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Ulster Orchestra (Symphony Orchestra)

Founded: 1966 - Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK

The Ulster Orchestra, based in Belfast, is a cornerstone of cultural life in Northern Ireland, and has established itself as one of the major symphony orchestras in the UK. It employs 63 full-time musicians as well as 18 administrative staff. It is Northern Ireland’s only professional symphony orchestra. Enriching life through music, the Ulster Orchestra’s mission statement, is a clear articulation of the goals and the dreams of the Orchestra, shaping its strategies and determining its day-to-day operations.


The Ulster Orchestra was founded in 1966 by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, with Maurice Miles as its first principal conductor and with János Fürst as its first concertmaster/leader. Fürst later became the orchestra's assistant conductor. The Orchestra has existed in its present form since 1981, when the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra (BBC NIO) was disbanded. The Ulster Orchestra Society Ltd was then established (a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity) with funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the BBC, Belfast City Council and Gallaher Ltd., and the size of the Orchestra was increased with players from the disbanded BBC NIO.

Past Principal Conductors have included Bryden Thomson, Vernon Handley, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Thierry Fischer, and Kenneth Montgomery. Handley also held the title of Conductor Laureate from 2003 until his death in 2008. Since the 2009-2010 season, the orchestra's principal guest conductor is Paul Watkins. Past Associate Composers with the orchestra have included Brian Irvine, and the current Associate Composer is Ian Wilson.

The most recent chief executive officer of the orchestra was David Byers, who was named as interim chief executive in June 2002, and was formally named to the position in March 2003, initially for a 5-year contract. He retired from the post in September 2010. Dick Mackenzie became the interim chief executive of the orchestra upon Byers' retirement.

The Ulster Orchestra plays the majority of its concerts in Belfast's Ulster Hall and Waterfront Hall. It gives concerts across Northern Ireland, including performances at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, the Wexford Opera Festival, the Kilkenny Arts Festival, and the National Concert Hall, Dublin. It has accompanied opera and ballet productions at Belfast’s Grand Opera House.

The Ulster Orchestra gives many concerts in centres across Northern Ireland and has performed many times at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. It has a major programme of education and outreach work, recognised by numerous awards, including the inaugural Royal Philharmonic Society Educational Award. In January 2009 the Orchestra was awarded the prestigious Arts & Business Arts Award in recognition of its professionalism and creativity in the management and development of its business relationships. Most recently, the Orchestra was the recipient of a London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Inspire Mark for the Pied Piper project.

Since 1985, the Ulster Orchestra has been a regular visitor to The Proms. Tours of Europe, Asia, and the USA have added to this reputation. In 2001 the Ulster Orchestra travelled to New York to launch the UKwithNY Festival, and that same month toured the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

The Ulster Orchestra has made some 70 recordings, notably for Chandos, Naxos, BMG, Hyperion, Priory and Toccata Classics. The BBC has a unique relationship with the Ulster Orchestra as its exclusive broadcast partner with relays on BBC Radio 3, Radio Ulster and BBC TV. The mix of commercial recordings and streamed internet broadcasts has considerably enhanced the Orchestra’s international reputation.


The Ulster Orchestra Society Ltd receives core funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Belfast City Council. Through an agreement with the BBC, the UOS receives significant payments for a specified number of broadcast recordings (an essential and vital part of the funding equation). The BBC maintains exclusive distribution rights over the performances which it records. These are broadcast locally on Radio Ulster, and nationally on BBC Radio 3.

Further funding comes from Lottery awards for Audience Development and New Works, from local councils for concerts and education work, from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for capital works and touring, and from a number of Trusts and Foundations for specific projects for staffing.

Other key sources of income include Box Office receipts, programme sales and advertising, corporate sponsors (including additional funding from Arts and Business), Friends' subscriptions, Gift Aid and private philanthropic donations, including legacies.

The Orchestra's annual turnover in 2001-2002 was in excess of £3.4 million. Byers has guided the orchestra through recent financial issues, including the increase of a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from GB £1.34 million (2002) to £1.69 million (2003) and to £2.05 million (2008).

Education and community outreach

The Ulster Orchestra undertakes a wide range of outreach projects, including workshops in schools throughout Northern Ireland, pre-concert talks and instrument master-classes. The Orchestra received the Royal Philharmonic Society's first award for an education project (in West Belfast). Recent major cross-community projects involving Belfast schools in areas of social deprivation have included Gulliver in 2005, A Marvellous Medicine in 2007 and The Pied Piper in 2009. Brian Irvine, then the Orchestra's Associate Composer, composed the music for these last two projects. The Pied Piper project was awarded the Inspire Mark of the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad.


Through its BBC work and/or with help from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Lottery Fund, there have been many commissions for composers in Ireland and Northern Ireland, including Ciaran Farrell, Elaine Agnew, Gerald Barry, Michael McGlynn, Derek Bell, David Byers, Bill Campbell, Donnacha Dennehy, Stephen Gardner, Deirdre Gribbin, Philip Hammond, Piers Hellawell, Rachel Holstead, Marion Ingoldsby, Brian Irvine, Frank Lloyd, Neil Martin, Kevin O'Connell, Ian Wilson and Paul Wilson.

Commissioned GB composers include Mark Bowden, Edward McGuire, Stephen McNeff, John Tavener, Adrian Thomas and Malcolm Williamson. Commissioned composers from outside the UK and Ireland include Lyell Cresswell, Rodion Shchedrin, Pawel Szymanski and Kevin Volans.

Principal Conductors

Maurice Miles (1966-1967)
Sergiu Comissiona (1967-1969)
Edgar Cosma (1969-1974)
Alun Francis (1974-1976)
Bryden Thomson (1977-1985)
Vernon Handley (1985-1989)
Yan Pascal Tortelier (1989-1992)
En Shao (1992-1995)
Dmitry Sitkovetsky (1996-2001)
Thierry Fischer (2001-2006)
Kenneth Montgomery (2007-2010)

Source: Ulster Orchestra Website; Wikipedia Website (Februaryl 2011)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (April 2011)

Recordings of Arrangements/Transcriptions of Bach’s Works




Takuo Yuasa


A. Pärt: Collage sur B-A-C-H

Links to other Sites

Ulster Orchestra (Official Website)

Ulster Orchestra (Wikipedia)

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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Last update: Tuesday, May 30, 2017 05:26