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2023 in Review (Part Two)

An allegrissimo look back at the Ulster Orchestra’s 2023.

Click here to read Part 1.


We were back after the summer break for a series of BBC Radio 3 Summer Invitation Concerts, with conductors Jan van Steen and Angus Webster, and soloists Michael McHale and Santiago Cañón-Valencia. We also travelled to Dungannon with conductor David Brophy for our ever-popular On Your Doorstep concert at the Hill of the O’Neill, and joined singer-songwriter Foy Vance at the Waterfront Hall to celebrate a decade of his album Joy of Nothing. The live album of this performance is now available.

And then we were off to France, to take part in Festival Berlioz with conductor Fiona Monbet and mezzo-soprano Antoinette Dennefeld. You can read more about the trip in our photo essay here – the annual festival celebrates the composer Hector Berlioz in his hometown of La Côte-Saint-André, and can draw crowds of up to 37,000 people. Our “Légends d’Irlande” concert featured Berlioz’s Intrata di Rob-Roy MacGregor, Arnold Bax’s In the Faery Hills and Roscatha, and Berlioz’s Mélodies irlandaises, orchestrated by Arthur Lavandier to incorporate traditional instruments such as the bodhran and bagpipes. The latter instrument certainly proved popular with the audience, who joined in clapping to the reprise of Chant guerrier during the encore, and gave the orchestra a standing ovation at the end.

“Concerts are at their best when they bring the audience and the orchestra together in a genuinely shared musical experience. The audience for our concert at Festival Berlioz were left breathless, uplifted and inspired by performance that had everything; an orchestra ‘on fire’, a world-class mezzo, and of course, those bagpipes…” – Patrick McCarthy, Artistic Director and Deputy CEO


Our 2023/24 season is all about musical storytelling, so it was fitting that our Opening Concert in September began with Dukas’s spellbinding L’apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). With Daniele Rustioni back at the helm, we also performed Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, and cellist Alban Gerhardt mesmerised in Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante. He also joined our cello section for the second half of the concert! This was also Ioana Petcu-Colan’s first concert in her new role as one of two Leaders of the orchestra.

To celebrate the beginning of the season, we took over the window of Visit Belfast in the city centre, with special pop-up performances from our Animateur Jonathan Simmance for passers-by to enjoy.

We also joined our friends at Northern Ireland Opera for their sold out performances of Puccini’s Tosca at the Grand Opera House, Belfast with conductor Eduardo Strausser, and took part in the Big Arts Weekend at Cushendun as well as European Heritage Open Days, opening 32 Townsend Street up to the public to come and hear talks about the history of the building and music from a quartet of our string players. We also joined conductor Geoffrey Patterson for a BBC Invitation Concert programme of Wagner, Musgrave and Sibelius.


The magnetic Mahan Esfahani delivered a performance of the harpsichord as you’ve never heard it before in Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre at our second concert of the season in October. Conducted by Dionysis Grammenos, the programme also featured Grieg’s Holberg Suite and Sibelius’s Third Symphony.

One of our most popular concerts of the year is always Lush! Classical, with 10,000 people filling the SSE Arena in Belfast to enjoy a night of nonstop dance anthems. The event is one we look forward to, as it provides a chance for audiences to experience the orchestra in a non-classical setting, and our musicians always have a great time as well! We celebrated the music of the late, great Burt Bacharach in the Waterfront Hall with What the World Needs Now…, featuring the brilliant vocalists Graham Bickley, Katie Birtill, Laura Tebbutt, Abbie Osmon and conductor Richard Balcombe. We also participated in the opening night of the Derry Choral Festival, in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem with the 100-strong Festival Chorus.

The astounding left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy joined us for our third season concert with conductor Carlos Kalmar, where he performed Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D major (left-hand) and Britten’s Diversions for Piano (left-hand). Nicholas also led a piano masterclass at 32 Townsend Street for students from Ulster Youth Orchestra, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, and joined us at Ulster University’s Belfast campus for a performance with participants from two inclusive music ensembles, Acoustronic and Performance without Barriers, who premiered their new piece, Zoom Time – Over and Out. We have interviewed all of the guest artists in our season so far, which are available on our YouTube channel, but Nicholas’s interview has proven the most popular to-date.

We were overjoyed when our joint project with the Education Authority Music Service, To Bassoon and Beyond, which aims to develop a new generation of bassoon players, won Classic FM’s award for Best Music Learning Initiative 2023. Our Deputy Production Manager Zoe Coakley and Education Authority Music Service tutor Krista Gallagher received the award at a gala event at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

Our own Digital Platform Lead, herself a bassoon player, was able to join the young bassoonists at one of the workshops at 32 Townsend Street: 

“This was especially incredible because I was able to work alongside Krista, who was instrumental in starting me on my musical journey – if it weren’t for her, I’d not be working for Ulster Orchestra today.” – Lu Vella, Digital Platform Lead.


