La Côte-Saint-André is a town with a population of approximately 5,000 people, located in the south east of France between Lyon and Grenoble, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Composer Hector Berlioz was born here in 1803. The first Berlioz festival was held in Lyon in 1979, and in its current form has been held annually in La Côte-Saint-André since 1994, drawing crowds of up to 37,000 people.
Fiona Monbet is a Franco-Irish conductor and violinist who works in classical, jazz and traditional Irish music. She had recently worked with the Ulster Orchestra for the first time last year when she was invited to perform at Festival Berlioz. Given her personal connection to Ireland, “and because of the [Irish-themed] programme, I really wanted to perform it with the Ulster Orchestra,” she says.
The orchestra rehearses onstage in the courtyard of Château Louis XI. Seventy-six players travelled to France from different parts of the UK and Ireland to perform in the concert.
Ioana Petcu-Colan, Leader (top left); Steve Irvine, tuba (top right); Feargal Ó Dornáin, viola (bottom left) and Rozzie Curlett, cello (bottom right) during rehearsal.
Mezzo-soprano Antoinette Dennefeld rehearses Berlioz’s Mélodies Irlandaises with the orchestra. Dennefeld performed the premiere of these pieces at Festival Berlioz in 2017, when the festival asked composer Arthur Lavandier to orchestrate Berlioz’s original Neuf mélodies.
Piper Ciar Milne practises outside the orchestra’s hotel in Voreppe. Arthur Lavandier’s orchestration of Berlioz’s Mélodies Irlandaises incorporates traditional instruments such as the bodhran and bagpipes, which do not commonly feature in an orchestra.
Members of the orchestra enjoy an al fresco meal provided by the festival during a break in rehearsal.
Larger items like cellos, double basses, harps, percussion – and possibly the most important item, the orchestra tea box (bottom right) – were transported to La Côte-Saint-André by truck. Driver and Stage Attendant Kenny Livingstone left Belfast four days ahead of the rest of the orchestra in order to complete the journey across France.
Instrument cases bear stickers from previous Ulster Orchestra tours, including this one from a tour of England and Wales in 1983.
Scott Lowry, 2nd violin, Danny McCann-Williams, 1st violin, and other members of the orchestra wait backstage for the concert to begin.
Conductor Fiona Monbet backstage with festival stage crew and Driver and Stage Attendant Kenny Livingstone (right).
During the concert, animated images of Irish landscapes, created by Benoit Camus, were projected behind the orchestra. Here, a representation of the Giant’s Causeway is depicted.
Cellists Morag Stewart, Sian Hetherington, and Andrew Nesbitt.
Megan Lowry, 2nd violin (top left); Krzysztof Rucinski, 2nd violin (top right); Zuzanna Edmonds, 1st violin (bottom left); Ana Vandepeer, 1st violin (bottom right).
Orchestra Manager Ruth Millar (right) and Deputy Orchestra Manager Sophie O’Donnell (left), check positioning of the orchestra on a screen backstage. Ruth and Sophie are responsible for all aspects of the trip, from organising players’ flights and accommodation to stage setup, liaising with the Festival and any other issues that may arise.
Artist Catherine Roc live-sketches and paints the orchestra during rehearsal (left), and the concert (right). Catherine has been drawing musicians for 14 years and makes lightning-fast pictures while they perform, sometimes only having a couple of minutes to complete a sketch. "It's a real joy," she says, "What's interesting is painting during the rhythm and the music. It's exciting." Catherine and her colleague Colette Vicat-Blanc were invited by Berlioz Festival Director Bruno Messina to exhibit their quick paintings in the Festival's Tavern after concerts.
Mezzo-soprano Antoinette Dennefeld performs Berlioz’s Mélodies Irlandaises.
Musicians of the Ulster Orchestra perform at Festival Berlioz, 31 August 2023.
Fiona Monbet conducts the Ulster Orchestra at Festival Berlioz.
Piper Ciar Milne performs with the orchestra during Berlioz’s Mélodies Irlandaises.
The Ulster Orchestra, conductor Fiona Monbet, mezzo-soprano Antoinette Dennefeld and piper Ciar Milne receive a standing ovation at the end of their performance at Festival Berlioz on 31 August 2023.
The Ulster Orchestra's new season begins on 22 September 2023 in the Ulster Hall, Belfast.