Save the Ulster Orchestra

Campaign mounts in support of the endangered and beloved institution following funding difficulties

In normal circumstances the Ulster Orchestra would be looking forward to celebrating its 50th birthday in 2016. But Sir George Bain, Chairman of its Board, recently revealed the perilous financial situation that the orchestra currently finds itself in. A £500,000 shortfall in its budget, combined with imminent funding cuts, could see it fold within weeks.

The Ulster Orchestra was formed in 1966, on the eve of the Troubles, as a smallish chamber orchestra. It was later augmented by members of the BBC Northern Ireland Light Orchestra and the part-time City of Belfast Orchestra.

Throughout the years of violence this new orchestra was a ‘beacon of hope’ for many in a deeply divided society. It proudly boasted that it never cancelled a concert and continued to bring live orchestral music to every part of Northern Ireland.


Although all the arts in Northern Ireland are at risk from financial cuts, this threat to the Ulster Orchestra seems to have touched a raw nerve. A campaign to Save the Ulster Orchestra has attracted over 4,000 supporters.

An online petition to Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, mustered over 1,300 signatures in its first 24 hours. The message – en masse – is ‘No’. Having survived 30 years and more in Troubles-stricken Belfast, the Ulster Orchestra must not be allowed to fold. The music must go on…

The campaign has evoked passionate appeals that politicians listen and ensure funding in the long-term. The orchestra, its supporters say, is ‘the cultural cornerstone’ of Northern Ireland – its loss ‘would leave the country in real danger of losing any claim to cultural credibility in the world at large'.

It is not just Northern Irish concert-goers who have spoken up, dismayed at the prospect of the orchestra’s potential demise. They have been joined by voices from ‘across the water’, like arts critic and broadcaster, Norman Lebrecht and world-renowned pianist Peter Donohoe, testifying to the orchestra’s international standing, its musical strengths and future prospects.

Donohoe, in particular, is strong in his support: ‘To undermine the arts will herald the ruination of our communities. Music, painting, drama, acting, and other art forms are not just nice things to do; they comprise passions that can transform lives.’

But he is blunt and realistic: ‘Please everyone: stop bleating about the fact that politicians don't value the arts. Of course they don't, with very few exceptions, and most of them never did.’

The story is attracting international attention as well, from American conductors to European rank-and-file musicians – Atlanta in the USA is pointed to as another place whose orchestra faces closure. Una Ni Chanainn of the RTE National Symphony Orchestra says that ‘the plight of the Ulster Orchestra musicians is foremost in our minds’. Music – didn’t we know this? – crosses all boundaries.

Closer to home, Derry-born saxophonist and professor at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music in London, Gerard McChyrstal, reminisces about his experiences as a 13-year-old with the orchestra’s percussion section.

McChyrstal recalls how it inspired him: ‘When I was growing up in Derry the idea of becoming a classical musician seemed a long way off, but then I saw these other guys doing it and thought I could do it too.’

The plethora of voices, often engaging, occasionally vitriolic, are overwhelmingly positive and supportive. A few hint at recent mismanagement of the orchestra’s affairs but they are the exception. Most praise the players for their tuition of young musicians and for their community outreach programmes with, for example, children with ‘special needs’ and a local Women’s Aid Group.

One of the good things to emerge from the campaign is that former UO players contribute personal memories and memorabilia: programme covers, notes, photographs and posters from earlier days. There are reminiscences of former conductors, Sergiu Commissiona, Vernon Handley and Rudolf Schwarz, and the much loved Hungarian-born János Fürst.

There are stories, too, of grimmer, more violent days, like one occasion when the orchestra played through a bomb scare in the Ulster Hall – the audience was briefly asked to check under their seats for explosive devices before the programme resumed.

Dublin-born violinist Yvonne McGuinness was a founder member in 1966, coming from the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra. Both McGuinness and her trumpet-playing husband, John Goodhead, remember the ‘palpable sense of excitement’ as the new UO players met together for the first time and rehearsed Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute. For the next few years, McGuinness recalls, ‘we took our music to every tiny or big town that would have us'.

Composer and broadcaster David Byers, later the orchestra’s chief executive, was in Belfast in those early days too. He witnessed at first hand the orchestra’s problems over the years, and the ongoing debates about its size and viability.

Byers points out that ‘a Symphony Orchestra comes at a cost. It cannot pay its way through concerts and needs a viable funding package with a mix of private and public money.’ He laments that the recession and the demise of the major manufacturing sponsors have closed down vital funding streams.

It hasn’t helped that the orchestra has had four successive chief executives since Byers’ retirement in 2010, the latest, Italian-born opera singer and former Arts Council of Northern Ireland music officer, Rosa Solinas, leaving after just 13 months.

The orchestra earlier this year appointed Venezuelan Rafaele Payare, former principal horn player with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, as chief conductor. He says that he was drawn to the job by the prospect of ‘a shared vision and understanding’.

Belfast-born pianist and conductor Barry Douglas spoke recently in Pittsburgh of the arts as a healing agent. He says: ‘Rather than taking sides on a particular issue, artists should use their work to connect people who historically have been in conflict.'

Byers is similarly upbeat and optimistic: ‘Let’s resolve all those problems, rebuild confidence and fight for a vibrant, properly endowed, symphony orchestra serving the region. That has to be the Ulster Orchestra in which we’ve invested so much over the past 48 years and which has a highly valuable and internationally renowned ‘brand’ image’.'

Bee Riddell, founder of the Save the Ulster Orchestra campaign, is daughter of UO principal viola player of 40-years' standing, Ashley Mason. Riddell says: ‘I am forever indebted to the Ulster Orchestra for the escape that its music and outreach provided from the realities of growing up in Belfast in the 1980s.'

Riddell is overwhelmed by the outpouring of goodwill of thousands of local people towards the orchestra and sees the campaign as ‘a vehicle for influencing change and encouraging others to give recognition to the seriousness of the current situation in the arts in Northern Ireland'.

Ulster comedian Tim McGarry, meanwhile, has his own distinctive take on the campaign, quipping that the Ulster Orchestra would make a good political party, since it ‘knows how to conduct itself, works together in harmony and can face the music too'.

Riddell and her growing band of supporters will hope that the Ulster Orchestra can keep ‘facing the music’ and continue to play in harmony in the months and years ahead. So much depends on its continued existence, influence, and above all, performance.

Visit the Save the Ulster Orchestra Facebook page, and the Ulster Orchestra website for more information.