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Proms stars need leaders to set tone for the future

On Sunday night, the Ulster Orchestra, under their principal guest conductor Paul Watkins, will take to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall In London as part of the prestigious seasons of BBC Henry Wood Promenade concerts.

They will close the Henry Wood Day concert of music either premiered by, or closely associated with, the founder-conductor of The Proms and their performance will be broadcast live to a worldwide audience.

This is not the first time that the Ulster Orchestra has performed at The Proms, which attracts annually some of the best orchestras, conductors and soloists in the world.

There is no doubt that the Ulster Orchestra will rise to the artistic challenge on Sunday of playing on one of the greatest world stages in classical music.

But, on their return to Belfast, they will face other significant challenges as they begin their 2010-2011 season at the end of the month.

One of those challenges will be finding the right people to succeed their former principal conductor, Kenneth Montgomery, whose contract ended during the summer, and their chief executive, David Byers, who is retiring in the autumn to devote more time to composing.

Both are key positions and, so far, there is no news of their successors taking up post in the near future.

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Ulsterman Montgomery was popular with the orchestra, as well as with local audiences, and he maintained a standard of excellence for his successor.

The right principal guest conductor is not easy to find.

He or she must command the loyalty and respect of the players above all and also to set them new challenges.

In the best of all possible worlds, a new recording contract would be greatly welcomed and this is something the Ulster Orchestra has lacked in recent years.

The ideal principal guest conductor is someone whom the cash-strapped Ulster Orchestra probably cannot afford.

But, in the past, the Ulster Orchestra Society has been able to attract such high-fliers as Yan Paschal Tortelier and Thierry Fischer, as well as the legendary musical heavyweight Vernon Handley.

The position of chief executive is no less important.

He or she must have sound financial and managerial skills as well as a wide knowledge of music and an ability to present annual programmes which maintain high standards on limited budgets.

The retiring CEO, David Byers, is generally believed to have had all these qualities in spades - and his sure touch with the orchestra, concert-goers and the musical media will be sadly missed.

The long-term problem is financial and, although the players are among the most poorly-paid in the United Kingdom, they consistently turn in performances which makes the Ulster Orchestra one of the best-regarded in the business.

There is no medium-term prospect of financial improvement - particularly at a time of continued recession. However, the outlook is not entirely bleak.

The orchestra's current principal guest conductor, Paul Watkins, is regarded as a rising star in the British and European musical circuits and the concert bookings for the new season are reassuringly solid. It would help, however, if the Arts Council and other relevant bodies had an early announcement to make about a new principal conductor and chief executive who can literally set the tone for the Ulster Orchestra's continued and valued contribution to music and the Northern Ireland community.