Thank you for the music

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The Ulster Orchestra: access to the arts is a right not a privilege

If the Ulster Orchestra is forced to close, the shockwave will be felt around the world. It is one of Northern Ireland’s most successful artistic brands, known internationally through its acclaimed recordings, broadcasts and tours.

But the bigger loss will be to people here who will be robbed of the opportunity to hear some of the world’s greatest music, played live by musicians rooted in this community.

The loss will not just be felt by audiences in its main concert venues, but by communities across Northern Ireland. The players are the backbone of our music education system – working in schools and universities, community groups and with amateur bands across the country.

Politicians make much of the importance of cultural industries to Northern Ireland’s creative economy. The loss of this orchestra would undermine the drive to make this part of the world a creative hub.

For the orchestra, this crisis is the latest in a series of near disasters. It has been structurally underfunded for decades. Public funding is its bedrock. With a tiny private sector here, its capacity to earn income from other sources is severely constrained.

It has pared costs to the bone. Staffing has been cut, and its players – among the worst paid orchestral musicians in the UK – have endured pay freezes to help balance the books. Tightened financial circumstances have limited its capacity to innovate and search for new audiences.

The orchestra has stayed afloat with expressions of goodwill, and short-term injections of cash. But goodwill does not pay the bills, and the sticking plasters have now come off. Long-term, sustainable, investment is needed.

The founding partners – Belfast City Council, the Arts Council/Department of Culture Arts and Leisure, and the BBC – benefit directly from the orchestra’s work. Each faces pressure financially, but they must work together creatively to find a long-term solution. That solution must not just be about stopping the rot.

The future must be built around a vision of what an orchestra could bring to Northern Ireland’s cultural life if it were allowed to reach its full potential. Reducing it to a chamber-sized orchestra or going part-time should not be on the agenda.

There is an opportunity here too for Belfast City Council to learn lessons from other major cities who have used their orchestras to build profile – Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham among them. For too long, some city councillors have seen the orchestra as a ‘middle-class beggar’ holding out its hand for charity. Yet in most years, the orchestra pays more to Belfast City Council in hall hire fees than it receives in grant.

What a joke it would be if the city ended up with two of the finest concert halls in the UK and no orchestra to play in them.

Arts funding is not charity, it is an investment that makes sense economically, culturally, socially and educationally. The arts add value. Every pound of public money generates wealth for the Northern Ireland economy.

As for the middle class tag, I know from personal experience that is nonsense. As the Labour politician Ernest Bevin once said: “Nothing is too good for the working class.” The orchestra draws its audience from all classes and creeds.

One story illustrates what an orchestra can mean to ordinary people. Some years ago, The Irish News ran a competition for tickets to one of its concerts. One afternoon I got a call from a distraught woman from the Markets.

She’d won tickets, but her husband had forbidden her to go. “He’s not stopping me,” she said, asking if she could pick the tickets up rather than having them sent home. Whatever troubles she was facing in her daily life, I know the two hours spent in the Ulster Hall were ones she cherished.

Access to the arts is a right, not a privilege. After almost half a century of service, the orchestra deserves better than this.

 

  • Tom Collins is a former chairman of the Ulster Orchestra. A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on 22 October 2014

 

 

 

A kick in the crotchets for Belfast’s Ulster Orchestra

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The Ulster Hall, Belfast, home of the Ulster Orchestra

One of the most remarkable acts of people power I witnessed during the Troubles happened at a concert in the Ulster Hall. The Ulster Orchestra was giving a concert, and during the interval a bomb warning was phoned through. Its then Chief Executive, David Byers came on stage and told the audience they would have to leave. The audience refused to go.

The Orchestra, he said, was happy to play on. So we all checked under our seats, and having assured ourselves that there were no ticking bombs, sat down and enjoyed the rest of the concert.

Okay, there have been greater acts of courage. But throughout the Troubles, the Ulster Orchestra played on, bringing a sense of normality to a country very much in need of one.

I remember former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble – a man who knows his music – saying the regeneration of Belfast city centre was due to the Ulster Orchestra’s decision to launch its concert series in the early 80s. Until then, Belfast city centre was just one large no-go area.

The arts are much undervalued. But the simple truth is that actors, musicians and writers are often the people who hold societies together in the midst of the most horrific circumstances. Jewish musicians played Schubert in Nazi concentration camps, cellist Vedran Smallovich played chamber music in ruins during the siege of Sarajevo, and Daniel Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra brings together musicians from Palestine and Israel, demonstrating that the human spirit can transform the most horrible of conflicts.

The Ulster Orchestra’s contribution to Northern Ireland is in the same league. Alongside the Lyric Theatre and Belfast Festival at Queen’s, it provided an alternative narrative to bombs and bullets and sectarian strife.

People around the world who bought its award-winning recordings, who listened to its concerts on the BBC, or who attended its international tours, heard a different Belfast voice.

But the Orchestra’s real impact was at home. The musicians provided the bedrock of music education across Northern Ireland – not just for classical musicians, but for people playing Irish traditional music, and music in brass and flute bands.

Innovative education programmes touched the lives of school children from Fermanagh in the west to Down in the east – not only were children given the opportunity to listen to musicians at the top of their game, but they played alongside them. In one particularly memorable project, Peter Maxwell Davis’s Turn of the Tide, primary school pupils played music they themselves had composed.

Northern Ireland punches above its weight where music is concerned. It does so because its artists and composers have cut their teeth with the orchestra. Barry Douglas, a towering figure among concert pianists, was one man whose career was forged in front of Ulster Orchestra audiences.

