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I feared the Ulster Orchestra wouldn't survive budget cuts, so I'm delighted to leave on a high note

By Alf McCreary

Professor Sir George Bain did not realise the size of the task ahead of him when he became chairman of the Ulster Orchestra five years ago. "When I was appointed, I was told the opera was in dire straits financially, so I could not say that I was not forewarned," he said. "However, I did not realise how bad it was going to be, and the financial cuts made the situation much worse."

Sir George, who retired from the post earlier this month, led the team that saved the Ulster Orchestra from financial meltdown and closure.

The good news is that the orchestra is solvent for the next year, but it is yet to find long-term security.

This will be a challenge for Bain's successor, Stephen Peover, a former senior civil servant who was appointed at a board meeting on December 13.

After he handed over the reins, Sir George talked frankly to the Belfast Telegraph about the struggle to keep the orchestra alive.

"We came very close to not being a going concern, and at one stage I feared that we might go under," he admitted.

"In my career I had a number of high-pressure jobs, including principal of the London Business School and president and vice-chancellor of Queen's.

"I was aware that if I had run these major institutions well or badly, they would not cease to exist. However as chairman of the Ulster Orchestra, there was a real possibility that it would cease to exist on my watch, and that really did occupy my mind quite a bit.

"It was a challenge, and I define a challenge as something that you might actually fail at, so then you work harder and smarter to avoid that and hope for the best."

While Sir George is given much of the credit for avoiding the closure of the orchestra, he is quick to praise others in his team.

"Despite criticism in the media, there was no sniping from the board, and they remained united throughout," he said.

Sir George used his vast experience in turning round big institutions to save the organisation.

While doing this in his own way at the orchestra, he was criticised by those who thought he should have handled things differently.

"I never took the criticism personally, because I have had big jobs where criticism was part of the role," he said.

I don't think anyone had it in for me as George Bain, but there were people who thought there were other ways of solving the problem.

"Nevertheless, the criticism was unhelpful - particularly the leaks to the media."

One of the worst times was in 2014, and for two of his five years in the post Sir George had to become the executive chairman following the departure of two chief executives in a short period.

The orchestra's financial crisis was caused by significant cuts in funding from the Arts Council, which had its own budget slashed, and by the BBC, which pays the organisation for an agreed amount of musical output.

Sir George said: "The orchestra had not been able to pay its players a salary increase since 2008, to tour overseas since 2001 and to take ambitious initiatives.

"In essence, the orchestra's basic under-funding has not been rectified during its 50-year history."

The future of the orchestra was not an academic question to him.

"It was a matter of life or death," he said. "We talked to some 70 politicians right across the spectrum, and when the question was put to them they said, 'Yes, Belfast and Northern Ireland would be much poorer culturally and socially without the Ulster Orchestra'.

"That was tremendously encouraging and most important, because without them we would not have got the money."

Sir George believes that the first breakthrough came from Belfast City Council.

"We did presentations to the council and they gave us £100,000, and also a £150,000 per annum allowance towards our rent," he explained. "The City Hall chief executive, Suzanne Wylie, was most helpful."

One of the conditions of the payments was that the former Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) would support the orchestra. The Arts Council was also particularly useful.

"They assisted us to work directly in our negotiations with DCAL, and the new Department for Communities, and the chief executive of the Arts Council, Roisin McDonough, were also most helpful," Sir George explained.

He also praised Leslie Morrison, a former investment banker originally from Northern Ireland who became deputy chairman of the orchestra.

"Leslie was extremely good at analysing situations dispassionately, and he had a phenomenal list of contacts in the public and private sectors," added Sir George, who was also aware that he needed an expert orchestral consultant.

"I could handle the finance, the lobbying and the PR," he said, "but I needed an orchestra impresario, and Trevor Green became our interim orchestral consultant.

"There is not much about orchestras that he doesn't know, and he became our missing link."

Sir George also praised the orchestral players and administrative staff for their hard work and determination to succeed in times of great difficulty.

All their efforts paid off, and the future of the orchestra is now secure for the time being at least.

Sir George left his post a year early as he believed it was time to go.

"I seem to have become a turnaround artist, and a person who takes on that kind of job can make enemies," he said.

"It does not follow that he or she is the right person to take it on to the next stage.

"In fact, the worst that people can do in this kind of job is to stay on too long.

"I believed it was the time to go because Richard Wigley, the new chief executive who was appointed in March, is hitting his stride.

"He is another impresario who thought up the successful 50 pop-up anniversary concerts earlier this year. I would never have thought of that."

The orchestra now has an outstanding principal conductor, Rafael Payare, who has signed on for two more years, and music critics believe it has rarely played better in its history.

New chairman Mr Peover knows his way around Stormont, which should be helpful when it comes to attracting additional funding.

However, much of the renewal in the orchestra is down to Sir George's leadership. In our interview, he summarised leadership in a definition he picked up during his service with the Royal Canadian Navy.

"Leadership is the ability to get other people to do what you want because they want to do it," he explained. "You can delegate authority, but you can't delegate responsibility".

Summing up his time as chairman, Sir George said: "It really was a close-run thing. At one point, we all thought that we might go under. I am pleased to say that there are signs that the structures, policies and people put in place during the past few years have provided the basis for the orchestra not only to survive but thrive in the years to come. It's all worked out very well."

And what does the future hold for him? He is taking more private piano lessons, which he started when he stepped down as vice-chancellor of Queen's University in 2004, and as well as classical pieces he plays jazz and boogie-woogie. He also likes country and western, but his main love is classical music.

On top of that, he is finishing his long-term project of writing the family history of the Bains and the Bamfords, which will run to several volumes. When that is finished, he intends to write his memoirs, and after that he wants to do a degree in political and economic philosophy.

All of which is most impressive for a man nearing 78 who rises each day at 5am - sometimes earlier - and spends an hour with a personal trainer.

He regularly visits his daughter, Kathy, who works for the World Bank in Washington, and his two grand-daughters, Megan (14) and Ella (12). He also catches up with his son, David, a reader in philosophy at Glasgow University, and his two grand-daughters, Alice (3) and Beatrix (3 months).

Asked if there was any chance of him following former politician Ed Balls onto Strictly Come Dancing, Bain, who has a great sense of humour, replied: "When I finished at Queen's, I took dancing lessons with my wife, Gwynneth, at Clarke's studio in Belfast, but soon found I was hopeless. After the fourth lesson, Gwynneth said to me 'George, we don't need this', so we stopped. There's no way I would follow Ed Balls, but I could play the piano for him!"

From Canada to Queen's via London

George Bain was born on February 24, 1939, and raised in Winnipeg, Canada. He has strong family roots in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

He held many distinguished academic posts, including president and vice-chancellor of Queen's University from 1998 to 2004, and principal of the London Business School from 1989 to 1997.

He also chaired several local and national government-established commissions and held a wide range of non-executive directorships in the UK and Canada. He has been awarded 12 honorary doctorates, and he was knighted by the Queen in 2001.

Among Sir George's recreational interests are genealogy, Western (bareback) riding, piano playing and ice-skating.

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