Daniele Rustioni was back for two season concerts in November: first, with pianist Federico Colli, who performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21; then with Francesca Dego, our Artist in Focus for this season, who gave outstanding performances of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin in Belfast and Coleraine.

We also welcomed our latest cohort of students on our Professional Experience Scheme (PES). Running in partnership with Ulster Youth Orchestra, PES offers young musicians the chance to join the orchestra in rehearsals, and where appropriate, play in concerts. On their three week-long visits during the season, the students also receive support and mentorship from musicians in the orchestra, develop skills in auditioning and participating in Learning and Community Engagement projects, and more. 

We commemorated the centenary of composer Charles Villiers Stanford’s death with a performance of his Requiem with the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and conductor James Grossmith; Pablo Urbina joined us to conduct a BBC Invitation Concert; and a series of workshops with two local youth groups, St. Peter’s Immaculata and Townsend Street Social Outreach Centre, culminated in an event where the groups came together with friends and family to hear a new piece of music, composed by our Animateur Jonathan Simmance, which was inspired and informed by the journey the young people have been on through their reconciliation work together. It was a very special evening and it was great to see the reaction of the young people to the process and final piece of music. The project was supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

But for most of the month, the orchestra was travelling around Northern Ireland, enlisting musical detectives for our Primary Schools Concerts, kindly supported by Deloitte. With presenter Cath Arlidge and conductor David Brophy, we visited Derry, Newry, Ballymena, Omagh, Enniskillen and Belfast, performing to 4,089 pupils and teachers from 72 schools.


And just like that, the end of the year approached. But not before our sixth season concert, with conductor Mihail Gerts and soloist Vadym Kholodenko’s virtuosic performance of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Our musicians also joined the Hellas Ensemble for a special performance at Carlisle Road Methodist Church, Derry~Londonderry, to celebrate Seamus Heaney’s relationship with Greece, along with author Bruce Clark and the poet’s daughter, Catherine Heaney. Conductor Stephanie Childress conducted our last BBC Invitation Concert of the year, and a brass quartet went to St. McCarten’s Church in the Clogher valley to perform a fanfare specially written by Jonathan Simmance to celebrate the restoration of the church bell.

Then there was the small matter of our sold out Christmas concerts. From the children’s classic, Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman, to Handel’s majestic Messiah, to our festive feast of family favourites, The Magic of Christmas, we were back and forth between Belfast and Derry bringing Christmas cheer along with conductors Christopher Bell, Tom Fetherstonhaugh and Alfonso Casado Trigo; Codetta Choir and Belfast Philharmonic Choir; and soloists Rebecca Murphy, Niamh O’Sullivan, Joshua Ellicott, Ashley Riches, Katie Birtill and Shane O’Riordan.

We also participated in free community Christmas concerts at St. Comgall’s and Northumberland Street Interface Gates, in association with Falls Residents’ Association, Falls Community Council, St. Peter’s Cathedral, St. Comgall’s and New Life City Church, where we joined choirs from St. Peter’s, Black Mountain Primary School and St. Joseph’s Primary School.

And if that wasn’t enough, we launched our partnership with Ulster University with another Christmas concert at their Belfast campus – Santa Claus himself even made an appearance!

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Even after all that, we haven’t nearly covered everything that’s been happening over the past year. For instance, the ‘Adopt a Player’ workshops, led by our Community Liaison Nigel Ireland, that have brought our musicians to visit 5,631 pupils at 27 primary schools across Northern Ireland. Or our Wellbeing Workshops, bringing music to 146 residents in local care homes. Or our weekly Performance Coaching sessions for 84 students at Queen’s University Belfast. And there’s even more work that goes on behind the scenes in areas such as recruitment, which in 2023 has seen 886 applicants across all orchestra positions, and recruitment panels have listened to a total of 724 auditions during the year. That’s not to mention finance, fundraising, planning, management, production, marketing, the Board of Directors and subcommittee meetings… and of course, you. Everything we have done this year couldn’t have happened without your support, whether you’ve come to one or more of our concerts or a free event, streamed our music, or even mentioned us to friends or family. Thank you. We hope to see you again next year.

We have lots of exciting plans for 2024. From our Star Wars and Lennon and McCartney shows, to our epic season finalé (and last concert with Daniele Rustioni as our Music Director) of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2, to our exciting project with Townsend Enterprise Park and Zeppo Arts as part of       Belfast 2024, the city’s biggest ever creative and cultural celebration, funded by Belfast City Council… but that’s for another time.

Happy New Year. 

Check out our What's On guide to see what is coming up in 2024.

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