THE dramatic opening bars of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto were keenly anticipated and when they were delivered exceeded every expectation.

Playing at Durham's Gala Theatre with Orchestra North East, pianist Gulsin Onay's attacks on the keyboard were dynamic and emphatic.

The acclaimed Turkish pianist is a veteran of the concert hall and has doubtless played this piece many times before.

But she was she was taking nothing for granted. Her runs were dazzling, with each note in the scales counting, while her phrasing of the lyrical passages were impeccable.

The orchestra, under the baton of Thomas Blunt, was in top form, ably bolstering her barnstorming performance.

While they played with gusto in the first movement, there was a refined delicacy to the slow movement, which opened with a tiptoeing pizzicato and polished playing by the flute, before Onay entered with tender singing passages.

The final movement features a vigorous Ukranian dance and one could not help but reflect on the dramatic events unfolding in the homeland.

Onay ratcheted up the tension in a dizzying dance, with the orchestra scurrying nimbly after her. It was driven to a breathtaking climax.

The first half of the concert was dedicated to Sibelius, with the orchestra providing an insight into music from the two ends of his composing career.

The Karelia Overture was commissioned for a commemoration of the history and culture of the Karelia region of Finland; an area of great symbolic importance for the nation's identity.

Blunt made a cogent case for the early work, shaping clear melodic lines and drawing out a lovely lilt in the martial theme.

The orchestra then travelled ahead to play the single-movement seventh symphony, which distills Sibelius' life's work.

The challenging piece grew organically, with Blunt seamlessly moulding its constituent parts. Generous strings and burnished brass rounded off a magnificent account.