Ulster Orchestra's Home Grown Talent

New audiences are seeking out a classical concert with their coffee

'Have a panini at the Café Grand Dame in the foyer. Then go in and have some of the world's most beautiful music played for you!'

Chief Executive of the Ulster Orchestra, Declan McGovern, makes it sound like a no-brainer, but when the UO launched its Wednesday lunchtime concert series in 2009, it was very much a shot in the dark, commercially speaking.

'I thought it would be quite difficult to get an audience initially,' explains McGovern. 'There was no tradition of lunchtime concerts really. It's an unconventional time to hold a concert'.

He needn't have worried. Shoppers and city centre workers quickly caught the habit of spending Wednesday lunchtime at the Ulster Hall, and audiences have grown impressively in the two years since the scheme's inception. 'It's been a great success,' says McGovern. 'We've had over 900 people at one concert.'

McGovern is particularly happy that the UO's lunchtime series has pulled in listeners who wouldn't normally attend its regular season concerts in the evenings. 'People in suits,' he comments.

'I don't see many business people coming to our main season concerts. But, because we're on Bedford Street, the epicentre of the business world in Belfast, there are a lot of business people coming at lunchtimes.'

The 1.05 pm start-time (and bargain-basement pricing of £6 per ticket) are also encouraging audiences to build a day-trip to the city around a Wednesday concert. 'They come in, do a bit of shopping, go to the concert, go home early afternoon, or maybe do a bit more shopping,' says McGovern. 'It's interesting. We're definitely bringing a different sector of people along.'

With two years' successful growth behind it, McGovern feels the time has come to sharpen the profile of the lunchtime series further. Hence the launch of Home Grown Talent, a new strand in lunchtime programming that gives Northern Irish artists an opportunity to share a major platform with the region's sole professional orchestra.

'To me, it's a brilliant vehicle for giving young musicians the opportunity to play with this orchestra,' enthuses McGovern. 'That's hard to do during our season concerts, because we're spoilt for choice. Every single day there's up to five approaches from agents all over the world to get their artists to perform with the Ulster Orchestra. So it's quite hard to find slots for young artists from Northern Ireland.'

Despite the difficulties, McGovern is determined that Northern Ireland's rising generation of gifted classical soloists should have its moment in the spotlight.

'It's the kind of thing this orchestra needs to be doing more of in terms of being relevant to the creative or performance artist community here. To be able to bring people back, give them that platform, it's hugely important.'

All three lunchtime concerts before Christmas 2011 show McGovern making good his promise to actively promote the cream of local talent. The series opener on October 5 showcases Bessbrook-born David Quigley, playing Liszt's grand Hungarian Fantasy.

'We were really keen to do something for the Liszt birth bicentenary year,' explains McGovern. 'And David is a great virtuosic player in this kind of repertoire. He's a local chap, he teaches music at the Birmingham Conservatoire, but he's a soloist in his own right. I thought this was a great fit to make sure that we properly reflect Liszt.'

Hungarian Dances by Brahms and a Dvorak tone-poem flank Quigley's contribution to the concert. Later, on November 2 at the Spires Centre, the highly gifted Eimear McGeown will front a delectable programme of French music, playing Ibert's Flute Concerto alongside works by Roussel (Petite Suite) and Milhaud (Suite Française).

Early Christmas shoppers should treat themselves to Newtownards soprano Rebekah Coffey's mainly operatic recital on December 14, featuring Handel, Mozart and Bellini. Wednesday lunchtimes also give an opportunity for some of the UO's own players to step into the solo limelight.

'We should be championing our own soloists,' says McGovern. 'It's brilliant for the morale of the orchestra, it keeps our section leaders on their toes, and they get a great buzz out of it. That's part of our mission, I guess, to show the diversity of the talent that we have in this orchestra.'

Two UO players (trumpeters Paul Young and Patrick McCarthy) have already been strutting their stuff solo at a season-opening 'taster' event on September 21, in a chirruping Vivaldi concerto.

The 'taster' concert, another McGovern innovation, is an effort to widen access to the orchestra's activities and demystify the whole process of listening to classical music, which can easily seem an intimidating, exclusive business.

'It seems to me,' McGovern says, 'that there's a communication gap between this orchestra and its community. We have a core of 600 people who are the converted, loyal subscribers, we couldn't exist without them. And then we have a completely different audience that come to our popular classics concerts, our film nights, the crossover nights with the likes of Paul Brady, Brian Kennedy or Duke Special. Those are hugely popular.'

So how do you get the popular concert audiences to attend regular season concerts with core classical content? 'I thought maybe one way of doing it is to set out an enticing menu in one night, with low-cost ticket prices (£10), the kind of music that people would find extremely hard not to enjoy. Hopefully, if they like what they hear in the 'taster', they come along and hear the work in its entirety later in the season.'

The first-ever UO 'taster' concert was notably successful, with an estimated 900 people in the audience. 'I was so delighted,' beams McGovern, who is equally enthusiastic about the spoken introductions (a real rarity in classical concerts) to each piece of music delivered by the Ulster Orchestra's new principal conductor, American JoAnn Falletta.

'I know it's unconventional,' concedes McGovern, 'and perhaps you have to be careful not to do it all the time. But I just think we're very lucky to have a principal conductor who's a real livewire on the podium, and a completely effortless communicator. The way she's able to talk about music leaves a lasting impression, and again hopefully will bring people back.'

Lunchtime concerts, 'taster' evenings, talking conductors – nine months into Declan McGovern's tenure as CEO of the UO there is certainly no shortage of new, audience-building initiatives. So why not grab a sandwich (or panini) and get on down to Bedford Street on October 5 for David Quigley's Liszt concert? If nothing else, it would certainly be a lunchtime with a difference, and may even whet your appetite for future helpings. 

Further details on Ulster Orchestra concerts can be found in the Culture Northern Ireland What's On listings.