Background Information for Applicants

Background Information for Applicants

Background Information for Applicants


To be at the heart of Northern Ireland, a major contributor to its quality of life and an ambassador for the region, delivering music to diverse audiences here and around the world.


Founded in 1966, the Ulster Orchestra has become a major symphony orchestra in Ireland and the UK. The Orchestra provides a season of symphonic concerts at its home in the Ulster Hall, Belfast while also performing at the Waterfront Hall and on tour throughout the region.The Ulster Orchestra has an operating budget of approximately £4m secured from public, commercial and philanthropic sources and employs 80 staff (63 musicians). It makes a significant cultural, economic and social contribution to Belfast and Northern Ireland, providing audiences the opportunity to experience world-class conductors, soloists and music-making.

An important cultural partner, the Orchestra collaborates with educational institutions, other arts organisations (e.g. NI Opera, the Belfast Philharmonic Society), local authorities and broadcasting institutions.Northern Ireland is justifiably famous for the vibrancy of its artistic life and its contribution to culture. In recent years, the cultural landscape has been transformed with the opening of the new Lyric Theatre, a major new creative arts venue at the MAC, and the rise of Belfast and Derry/Londonderry as destinations of choice for discerning tourists and world-class performers. As the Ulster Orchestra approaches its 50th anniversary season in 2016/17, it is positioning itself to ensure its leading role in the 21st century renaissance of Belfast and Northern Ireland.


Following his sensational debut with the Orchestra in 2013, Rafael Payare began his tenure as ChiefConductor in the 2014/15 season. At the heart of his programming for his initial 3-year contract are complete cycles of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky symphonies and concertos. His international career has also taken off in 2014-15, highlighted by debuts with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Munich Philharmonic, the Tonkünstlerorchester and the Danish National Symphony. Rafael Payare is a graduate of the celebrated El Sistema programme in his native Venezuela; he was principal horn of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra and he studied conducting with José AntonioAbreu.

Dutch conductor Jac van Steen became Principal Guest Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in September 2014 after serving eight years in the same post at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Van Steen is on the faculty of the Royal Conservatory of Music and Dance in The Hague.

The Ulster Orchestra performs live to over 70,000 people in Northern Ireland each year. Significant as these audiences are, the Orchestra’s relationship with the BBC greatly increases its geographical reach, both nationally and internationally through broadcasts on BBC2, Radio Ulster, Radio 3, the European Broadcasting Union, NPR in the US, and online streaming worldwide.

The Orchestra has also produced more than 70 commercial recordings for Chandos, Naxos, BMG, Hyperion, Priory and Toccata. The Orchestra has also recently launched a new venture, recording soundtracks for film, in collaboration with Northern Ireland Screen.


The young Venezuelan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, said that “with an orchestra you are building citizens, better citizens for the community”. The Ulster Orchestra shares his view that orchestras’ relevance to their communities transcends artistic performance to include active participation in music, social inclusion and the development of a sense of self-worth and regional pride. This belief has shaped the development of the Orchestra’s new strategic direction and its new business plan.

The Ulster Orchestra is active in bringing education and community engagement activities to all areas across Northern Ireland, and has been particularly active working in areas of social and economic deprivation. It provides concerts, workshops, seminars, projects, master-classes, regional performances and special ticket schemes, all of which are designed to increase opportunities for a wide cross-section of people in Northern Ireland to explore the world of music.

In its last full season, over 25,000 participants were involved in its education and community engagement programmes. Many of the schools involved in the Orchestra’s education projects are in highly deprived areas with a challenging historical legacy from the Troubles. The new business plan for the Orchestra has at its heart ‘The Music Room’, which is the bringing together the community engagement and education activities of the Ulster Orchestra into one centre. The Orchestra has also recently been successful in securing £300,000 from Ulster Garden Villages to support the work of the Music Room, which gives these activities a core position in the new business model and the budget to support its activities.


In August 2014, the Orchestra appointed a specialist and world renowned orchestral consultant to work with the Board and Senior Management Team to develop a new contract structure for the players and to review the Orchestra’s business model. The new operating model divides the work of the Orchestra into five business units: Core Concerts, Music Room (education and community engagement), Ulster Pops Orchestra, Commercial Activities and BBC Programmes. To support this model, we now have a new agreement with the Musicians’ Union that has created an all-inclusive contract covering the five business units above. The new contract has transformed the working practices of the Ulster Orchestra and helps to increase the income potential of the new business plan.

The Future

It has been, and continues to be, a challenging time for the arts in Northern Ireland and the Ulster Orchestra is no different to any other organisation in this sector. It is no secret that over recent years, the UO experienced substantial funding cuts from its funders and in the Autumn of 2014, the Orchestra’s Board and Senior Management Team responded to its worsening financial situation by implementing a focused, and ultimately successful, lobbying campaign which concentrated on Belfast City Council (the “BCC”), the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (“DCAL”) and the Executive of Northern Ireland. It was an intense time for all involved with countless lobbying meetings, press and media interviews and presentations at Stormont. Alongside this lobbying work, generous public support was evidenced by the volunteers who tirelessly gave their time to highlight the challenges faced by the Orchestra and as a result gathered over 14,000 signatures of support and countless testimonies from the people and children of Northern Ireland who have been touched by the work of the Ulster Orchestra since its inception almost 50 years ago.

As a result, Belfast City Council and DCAL/the Executive have provided £100,000 and £500,000respectively and theBCC has also agreed to allow the Ulster Hall to be provided to the UO free of charge over a 5 year period – a deal which is worth c. £150,000 p.a. This additional funding along with ACNI support of £1.79m, and other private and commercial sources of income, means that the immediate future of the Orchestra is secure. The UO Senior Management Team is also working towards securing additional funding so that the orchestra has sufficient income to not only sustain its activities but to develop the business in order to generate profit in the longer term. Together these positive factors mean that the Ulster Orchestra is back on the road, with business as usual, and at the beginning of a new era. As a result we are strengthening our Senior Management Team and administrative structures to help us deliver the new business plan and to play a significant role in the future of this key artistic organisation in Northern Ireland.