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Is this the final curtain for the Ulster Orchestra?

Music leader: Jac Van Steen conducts the Ulster Orchestra at Queen's
Music leader: Jac Van Steen conducts the Ulster Orchestra at Queen's
High notes: The Ulster Orchestra at the Waterfront Hall
Prof George Bain
Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin
Flash Harry with Richard Glynn and Heather Wright of the Ulster Orchestra
Chief conductor Rafael Payare

The 48-year-old orchestra is perennially cash-strapped, but a series of bad business decisions and funding cuts have left it needing £500,000 to avoid bankruptcy. Could it be facing its swansong, asks Alf McCreary.

The players will have to find other jobs, the administration will be wound down and the Ulster Orchestra – the jewel in the Northern Ireland arts scene for nearly 50 years – will be no more.

The prospect is unthinkable for thousands of music-lovers from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland, including its tough-talking chairman, Professor George Bain, who has a record of turning round institutions needing help.

He is credited with doing a good job of improving Queen's University Belfast as vice-chancellor and also of saving the business school of Warwick University and also the London Business School.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: "I have been talking to dozens of politicians and councillors on all sides to try to save the Ulster Orchestra and I hope that I will also be successful this time."

Prof Bain says that, if Belfast cannot save the orchestra, it will send out a poor signal to inward investors, tourists and those who look to Northern Ireland as a lively cultural place.

He asked: "What will this say about Belfast? Places like Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham and Dublin will still have their orchestras, but not Belfast. Does this mean we are becoming a second-class city?

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"I believe that Belfast is one of the most cultured cities in these islands, with great theatre, art and music of all kinds. It does not make sense to allow the Ulster Orchestra to go under."

Many people have attended the concerts, but they may not be fully aware of the orchestra's community work on all sides, helping with schools, bringing their music outdoors – even to shopping centres – and also undertaking widely popular engagements, including the music from hit movies, the Viennese concerts with the ballroom dancers Ian Waite and Camilla Dallerup, and also an Odyssey Complex gig with Harry Hamilton as Flash Harry and the music of Queen.

Also scheduled for this season (if the orchestra survives) is a Burns' Night along with the Ulster Scots Agency, a Sci-Fi Weekender in March, a concert of music from Star Wars and a Family Film Favourites concert in May.

The orchestra's popularity was reflected by the 11,000 attendance at the BBC Proms in the Park concert at the Titanic Slipway; another 50,000 people had applied unsuccessfully for tickets.

In spite of all of this, and the widespread popularity of the Ulster Orchestra, the financial figures are grim. Taking the Arts Council and BBC cuts together, the orchestra has suffered a 28% (£817,000) drop in funding since March 2011.

Last year, there was a deficit of roughly £562,000, leaving cash reserves of £513,000.

The orchestra is forecasting that a further deficit of about £400,000 will reduce the reserves to some £100,000 by the end of March 2015. With another Arts Council cut of 4%, the reserves will be wiped out. Taking all the historical and projected cuts together, the orchestra will suffer a shortfall of £1.2m in real terms out of a budget of some £4m.

Prof Bain says: "Cuts of this magnitude to an orchestra that is already underfunded and understaffed are unsustainable."

Currently, the orchestra has been in emergency talks with representatives of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and has put its case directly to the minister, Caral Ni Chuilin.

It has also put forward an imaginative plan to Belfast City Council, where key policymakers appreciate the importance of the city and the province keeping the Ulster Orchestra alive.

The orchestra is asking Belfast City Council to waive for five years the cost of renting its Ulster Hall headquarters and also the Waterfront Hall for concerts.

It is also asking the council to allow it to reclaim its original office space, which was reduced to save money, but the reduction in space has led to cramped working conditions.

The council gives the orchestra almost £150,000 a year, but this is clawed back by rental of £170,000, so the orchestra is £20,000 worse off. If the premises were rent-free, the orchestra would be £150,000 better off immediately.

