Dear Ms Ni Chuilin
The urgent case for saving the Ulster Orchestra has been made passionately and persuasively by many people who have, rightly, emphasised the prestige and benefit in artistic and economic terms of having a world-class symphony orchestra in Northern Ireland.
I would like to add my voice to those calling upon you to do your utmost to save the Ulster Orchestra for further reasons which are, I hope, no less compelling.
I have not picked up a musical instrument for more than a decade, but for much of my youth and throughout my teenage years I was a member of many of Belfast’s junior orchestras, from the Junior Strings through to the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra. I am greatly concerned that if we lose the Ulster Orchestra, we imperil the entire ecosystem of youth orchestras which it nourishes, and we impoverish the lives of children and teenagers across all of Northern Ireland.
The accusation often levelled against classical music is that it’s elitist, and exclusive. I cannot emphasise enough the extent to which my experience contradicts this utterly. I remember so well the first time, aged 12, that I played with the Junior Strings Orchestra in the Ulster Hall. I remember walking out onto the stage of the grandest concert hall in Belfast, vibrating with excitement. The programme we’d rehearsed ranged from Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba to the theme tune from Beverly Hills Cop. We came from all over the city: from musical families and non-musical families, Catholic and Protestant and atheist, working class and middle class, girls and boys. We all wore long black skirts or trousers and white shirts, like a professional orchestra. When the conductor walked onstage, to applause that sounded thunderous, we rose as one. Music brought us together and music made us equal, and music swept all else away.
You’d think that as a novelist I would be wary of saying something like that, because it is dangerously close to cliché. But it is true. Playing music — in my case the violin — during my childhood and teenage years allowed me, like many others, to inhabit another world, so important in Belfast in the 1980s and 90s. Through playing in the city’s youth orchestras I made friends who lived, like me, in the east of the city. I made friends who lived in the north, the south, and the west. We played in St Peter’s Cathedral in the heart of the Falls. We played in St Anne’s in Donegall Street. We played at Stormont and at the Waterfront Hall. Music was our passport to the city — and beyond. In 1997, the summer I turned 16, amidst the turmoil of the multi-party talks and political negotiations, we toured the East coast of the United States and played for Senator Edward Kennedy in the United States Capitol on Capitol Hill: what greater symbol could there have been of youth and hope, a new generation, new ways of being?
The music tuition I had in those years was of an exceptionally high standard, because the presence of a world-class symphony orchestra here attracts musicians of the highest calibre, and many of them also work as music teachers and tutors with the youth orchestras. As a budding violinist I was taught by professional musicians on a weekly basis, and for free. I had the chance to attend incredible masterclasses, the most memorable of which was taken by the world-famous violinist Tasmin Little. If the Ulster Orchestra goes, then its musicians go too, forced to find work elsewhere. Talented young musical students will need to travel further afield — to Dublin, or London, or Glasgow, or Manchester — for tuition, which, of course, will make music lessons possible only for those who can afford those additional costs, and for whom travelling to lessons is possible. Classical music suddenly will become exclusive and elitist, when it should be — as it currently is — open to and possible for all.
Many of my contemporaries from the youth orchestras have gone on to make their name as world-class musicians. To name just a handful that I played with: Jonathan Byers, a cellist and member of the lauded and award-winning Badke Quartet. Ciaran McCabe, a violinist and leader of the Cavaleri Quartet. Michael McHale, one of the leading pianists of his generation. Yet others have forged careers as professional musicians in orchestras, chamber groups and quartets around the world.
I say that I haven’t picked up my own violin in a decade. But those years of music have shaped and formed me at the deepest levels. As a novelist, they are in the rhythms of every sentence I write; when I’m working on a play with multiple characters, I think of it in terms of an orchestral score. I know that the years spent playing in youth orchestras have enriched the lives of my contemporaries also, in ways too various and numerous to extol.
The Ulster Orchestra’s raison d’être would, in an ideal world, be measured solely in artistic terms. But this, as you point out in your Belfast Telegraph interview of November 5, is a world of austerity and symphony orchestras are expensive to maintain. Please consider, then, alongside the artistic arguments, the social and democratic benefits to our young people of maintaining our orchestra: the fact that the Ulster Orchestra is the pinnacle, the most important and visible expression, of a system of orchestras which reach and bring together children of all classes and communities throughout the whole of Northern Ireland, and which would all be immeasurably weakened if not fatally incapacitated by its loss.
If the Ulster Orchestra goes, so much more than the Ulster Orchestra goes with it.