'I've never met anyone not overwhelmed by the power of a symphony orchestra'
The Ulster Orchestra celebrates its half-century this year and Richard Wigley, the innovative man at its helm, is making sure it continues to thrive
Three weeks ago, musicians from the Ulster Orchestra performed a programme of 50 pop-up concerts in and around Belfast to mark the 50th anniversary of the orchestra's first concert in 1996. The novel idea was conceived by Richard Wigley, the man appointed managing director of the orchestra in March this year, and represented the fresh outlook and outward approach that he has brought in to turn around the fortunes of the ensemble, which has had a severe financial threat hanging over it for the past two years.
Wigley, however, claims no credit for the remarkable success of the pop-up concerts, in which members of the orchestra played in venues ranging from schools to hospitals and in the Belfast Telegraph's office. As well as this, the full orchestra, under its music director Rafael Payare, played in the Victoria Square Shopping Centre, and also in St Anne's Cathedral.
Wigley says modestly: "I am too embarrassed to take any credit for its success, because an idea like that is meat and drink to me. It was up to the players and the administrative staff to make it work, and they did so superbly. The way the whole company came together to make it work was as good as I have seen in any organisation.
"Look at the way in which people stopped to hear the orchestra play in the Victoria Centre shopping mall, at a time when you would expect them to be getting on with their shopping. That was lovely to behold, and the orchestra sounded so good in that space."
Richard tells how one of the musicians involved was heading home on a bus when he was recognised by a couple of passengers who had been to one of the 50 concerts. Everyone on the bus gave him a round of applause.
"It's a great story, and that is what music is all about - the sharing of inspiration, eyeball to eyeball," says Wigley. "I strongly believe that the spirit we now have among the musicians of the Ulster Orchestra and our supporters is such that it is going to help to make us really prosper."
It is this positive tone which is music to the ears of the orchestra and its supporters. But not everything is so rosy. "In pure accountancy terms, every organisation has to decide in December whether or not it can continue as a going concern," Richard says.
"It would be nice to think at that point that we would have an easy conversation with the board, but historically it's been difficult, so financially we are not yet in the clear.
"On the creative side, however, if you ask the question, 'Is the orchestra offering an increasing and creative output in line with what our funders would expect?' I would say, 'Yes'. That bit of the dialogue is going well.
"People have noticed that what we are now doing is different and positive, so we are in a much better place to go back to the funders and say, 'Now you see what we can do, so let's move forward and achieve financial security'."
Wigley, a New Zealander and a former professional bassoon player with the Halle Orchestra, comes to the Ulster Orchestra with an impressive track record. He became education director with the Halle Orchestra and was then made head of artistic planning.
This was followed by three years as head of performance and planning with the Royal Northern College of Music from 2001 until 2004. He was then general manager of the prestigious BBC Philharmonic for a decade from 2004.
After that, he set up Wigley Arts Management to assist with concept development, long-term planning, implementation, and other important aspects of orchestra management. His clients include the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, the Manchester Camerata, the Association of British Orchestras and the Dutch National Music Prize (advisory committee.)
So why did he come to Belfast earlier this year to manage the Ulster Orchestra? "I had been here several years previously to listen to Rafael Payare, now the music director, in his first concert as a guest conductor with the orchestra," Richard explains. "I wanted to sign him up as a guest conductor for the BBC Philharmonic.
"A member of the Ulster Orchestra management told me that she was considering signing up Rafael as the principal conductor and she asked my advice. I said, 'Snap him up quickly, because if you don't somebody else will.' So I can claim some credit for Rafael's appointment, even if its only about 1%!"
Some years later, Wigley talked to an old friend, Trevor Green, an accomplished orchestra management figure, who had been working as an interim manager with the Ulster Orchestra at a time when Professor Sir George Bain was the executive chairman.
"Trevor Green told me that good things were happening with the Ulster Orchestra, and it had significantly improved with the signing of Rafael as the new principal conductor," Richard explains.
"He said that although the finances were not stable, the orchestra was in a better position than it had been. So that fitted my range of skills, and the key requirement was to increase the orchestra's input into the community. So it was the right thing to do, to come here."
Wigley is deeply engaged in his new role, and engaging in the way he talks about it. His enthusiasm is infectious, and, happily, he is not leaving us any time soon.
He says: "I love this place, and so does my wife Kim. We have an apartment in the Titanic Quarter, and our daughter, Emma, is living in our house in Manchester.
"As a New Zealander, I resonate with the sheep, the hills and lakes, and the yachting in Northern Ireland, and you have the best coffee in the UK."
He points out that one of the key factors in an orchestra is confidence. "The standard of nearly all orchestras is high, because musicians' jobs are so difficult to get," Richard says.
"What really distinguishes one orchestra from another is confidence, and when an orchestra has that, it plays well, it feeds on itself, and it plays even better. That's the journey which the Ulster Orchestra has been on lately.
"The change there has been in the orchestra since I came to watch Rafael here some four years ago has been extraordinary."
He believes that there is a "good environment" here for progress. "We have a very good orchestra, and great supporters, and the Ulster Hall is outstanding for musical performances" Wigley says. "This is a great place to be.
"However, financially we have a long way to go. Our turnover is just more than a third of that of similar-sized orchestras. How did we manage to survive on a third of the money we should have been given? We survived through our resilience, and we became more efficient, but that was not being rewarded.
"So there's got to be more investment in the orchestra, and we have to think about what is possible with any additional money we get.
"I spend a lot of time just asking myself, 'How can the Ulster Orchestra reflect its base in Northern Ireland, in addition to providing the standard classical repertoire, which we already do?'
"I have met people who say that they don't want to listen to two hours of Beethoven in a concert hall, but I have not met anyone who is not overwhelmed by the power of a symphony orchestra.
"So its up to us to find the right vehicle to appeal to people who want something different.
"For example, on our film night you can hear the great scores of John Williams, which lift us all up. This orchestra sounds amazing, so the challenge is, how can we make it sound amazing for you?
Wigley has ambitious plans, providing the funding is right, for a series of concerts in venues outside Belfast, titled On Your Doorstep.
"We might come to your local lunch club, with a few musicians from the Ulster Orchestra playing for you, or we might have a formal concert in your village hall," he says.
"We hope to go to venues where we have been before, as well as to new places. Who knows, in 10 years' time we might find that we have been going back to that 'new' place every year since our first visit. That's my hope."
He also plans a summer tour of the nine counties of Ulster, including Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, if the orchestra gets sufficient funding.
"We want to showcase those places with the great tunes like The Mountains of Mourne and the Londonderry Air, and maybe Moondance as well, one of the great Van Morrison's songs" Richard says. "We want to go right across the range with a series of concerts for all the people."
The tentative title for the programme is Ulster Song Book.
Richard would also like to establish a base for the orchestra in Londonderry and work with the many talented people there. He says: "I dream that we could create something phenomenal in Derry and bring it back to Belfast."
He also wants the orchestra to work more closely with the rich local talent right across the province, including performers, composers, arrangers and others.
It is obvious that he is not short of ideas on how to make the orchestra and its music more accessible and appealing to a wider audience, so where does he get them from?
"My hobbies are running, and baking sourdough bread," he replies. "These activities take my brain to a different place, and I get my best ideas when I am running in the hills."
The more Richard keeps on running and bringing up such creative ideas for the future of great music in this province, the happier the Ulster orchestra, its many supporters and the people of Northern Ireland will be.
There is no better example than Richard of being the right person in the right place at the right time.