When the Ulster Hall was refurbished in 2006, DCAL and the Arts Council contributed £2.7m of the cost on condition that it would be the permanent home of the orchestra, which would be the "anchor tenant". However, this plan now seems less visionary, because the council charges for the space and the orchestra cannot afford to pay the rent.

The orchestra is also asking the council for a "letter of comfort" to cover the estimated deficit of almost £500,000 by the end of the current season next year.

This would allow the orchestra to continue as a going concern, to plan its strategy and to make more of its own cost efficiencies.

However, without a financial guarantee of this kind, the future is bleak and the orchestra could be declared "out of business" at its next AGM, on December 15.

Prof Bain told Ms Ni Chuilin on Thursday: "The orchestra has survived almost 50 years of peace and conflict in Northern Ireland and, like many other orchestras, we will struggle to survive under our current funding.

"We need to create a symphony orchestra that will serve the communities widely, not only in the concert hall, but also in learning and participation programmes in communities."

The orchestra will undoubtedly have to make economies, even if it survives this crisis, but insiders believe that it will be difficult.

Auveen Sands, the head of finance and operations, told the Belfast Telegraph: "Our payroll alone is £2.5m a year and the largest fixed cost is for salaries. However, we cannot take sections out of the orchestra to reduce costs in the same way that you could close a department of a company.

"By taking out a section, it would no longer be an orchestra."

Administrative costs have also been cut to the bone. "Our costs are as low as they can go," added Ms Sands.

"Any potential further cost reductions we could implement would be small in comparison to the funding cuts."

The musicians still get an out-of-town allowance when playing away from Belfast, but there are no overnight stays. The orchestra has not toured for 10 years and its last overnight stay in London – to take part in this year's Proms at the Albert Hall – was paid for by the BBC.

Some critics of the orchestra claim that it added to its own difficulties by taking some poor business decisions last year, which reduced income and audiences.

The booking office was moved away from the Ulster Hall, the subscriber system was dropped and concerts were scheduled for Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings, during which the orchestra and world-class soloists played to very small audiences.

Ms Sands added: "Taking away the subscriber system last year and any other changes to the concert programme had an £80,000 negative impact on our box office sales, which would have been historically around £400,000.

"The subscriber system has been reinstated and we have been concentrating the programme on the days and evenings which typically sold well in the past."

Already the old convivial atmosphere of the Friday evening concerts is beginning to return and there is also much to report on the bright side.

The orchestra has managed to snap up the young South American maestro Rafael Payare as its principal conductor.

He is regarded as a great catch and only this week he was given a very good review in The Times for his debut with the world-class London Symphony.

The orchestra has also appointed the vastly experienced and highly regarded Jac Van Steen from the Netherlands as its principal guest conductor.

It has also appointed two very talented players, Mark McDonald as principal timpani and Neil Gallie as second trombone, and audiences are remarking that the orchestra has never played better.

In musical terms, the future looks bright, but everything will hinge on the ability of the Ulster Orchestra to survive financially and to work out a plan to secure its future.

This is a tall order, but an orchestra which has served the public in war and peace, which was a shining light in the darkest days of the Troubles and which has survived many financial crises up to now, is not going to go under easily.

A history of virtuoso standards

The Ulster Orchestra was founded in September 1966, with 37 international players under the baton of the English conductor Maurice Miles.

Throughout its career, it has attracted many distinguished principal conductors, including Bryden Thomson, Vernon Handley, Yan Pascal Tortelier (son of the virtuoso cellist Paul Tortelier), Thierry Fischer, Ulsterman Kenneth Montgomery, JoAnn Falletta and many others, as well as a huge number of world-class soloists, including Sir James Galway and Barry Douglas (both below).

It played at the gala opening of the Waterfront Hall in 1997, in the presence of the Prince of Wales. The soloists included Douglas, who won the hearts of everyone with his second encore performance of Danny Boy, following a sparkling Liszt transcription of a Verdi piece.

In October 2001, just a few weeks after 9/11, the Ulster Orchestra, under Thierry Fischer, took part in a UK-US festival in New York and played to a large and appreciative audience.

The Duke of York hosted a New York reception in his role as trade ambassador for the UK.

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