Ulster Orchestra 2013/14 Season

Principal conductor JoAnn Falletta on new trends, taking risks and 'providing for the community'

Every year, arts organisations in Northern Ireland put together their programme of events and activities and introduce them to audiences across the province.

For a performing ensemble like the Ulster Orchestra – with evening and lunchtime concerts, regional performances, broadcasts, education events and various artistic collaborations spanning more than nine months – the task of creating their programme is more than a little complex.

Principal conductor JoAnn Falletta claims that the Ulster Orchestra's yearly programme 'takes a long time to come together', and that there are many challenges involved – some predictable, some unforeseen.

'We usually start working a year in advance, sometimes 18 months in advance,' says Falletta. 'It’s a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle, in which there are lots of ideas, lots of themes and pieces that we want to get in there, conductors and soloists, and we try and fit them all in.

'Invariably not everything fits – some things are postponed to the next year, some things are changed, taken out, other things put in. So it’s in flux for quite a while. And then finally it seems that at the very last moment, everything comes into place.'

And for Falletta and her colleagues at the Ulster Hall, the Ulster Orchestra's permanent home, there are many strands and essential details to consider – from the audiences' expectations, to the availability of players and originality of composers picked.

'Even the idea of what pieces to play has to encompass a lot of things. We don’t want to repeat things that we’ve done, we want to put on things that are new to the orchestra, challenging to the orchestra, to help them grow and stretch themselves as a group of musicians.

'We want to give people in the audience pieces that they love, but mix in pieces that they don’t know – pieces that they will love, hopefully. The musicians have ideas too. They give us suggestions and we also get suggestions from audience members and players. It makes sense to have them bring what is in their soul.'

This year’s repertoire runs until the end of May, and is very much the quintessential mixed bag. (View the full season programme.) There’s a strong emphasis on film music this season, something that accidentally aligns itself with Radio 3’s recent Sound of Cinema programmes.

On November 22 – 23 in Derry~Londonderry and Belfast respectively, the orchestra will play the soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed suspense thriller Psycho live as the film is shown. There’s A Night at the Oscars concert on March 7, and a concert celebrating music from the films of Sir Kenneth Branagh later that month. How does Falletta feel this repertoire fits into a symphony orchestra season?

'Film music is a relatively new development,' she says. 'For many years film music was not welcome on the classical stage. People made a real division between film music and classical, and its only recently that we’ve begun to realise that some of the composers writing for film now and in the past are so gifted, talented and imaginative, and their music is of the highest possible level.

'So this idea of welcoming them on the concert stage has been very successful for audiences because they have a visual sense inside of what this music means. Even if they don’t see the film, it’s very powerful, especially for people who might not think they know or like classical music but are very moved by music and seeing images with it. The presence of it on the concert stage has been in a very positive development in the symphonic world.

'And classical music fans are often film fans. Most of us love film and love going to the movies and realise that if the music wasn’t playing as we watch, our enjoyment would be so diminished. We realise the power of that. A slightly more challenging step is the idea that someone who comes in for the first time to hear the Ulster Orchestra because it’s a film night might very well come to hear a Beethoven symphony or a holiday concert, or take a step into more of the orchestra’s offerings. So a lot of it is about opening the door.'

Another new development in the Ulster Orchestra’s programming for the 2013/14 season is the placement of concerts on different days and times, such as Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. These are in addition to the regular Friday night concerts with occasional holiday concerts, like The Snowman family concerts at Christmas, and the Viennese and Burns Night programmes later in the season.

The orchestra are also working to attract new audiences, and as such will take part in this year's Belfast Music Week, which runs in venues across the city from November 11 – 17. They will perform as part of An Evening for Seamus at the Waterfront Hall on November 17 for the Belfast Music Week closing concert, along with the actor Stephen Rea and others in a concert dedicated to the life and work of the later Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.

Yet the old adage of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' still applies to certain portions of the new programme. Lunchtime Concerts, for example, have proved very popular for the Ulster Orchestra in the last number of years, and those hour-long programmes continue throughout the new season, mainly on the first Wednesday of each month.

'Balance is a very good word,' Falletta proffers when considering what makes an exciting event programme. 'We have a wide variety of music and we need to be conscious of getting the widest panorama for people, from baroque to contemporary music, a balance of nationalities, time periods, forces required. It’s all part of this kaleidoscope.

'It’s like how a great chef would put together a dinner, where everything you eat compliments the other dishes – not all vegetables, not all salty food – and each item makes the others taste more interesting. The idea is to put these pieces together so that every one of the works is in conversation with the other music in the programme, bringing out their strong points so everyone at the concert leaves hearing the best of these pieces because of how they were put together.'

Falletta hails from Queen's, New York, and has worked as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, and the principal guest conductor of both the Phoenix Symphony and the Brevard Music Center. Now in her third year as principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, she has enjoyed her time spent mainly in Belfast, and feels that she understands the wants of Northern Ireland's classical audience.

The 2013/14 programme is a reflection of her growing confidence as the figurehead of Northern Ireland's foremost symphony orchestra – she has taken risks, looked outside of the box, sought to change things up as the 21st century progresses at pace.

'This year is a kind of an experimental year for us in terms of new concert times and new concert days, and it’s going to tell us a lot about how to better be really a part of the fabric of this community,' she concludes. 'I know how much the Ulster Orchestra is loved by this community, and we want to have it as accessible as possible.

'We have a diverse audience, from young people to senior citizens. They’re there for the orchestra and again, this is a way of being more relevant to the community, because in the end, that’s what we all value. We’re not here to be an orchestra that serves the word, we’re here for our community. Making music for the people who live here. And I think that we feel very connected to that.'

View the Ulster Orchestra's full 2013/14 season programme. An Evening for Seamus takes place in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast on Sunday, November 17.