Michael McHale is carrying on that tradition for the current generation of young musicians. Sir James Galway, soprano Heather Harper, and the irrepressible Derek Bell of Chieftains fame have shown the best of what Northern Ireland has to offer on stage with the orchestra, as have Phil Coulter, Horslips and Anuna.

The list of composers it has encouraged could fill the rest of this page – many may not be household names, but without the Ulster Orchestra we would not have definitive recordings of music by Hamilton Harty, Charles Villiers Stanford, Howard Ferguson and the redoubtable Joan Trimble, among many others.

Orchestras do not come cheap. But the Ulster Orchestra has existed on a shoestring since its foundation. Structurally underfunded since its inception, it has always walked the thin line between solvency and bankruptcy. The Arts Council has been its biggest funder, followed by the BBC, Belfast City Council and the private sector.

Grants could be illusory. Most years, the Orchestra regularly paid more to the city council in hall hire fees than it received in its grant. It is ironic that the latest threat to the Orchestra’s future comes as plans are announced for an extension to the Waterfront Hall. There is no point in having two of the finest concert halls in the UK if you don’t have a decent orchestra to play in them.

After years of ducking and diving, it looks like time is running out for the band.

Northern Ireland’s politicians have never really faced up to their responsibilities to a the arts. Classical music doesn’t win many votes, and most politicians seem indifferent.

None of the Orchestra’s main sources of funding is secure. The Arts Council is chronically underfunded, with ministers insisting that funding decisions are based on social rather than artistic criteria. Belfast City Council does not fully appreciate the city’s cultural assets. The BBC is being squeezed financially and its long-term support for the Orchestra cannot be guaranteed. As for the private sector – it simply does not have the capacity for major arts funding.

Belfast tends to look to Glasgow as a model of Victorian cities which have transformed themselves from post-industrial wastelands to thriving urban centres. Glasgow has invested in cultural and arts, creating a quality of life which is a lure to high-value industries – financial services, technology, and new media among many others. It is a concert base four orchestras – the RSNO, BBC Scottish Symphony, Scottish Chamber and the Scottish Ensemble – each with an international reputation.

If the Ulster Orchestra is allowed to go under, Belfast will have hammered another nail in its own coffin and there will be no-one around to play its funeral march.

 

  • Tom Collins was chairman of the Ulster Orchestra from 1999-2007

In the beginning was the Tweet

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The Reverend Richard Coles: more tea vicar?

I think we need to revise the notion that there are, at most, six degrees of separation.

The theory is that we are no more than half a dozen steps from anyone else on the planet through the introduction of a friend, friends of a friend and so on. It’s an interesting idea, and a fun parlour game. I know someone who claims to have uncovered familial links to Liam Neeson and Sinead O’Connor – now that would be an interesting family gathering.

With the arrival of the internet, I suspect we need to reduce the number of degrees of separation. That came home to me last night during a brief conversation with Radio Four’s resident vicar, the Rev Richard Coles. A former member of the Communards, he is one of the more prolific contributors to the micro-blogosphere. You can find him at @RevRichardColes.

With some 87 thousand tweets to his credit, and some 66 thousand ‘followers’ (such an appropriate term for a Christian clergyman), he is a reasonable sized beast in the world that is Twitter. Quite how he gets time for vicaring and broadcasting is anyone’s guess.

As vicars go, he comes across pretty chilled. He has a brilliant voice for radio; and I imagine his parishioners find comfort in it too. “Please don’t shout at me,” he says in his Twitter profile.

There’s a lot of shouting on Twitter. For some reason it seems to bring out the worst in some people. I have seen people I know and respect turn into foul-mouthed bigots in the course of less than 140 characters. Not, it must be said, the Reverend. His Tweets are the model of propriety. Today, he tells us, is the day dedicated to St Therese of Lisieux – The Little Flower – my granny’s favourite saint.

Anyhow, other than hearing him on the radio (not quite religiously) on Saturday mornings, and seeing his occasional contribution to the BBC’s other broadcast output, I have never met him, never mind had a conversation with him – until last night that is.

He had tweeted a picture of a sunlit interior of a church where he had been ministering to a grieving widow. I’m sure the moment had moved him, and he wanted to share it with the world. I am less sure why I was uncomfortable about that. Perhaps I felt I had unwittingly intruded on someone else’s grief – become a voyeur during a private moment between a woman and her minister.

I should have put my phone down, and snuggled under the duvet, but instead I tapped out a Tweet. “Somethings may be best not tweeted Richard,” I said.

The “Richard” is much too familiar, and reading it now, the sentiment is high-minded. Patronising. Pompous.

You don’t normally expect a response. But a few moments later my phone pinged at me. “I don’t follow,” the reverend typed back – breaking the glass wall between performer and audience. “Private moments often best left that way,” I wrote. “Just a thought.” You could see I was feeling guilty. “Hope she got some solace. Am sure she did.”

In the face of celebrity I, like most of the rest of us, tend to crawl. “Picture taken later,” he replied – as indeed he had mentioned in his initial Tweet. “And a nice picture too,” I fawned. My phone did not ping again. Like me, I imagine he decided bed was a better bet than a row about nothing with a complete stranger.

I will never really understand what drives us to confessional moments, opening out worlds to the views of others; or why others become judgmental presuming to give a gentle ticking off to someone we do not know in a public forum.

Let he who is without sin cast the first Tweet.