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