16th October 2019

Established in 1966, the Ulster Orchestra is Northern Ireland’s professional symphony orchestra whose mission is to enrich life through music.

We sat down with Patrick McCarthy Head of Artistic Planning and Operations at Ulster Orchestra to chat about the history of the Orchestra, where to find them and their previous and upcoming shows!



Tell us about the history of the Ulster Orchestra

A smaller version of the Orchestra was founded in 1966 with funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. When the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra was disbanded in the early 1980s, the Ulster Orchestra absorbed those players, and with additional funding from the BBC, became the 63-player orchestra that it still is today.

The Orchestra endured a significant crisis in 2014 which almost forced its closure. A major change to the business model, and significant changes to the players’ working contract, positioned the Orchestra in a much-improved position, both financially and in terms of its relevance to people across Northern Ireland.

Where to find you

The Orchestra presents a full schedule of core classical repertoire concerts at the Ulster Hall between September and June each year, with some of the world’s best conductors and soloists as visiting artists. Our new Chief Conductor is Daniele Rustioni: he already has an amazing career in opera, and we expect the relationship with our players will be a really exciting one.

Our “On Your Doorstep” series of concerts takes the orchestra, and smaller groups of musicians, to venues across NI, and to communities of Belfast beyond the city centre which haven’t previously been able to access the Orchestra.

In addition to these concerts, we have our Pops series of concerts at the Waterfront Hall, which this year includes concerts of music from TV, gaming and films, as well as Swing, Musicals, and James Bond. A first for this year, will be two showings of The Gruffalo animated film with live orchestra.

Crucially important, is our work away from the concert stage. Every member of the orchestra takes part in a range of activities in schools, community centres, care homes and hospitals. They do this as part of their contract time, and we are the only UK orchestra to have this as a part of everyone’s contract, every week. One of our main rehearsal venues is the Spectrum Centre on the upper Shankill, where we look to open many rehearsals to groups who want to experience what we do. We genuinely believe that the Ulster Orchestra exists for everyone in Northern Ireland, and that we have a responsibility to make ourselves accessible to all.

What amazing shows / concerts have you done in the past

Our annual concerts with Lush! are always a spectacle, with a full-on lighting and visuals show and the sort of production values you’d expect from a stadium concert – there’s a reason why it sells out every year!

One of the most significant concerts in the last year was a performance of Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, as part of the Association of British Orchestra’s conference at the Waterfront in January 2019. This huge piece requires an orchestra of 120 players, and so we invited musicians from right across Europe to join our players for this. In what still might be the year of Brexit, it was a terrific demonstration of what can happen when countries and musicians combine to produce something which is perhaps even greater than the sum of its parts.

What is next for the Ulster Orchestra?

The next concert in our Pops series is the epic Worlds of Fantasy – a night featuring soundtracks from movies, TV and gaming in the Waterfront Hall on 26 October. We’ve got Ian McElhinney (Derry Girls, Game of Thrones, Star Wars) presenting the full orchestra and a programme that includes music from Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Dr Who, Final Fantasy and the Marvel Universe.

Our new Chief Conductor Daniele Rustioni returns for a night of Strauss and Beethoven in the Ulster Hall on Friday 15 November.  Our festive season is just around the corner, with the Snowman Family Concert on Saturday 7 December, the Messiah at Christmas on Saturday 14 of December and our popular night of festive favourites The Magic of Christmas on Thursday 19 December. Details of all our forthcoming concerts are available from our website!

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