Thank you for the music



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


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

Live music – the gift that keeps on giving

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened its new season in Glasgow last night. It was a blistering occasion – a heady mixture of Russian music, Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, Scriabin’s Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s tenth symphony. The City Halls were packed for the concert, which featured the Tchaikovsky prize-winning pianist Barry Douglas (above) and which was conducted by the orchestra’s charismatic chief conductor Donald Runnicles. It was broadcast live on Radio 3.

In the classical music world, the future of the BBC orchestras is a constant topic of idle speculation, and over the past couple of months the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has been the subject of particular attention. One of the consequences of Scottish independence would have been the break-up of the BBC. Whether a Scottish broadcaster would have had the resources – or indeed the inclination – to maintain the orchestra was unclear.

The BBC’s pivotal role in the development of classical music in Britain cannot be underestimated. It remains one of the primary patrons of new music, in addition to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, it sustains orchestras in Wales and England (the BBC Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic and the BBC Concert orchestras) and its funding for the Ulster Orchestra is critical to its survival. The BBC Proms remains one of the most remarkable festivals of music in the world today.

Times have changed, resources are limited, and the pressure on BBC Radio Three is enormous.

When the Ulster Orchestra was founded in the 1980s, its funding model was supposed to be rolled out across the BBC orchestras. The BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra morphed into a new organisation with the Beeb as a partner alongside the Arts Council, Belfast City Council and the private sector (in the form of tobacco giant Gallaher – now JTI).

Luckily for the other orchestras, the experiment stopped there. Unfortunately for the Ulster Orchestra, it has left it in a perilous position – underfunded by the Arts Council (itself underfunded by a Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure which is no champion for the arts) and neglected by Belfast City Council which does not understand the value of this cultural asset.

The notion that the private sector in Northern Ireland would step up to the plate was fanciful. There’s no private sector there worth talking about.

Compared with its sister city Belfast, Glasgow is well served. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Scottish Ensemble and the BBCSSO all command audiences, and the music scene is vibrant.

They benefit from being able to draw on a larger population base than their Belfast cousins. But crucially they are based in a city which has put cultural tourism at the heart of its strategy. Glasgow is proud of its cultural assets in a way Belfast is not – for all the investment there has been in capital infrastructure in recent years.

As the broadcasting environment changes, the BBC orchestras will face more and more challenges to justify themselves.

Many people will have little sympathy for an art form for which they find it hard to relate to, and the arts are an easy target for the number-crunchers and bean counters. The creative industries rely on people, and people are expensive.

But without creativity, we are nothing. Directly and indirectly, the creative industries feed our souls and have a significant impact on things we do value as a society – the creation of wealth. In a world where brain rather than brawn is the key differentiator, creativity has added importance.
Our musicians, actors, dancers and singers provide the type of creative environment which stimulates our minds.

And there is another reason why we should support and sustain our orchestras. There is nothing quite like the communal experience of sitting in a hall with 1,000 strangers experiencing music live. There is a level of engagement and excitement which cannot be replicated (as BBC Radio 3 discovered through its ill-fated experiment in broadcasting concerts ‘as live’ rather than live).

We live in a needy world, we have to priorities where we spend our money, but a world which has no place for the arts and creativity, which has no ears for music, is not worth inhabiting.