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Update: Miserable news from Northern Ireland

On the scale of troubles that have plagued the six counties in my lifetime (and appear to be flaring up again), this is very small beer.

But culturally it is immense. We hear overnight that the Ulster Orchestra is being sharply downsized – pretty much to chamber scale.

So far, according to the musicians, the trombones are to be sacked, half the horns; all ‘no.3s’ in the woodwind, and many in the strings.

UPDATE: Officials in the orchestra say this information is premature. They have asked us to publish the following statement:

Discussions are taking place within the Ulster Orchestra about how it is going to manage the impact of cuts in ACNI and BBC funding in the future. Consultations with the musicians and staff are underway with a view to finding a strategy which will maintain the orchestra’s service to Northern Ireland, but no decisions have been taken on size or format of the orchestra going forward.

The orchestra, which consumes one third of the province’s entire arts budget, has been running up ever-growing deficits, After the last manager departed this summer in a matter of weeks, the veteran orch boss Ed Smith (CBSO, Toronto, Gothenburg) was flown in to construct a rescue plan.

Artistically, the orch’s spirits have been renewed by conductor Jo-Ann Falletta and they had a successful Proms showing in the summer. The future, though, looks slim and bleak. It may yet join the list of worst orchs of 2012.


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  1. Speaking of Ed Smith’s appointment in August 2012, the head of Arts Council Northern Ireland said “We very much look forward to seeing how the Orchestra grows and develops over the coming months under his professional guidance…” Growth and development must have a different definition in Northern Ireland.

  2. Nicola Conner says:

    Worst orchestra? Absolutely not! Times are hard and money is tight – UO (musicians and management) deserves huge credit for keeping the flag flying for serious music. It does tremendous work taking music around the province and into schools, is highly innovative, has great rapport with audiences, and a bunch of fabulous musicians.

  3. A rich man once said, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”

    Firstly I would have to echo Nicola’s comments on the Ulster Orchestra who are a credit to, and greatly add to the cultural fabric of, their city. I do however find it unbelievable that the UO’s contribution to this article is in the form of an “update” and I would have to query the journalistic merit of publishing this piece in advance of confirming with the organisation concerned.

    The claims made in this article affect peoples lives and should be handled with sensitivity, not as a puff piece on a blog. This piece seems to be made up almost exclusively of speculation and hearsay and it is disappointing that in these times of genuine financial hardship for cultural bodies, someone who styles themselves a campaigner against injustices in the cultural industries would engage in what seems to be little more than idle gossip, as an article I am afraid it does a great disservice to a Belfast instuition.

  4. I’ve been going to Ulster Orchestra concerts since it began as a chamber-sized orchestra. It really grabbed the community’s affection when it was enlarged in 1981 with the support of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the BBC. It’s a great orchestra, giving concerts and doing so much for young and old in its outreach work. I can now travel to concerts by our community bus service thanks to a UO scheme. When will NI’s politicians ever address the arts and take pride in their national orchestra? Flag-flying has a bad name in NI these days – but who will fly the flag for the UO and lend it support when it needs it. Clearly the Arts Council wants rid of it at any cost.

    • Hi Declan, I’m doing a research project on the history of the Ulster Orchestra and would really interested in talking to you seeing as you’ve been attending concerts since the early days! As a general point, there wasn’t much appetite for the repertoire offered by the orchestra when there were just 40 players. Like you say, since the enlargement in 1981 there hasn’t been a problem with attendance at concerts, and I fear that if this reduction takes place audiences will rapidly diminish.

  5. This is not the first time a new manager has walked into an orchestra only to discover that things are in complete shambles. Question is, will Smith be the sacrificial lamb or a catalyst for change.

  6. Turning woodwind no.3′s in to non-full-time positions sounds sensible, and not an indication of an orchestra being downsized. How many standard orchestral works call for more than double winds? Half or fewer, I’d suggest. Accordingly, probably cheaper to bring in extras when required rather than have people “on staff” and being paid to sit around doing nothing. That’s just sensible management.
    Horns, trombones, seem a slightly different issue; but since these are rumours (and it isn’t clear exactly how many of each the Ulster employ anyway), I won’t read too much into it.

    • But the Ulster Orchestra only has double woodwind as far as I know, unless it has been enlarged in the last few years. It does sound as though it faces a very bleak future, though. I don’t know how much truth there is this, but I’ve heard it seriously lacks support among ‘nationalist’ politicians, being seen as part of the ‘unionist’ establishment. If that is the case, it’s a sad reflection on Ulster politics – that even such valuable cultural institutions can be identified with one side of the divide.

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