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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London