“2023 has been another wonderful year for the Ulster Orchestra which saw us perform with Daniele Rustioni, Abel Selaocoe and Neil Hannon to mention just a few of the great artists we worked with. It was a year of firsts with our performance at the Berlioz Festival, our collaboration with Townsend Social Outreach Centre and St Peters Immaculata on reconciliation and the launch of a partnership with Ulster University. Can’t wait until next year as it is going to be even better!” – Auveen Sands, CEO
A busy and varied year began right away with three days of recording for an upcoming project with composer Greg Caffrey taking place at our home at 32 Townsend Street. Our move into the former church didn’t escape the notice of BBC Newsline, who reported on the building being given a new lease of life by the orchestra.
As well as performing in ARRIVAL from Sweden, “The World’s Greatest ABBA Show”, in the SSE Arena, a sold-out show in the Out to Lunch Festival and a BBC Invitation Concert, we also played two season concerts in the Ulster Hall, with horn soloist Ben Goldscheider, conductor Leslie Suganandarajah (both of whom also joined us for a performance in Armagh), our Honorary Principal Guest Conductor Jac van Steen and pianist Barry Douglas.
February began with a touch of showbiz at our Oscar Winners concert in the Waterfront Hall, where soloists Louise Dearman and Graham Bickley joined the orchestra and conductor Richard Balcolmbe to perform hit music from award-winning films.
We held our first Come and Play event of the year at the Belfast Model School for Girls, where budding musicians at grade 4-6 level got the opportunity to rehearse, get mentorship, and perform with the orchestra in front of an audience of friends and family.
In our season concerts, soloist Rosanne Philippens gave an outstanding performance of Britten’s Violin Concerto, and our Music Director Daniele Rustioni returned with Nicholas Daniel for Strauss’s Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra, as well as Brahms’s Second Symphony and Sibelius’s Seventh. Conductor Pablo Urbina joined us for a BBC Invitation Concert.
March contained many highlights, not least of which was our collaboration with Phil Kieran on his project The Strand Cinema. An idea three years in the making, our musicians joined Phil for two sold-out shows in the Strand Arts Centre, Belfast that combined electronic and orchestral music with visuals from filmmakers and artists from around the world to create a unique and extraordinary experience. The live album of the performance is now available to stream or buy, and you can also watch the full show plus behind-the-scenes interviews on our YouTube channel.
Our On Your Doorstep series took the orchestra to Strabane and Cookstown, and our second Come and Play event took place in the Ulster Hall for musicians of grades 6 and above. We performed a free lunchtime concert around the corner from our HQ at Raidió Fáilte, and were delighted to join the winners of the BBC Radio Ulster Young Musicians’ Platform Awards in the Ulster Hall to help showcase their talents. Pianist Clare Hammond performed the world premiere of Piers Hellawell’s Rapprochement, along with Samy Moussa’s Orpheus, in a concert conducted by Jamie Phillips which also featured Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony. We also squeezed in a journey around Westeros, Middle Earth, Hogwarts and more in our Worlds of Fantasy concert, as well as trips to the less fantastical (but still fantastic) libraries of Warrenpoint, Downpatrick, Carrickfergus and Coleraine for free performances as part of our collaboration with NI Libraries and BBC Northern Ireland. A series of workshops with orchestra musicians and facilitated by Cecily Smith-Nesbitt at Ceara School, Lurgan, kindly supported by Ulster Carpets, culminated in two brilliant showcases where pupils demonstrated what they had learned to the rest of the school.
Perhaps the standout performance of the month (and for many, the year) was our season concert with Abel Selaocoe and Seckou Keita, whose world premiere performance of their Double Concerto for Cello and Kora, along with other pieces conducted by Fiona Monbet, combined South and West African music with the sounds of the orchestra, to create an invigorating, enrapturing and unforgettable night.
“[This concert] was my favourite thing this year, I thought it was amazing. To see the orchestra collaborating with an artist, representing their culture so authentically, being able to meet them where they were, was really special and a big achievement. I felt really proud of the orchestra and would love us to do it again.” - Ruth Millar, Orchestra Manager.
April saw us joined by soprano Emma Morwood, tenor Robin Tritschler, baritone Ben McAteer and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir for a breathtaking performance of Haydn’s The Creation, conducted by Daniele Rustioni. After Easter, conductor and clarinet soloist Michael Collins led us in the Latin rhythms of Ginastera, De Falla and more; and Tom Fetherstonhaugh conducted a BBC Invitation Concert featuring Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Clyne and Britten.
We had another world premiere in May, as the orchestra performed The Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon’s composition As the Sun Brightens, the Shadows Deepen. The piece uses audio clips of Neil’s late father, Bishop Brian Hannon, narrating the 1963 documentary on Derry~Londonderry, A City Solitary, and interweaves them with orchestral music to create a unique, moving and meditative work.
We also danced the night away to hits by Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations and many more at our Symphonic Soul and Motown concert in the Waterfront Hall; musicians from the orchestra performed for our neighbours at New Life City Church, Belfast and the Balmoral Show; Jonathan Bloxham conducted a BBC Invitation Concert; and we travelled to the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy with Leah Broad, author of Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World, to play rarely-heard pieces from some of the composers mentioned in her book.
Our season concerts featured the enchanting Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn, with sopranos Mary McCabe, Catherine Donnelly and a female chorus from Northern Ireland Opera. This concert, conducted by Dinis Sousa, also featured Sayaka Shoji performing Schumann’s Violin Concerto. And then there was our grand finalé, Bella Italia, where Daniele Rustioni and soloist Timothy Ridout saw the 2022/23 season out in style with an exciting programme of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Elgar’s In the South, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.
The season may have been over, but there were still plenty more performances in June. We played another sold out The Classical, with a crowd of 5,000 people enjoying dance classics in the wonderful outdoor environment of Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, and took Phil Kieran’s Strand Cinema to the Wild Roots Festival in Sligo. Some of our musicians played for our neighbours at St. Comgall’s, Divis Street; conductor Adam Hickox joined us for a BBC Invitation Concert; we joined the Belfast Philharmonic Choir for their performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass at Glenmachan Church of God, Belfast; and brought Leah Broad to Bangor Abbey for a performance of works by women composers from her book Quartet.
We also took CBeebies’ Ocean Adventure concert to Derry and Belfast, and topped off another successful year of our Crescendo intervention programme with a concert in the Ulster Hall where hundreds of primary school children from four schools in Belfast on both sides of the community got to play with the orchestra. This year also marked the first time that P7 pupils, who would be leaving primary education at the end of the month, had had Crescendo tutelage through their entire time at primary school, demonstrating the longevity and commitment of the programme across may years.
With all of that packed into just the first half of the year, our musicians deserved some time off over the summer! But we would be back with a bang in August, with a festival in France and a magical season opener...
Click here to read Part 2.