The Ulster Orchestra's pioneering series of lunchtime concerts continues to draw healthy audiences, with people apparently combining a spot of city centre retail therapy with a bite-sized, 50-minute helping of classical music.
Arias in Advent is the latest concert in the sequence, playing to a near-capacity Ulster Hall on the penultimate Wednesday before Christmas. It features Newtownards-born singer, Rebekah Coffey in a programme dominated by Handel and Mozart.
Coffey's is a relatively light, lyrical soprano voice, at times almost soubrettish in quality: a perfect fit for Handel's operatic music. Coffey confirms her affinity for this composer in fluidly dispatching the excitable coloratura passages in 'Tornami a vagheggiar' (from Alcina). The pinging acrobatics in this piece strikingly pre-echo the Queen of the Night's arias from Mozart's The Magic Flute, written over half a century later.
Coffey's sparing use of vibrato accentuates the fresh, youthful impression that her voice creates. Her 'Deh vieni, non tardar' (from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro) is recognisably the pert, resourceful piece of amorous teasing that it ought to be, but sometimes isn't, if a fruitier, more mature voice-type is singing Susanna.
'Ach, ich fühl's' (Pamina's Act Two lament from The Magic Flute), the other Mozart selection, requires more inwardness and intensity. Although Coffey's voice is not naturally muscular or aggressive, her upper register surges and expands impressively here, vividly communicating the character's emotional desolation.
Bellini's 'Oh! quante volte', from his opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi, explores a similarly love-lorn situation. Coffey's delicately modulated phrasing again evokes the girlish fragility of Juliet most effectively.
It’s easy for an orchestra to slip onto auto-pilot in this kind of singer-dominated recital, but conductor David Jones, whose early musical training occured at St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry~Londonderry, ensures a quality response from his players.
This is particularly evident in a gorgeously phrased, sweetly expressive account of the famous ‘Intermezzo’ from Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana. The upper strings in excel themselves.
Jones is an exceptionally musical but completely modest conductor. He skillfully creates elbow-room for the orchestra’s excellent oboists to duet piquantly in 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' by Handel, which opens the concert.
Jones’s measured pacing of the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (too often treated as a frantic dash to the finishing tape) also allows time for the deft counter-balancing of upper and lower strings to register. The frequently inaudible bassoon detail in the mini-Mannheim crescendo signalling the piece’s climax is brought successfully to the surface.
There is further outstanding solo work from Ulster Orchestra section leader Paul Young, whose obligato trumpet part in Handel’s ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine’ tartly counterpoints Coffey’s vocal contribution. Young is a superb player. The orchestra will, I hope, continue to provide him with solo opportunities in the future.
Coffey sings a single encore, John Jacob Niles’s brooding carol ‘I wonder as I wander’. It is a contemplative, even melancholic note on which to end a festive concert.