'Reilly

Source: Belfast Telegraph

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Havelock  Nelson Concert – Saturday 16th April 2005 – Ulster Hall, Belfast

Orchestra shines with a swinging performance

The Studio Symphony Orchestra gave its annual Havelock Nelson concert on Saturday evening in the Ulster Hall.

Under the baton of David Openshaw, the orchestra played a substantial programme of works, beginning with Beethoven's overture to Fidelio.  There was plenty of light and shade in their playing of this Overture, with strong dynamic contrast and good pacing.  This set the stage beautifully for the following piece, the Beethoven Violin Concerto with soloist Alan McClure.  McClure is a very musically secure player with solid technique, who allowed the solo violin line to weave seamlessly in and out of the orchestral texture.  His cadenzas were beautiful and wonderfully played.  The orchestral accompaniment supported for the most part without swamping the soloist, although McClure's sound is not particularly big.  Orchestral vibrato was restrained for the most part.  The final movement had the requisite swing and sparkle, finishing the first half of this concert with real panache.

After the interval, Walton's Crown Imperial gave brass and percussion quite a lot to do and created a real sense of occasion without going 'over the top'.  I will say, however, that this orchestra turns pages more loudly than almost any other band I've heard.

The concert finished with the Enigma Variations, Edward Elgar's homage to his friends based on an unknown theme.  This is what would be called in orchestral circles "a big play", but the Studio Symphony performed with as fresh a sound and sense of concentration as if it was the first item on the programme.  David Openshaw, whose conductorship is an enduring mixture of experience and personality, gave the orchestra exactly what they needed in terms of guidance and inspiration for this great piece.  The opening of the Nimrod Variation, for example, was a stunning moment, with committed musicians moving from stillness to grandeur in a way many professional orchestras would envy.  This counts for a lot, and Studio Symphony's enjoyment communicates itself to the audience.

Andrea Rea

Source: News Letter

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