Saving the Ulster Orchestra is by any standards, a priority

The modern trend in Orwellian-sounding government cultural policy is to head for the grass roots to look for new mainsprings of creativity. It has a variety of motives and aims. In GB,  the policies of the  DCMS and in Northern Ireland DCal and the priorities of various cash-strapped Arts Councils are also about investing in arts jobs and education to try to grow an economic sector and on the side, to boost “community cohesion.” All very good no doubt.  There  will  always be arguments over whether  to invest in buildings or talent.  .Sometimes a note of silly philistinism creeps in when the claim is heard that the state is superserving a tiny cultural elite. Tell that to all the young  fiddlers and blowers about the place and their parents who have  cultural ambition.

The threat to the Ulster Orchestra is grim news. It has been noticed in  the UK music press. The orchestra chairman Sir George Bain who is  an internationally renowned ( correction) economist  and a  former chairman of the Low Pay Unit and VC of Queen’s, does not cry wolf easily.

There are only two not quite full size professional symphony orchestras on this island with a population of six and a half million. I put it that way because culture is indivisible. There has always been the sort of muttering about the quality of management of the Ulster Orchestra that goes with pinched funding. It now has a new conductor from Venzuela, a troubled country which has brought  new energy and vigour to classical music- making at the grass roots. There may be lessons to learn here for outreach. . Its latest programme is rich and varied.

What is the point of the Ulster Orchestra in the digital age? For a start, to provide live serious music for a core of 1.8 million people. Then to set a standard for local music making in stringed and wind instruments, a tradition which has always thrived and needs to develop beyond the synthesiser  and the electric guitar.  The Ulster Orchestra  simply must not be allowed to die or scale down to exclusively  light music orchestral level. Times are tough for everybody.  But Northern Ireland at this stage of its fragile development  as a civilised community  cannot afford to be the only  region where the thrill of the live orchestral sound is no longer regularly  heard.

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  • Nevin

    “Sir George Bain who is an internationally renounced economist”

    What a delightful typo! On the theme of ‘cultural ambition’, I’d have thought that that applies to all sectors of music, not just the classical one. The proponents of the classical sector do their sector no favours by treating others with disdain.

  • chrisjones2

    Sadly they are dead.

    The Culture Minister doesn’t do culture and they dont play enough fiddle music or flutes so they dont have a strong enough association with anything perceived to be orsuns cluture

  • Old Mortality

    There is a relatively small natural audience for the UO as compared with, say, Edinburgh (shared with Glasgow) or Manchester so it’s essentially a publicly funded vanity project. It was formed only in 1966 so we got by for a very long time without it and could do so again.
    Having said that, there’s plenty of other subsidised ‘artistic’ activities (is there such a thing as unsubsidised arts in NI?) that could precede it into the bin.

  • Bryan Magee

    The Ulster Orchestra is wonderful, I am a big supporter. It contributes a lot to Northern Ireland’s cultural life. It actually tends to play a much more accessible repertoire than many orchestras – though it is usually possible to find new pieces each year and there are often specially commissioned pieces – and it reaches one of its largest audiences in the open air Prom in the Park event that happens each September. It would be very greatly missed by many people – including myself – who have been regulars for many years. It has been funded in part by Gallaher (more recently JTI) and Pattons, both of which firms recently have closed (or announced impending closure), as well as the public sector so financially I am not surprised it is in a bad place. I hope it can survive. Those who support it to join the UO “Friends” scheme, or go to a few more concerts.

  • John O’Connor

    As a season ticket holder (only for the last 2-3 years), I would hate to see the orchestra go.
    Realise the normal symphony concert is a bit of an acquired taste (IMHO one that can be acquired easily btw).
    But the 63 musicians are a very dedicated group that play their hearts out every week and it would be a shame to see it disbanded.

  • Bryan Magee

    I was a season ticket holder when I was 14-15, and asked my dad to get me one. I arrived and couldn’t find the Ulster Hall, when one of the musicians let me in the back entrance (I was on the wrong street). The very first concert I went to had John Ogden, a very amazing pianist, and I was a fan of the UO ever since.

    John Ogden was quite a character – this piece gives an idea:

  • Morpheus

    A season ticket holder at The Ulster Orchestra at 15? I bet you were a hit with the ladies 🙂

  • Old Mortality

    He’s not ‘an internationally renowned economist’ either, unless Mr Walker is more abreast of current developments in academic economics than I am.

  • Really hope Ulster Orchestra can be pulled back from the brink too – certainly agree that “there may be lessons to learn here for outreach” but these lessons can really only be learned if there is still an orchestra in existence to learn them. So many arts organisations really facing a bleak hard winter ahead, hearing that the Ulster Orchestra has become so financially mired down only underlines the struggle for funding and for continued existence for so many of the organisations and local festivals we have come to depend on as local stalwarts…

  • streetlegal

    The Ulster Orchestra would best be taken under the wing of the Education Department – and supported as a centre of excellence for musical education. This would involve a lot of change of direction, but I have no doubt that the orchestra is of such value long-term value that it should be supported.

  • Croiteir

    It is time to address reality, the region cannot afford the extravagance of financing ventures that do not have the population to support them. The recent decision concerning children heart services is an exemplar of the way forward. In our small country we should have one orchestra, funded by Dublin and Stormont, to service the entire island. The south do not need the north but would be stronger for it, the north needs the south as it has not the capacity, both sides profit as so does the audience everywhere.