Live music tentatively got back on its feet during the summer months of 2021 – although not without complications and mitigations due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The Ulster Youth Orchestra took its first step towards normality by hosting a specially tailored hybrid summer course. Five days of online tuition culminated in a finale which brought its young musicians back together, in person, for the first time since 2019.
In September 2020 we announced the 2021 Summer Residential Course and Concerts with great hope. The application process operated completely online, and all auditions were held using Zoom. This was a new experience for applicants and panellists alike however all coped remarkably well, as did their internet connections!
The format of the auditions remained largely the same as previous years. Candidates were asked to present a selection of orchestral excerpts and two contrasting pieces to a panel of professional musicians. Sight-reading was put to one side for logistical reasons and, unsurprisingly, no-one seemed to mind!
In April 2021, the ongoing Covid-19 situation was still unpredictable therefore the Board and Management decided, after careful consideration and a rigorous risk assessment, to proceed with the exploration of a blended summer course for August 2021.
We communicated our decision to the members and proposed our new format: five days of online tuition followed by one day of in-person activity with a reduced cost to reflect the amendments. The results of an initial survey to assess the appetite for another online course were overwhelmingly positive and the aspiration to meet in person was hugely welcomed.
The online part of the course began on Monday, 16 August with a full orchestra of almost 70 players and finished on Friday, 20 August 2021.
Our musical programme centred on the magnificent Symphony No. 1 in E minor by Sibelius. Also on the bill was the second movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto featuring young UYO pianist Niamh Brown from Banbridge.
Holding such a complex course online demanded that we had a stable broadband connection, a quiet room and enough space to work safely while adhering to the ever changing Covid-19 restrictions. We are again indebted to Glandore with whom we agreed a contra deal to allow us, for the second year running, to use one of their high quality offices in Arthur House in Belfast for the duration of the course. We look forward to continuing our partnership with them and, when restrictions permit, we will be delighted to perform for them at corporate events.
A former Principal Conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, David now enjoys a close relationship with both RTÉ orchestras in addition to regular appearances as guest conductor with the Ulster Orchestra. David has conducted orchestras across the world and worked with internationally acclaimed artists from Lang Lang and Tasmin Little to U2 and Imelda May!
The tutors for 2021 were Ciaran McCabe (first violin), Paulette Bayley (second violin), David Aspin/Tom Beer (viola), Benedict Rogerson (cello), Ronan Dunne (double bass), Lenny Sayers (woodwind), Cormac Ó hAodáin (French horn), Niall Keatley (trumpet), Andy Berryman (lower brass), Jonathan Herbert (percussion), Stephanie Beck (harp)
and David Quigley (piano). Biographies are available on request.
Following the success of last year, we again appointed a team of assistant tutors – Sarah White (first violin), Susanna Griffin (second violin), Matthew Kendell (viola), Andrew Nesbitt (cello), Thomas Alford (double bass), Aidan Murphy (woodwind), Peter Mullen (horn), Nathan Moore & George Sandford (brass) and a technical assistant for the piano, harp and percussion sections (Phil Tinney). With the exception of one, all the assistant tutors are UYO Alumni and many are now professional musicians in their own right. We were delighted to be able to welcome them back to support the tutors in what was a new way of working for almost everyone.
• 1-1 lessons
• Specialist piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet & contrabassoon lessons
• Soloist masterclass with Ciaran McCabe
• Soloist performance by Ciaran McCabe
• College/Early Careers chat with UYO Alumni
• Classes on orchestral excerpts, technique, repertoire
• 2 David Brophy talks on Sibelius
• David Brophy talk on conducting
• Piano Concerto class – David Quigley, strings, horn & piano
• Morning yoga & stretching class with Ben Rogerson & Andrew Nesbitt
• Covid Information Session
• Course Highlights Video
• Entertainment – Quiz, Bingo & UYO Non-Musical Talent Show!
On Saturday, 21 August the full orchestra finally got to meet at the Hill of the O’Neill in Dungannon for a day of rehearsals and recording under the baton of David Brophy.
The day began by running the full symphony with the energetic and fast-paced Brophy making great use of every moment of rehearsal time.
Being socially distanced across a large area meant that there were new skills to learn to keep together, and anticipating the beat and following the conductor intensely was vital.
Lunchtime was a time for our players to re-connect with their peers – some of whom they hadn’t seen since August 2019 and others who they had only previously interacted with online.
The afternoon began with the recording of the second movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, played sensitively by UYO member Niamh Brown and accompanied by a reduced string section and solo horn.
As the rain poured outside the atmosphere was emotionally charged as the lush strings and beautiful piano melody filled the room. This was Niamh’s first time performing as a soloist with an orchestra which she cited as “an amazing and really enjoyable opportunity”.
A series of short films were produced to allow family, friends and supporters a chance to follow what happened, in the absence of our usual audience and the afternoon concluded with the recording of the first and last movements of Sibelius Symphony No.1 in E minor.
The recording element added a performance feel to the final part of the day, sharpening everyone’s minds and encouraging the players to dig deep for the emotions that Sibelius requires.
David Brophy conducted with every inch of the passion he would have used on the Ulster Hall stage and there was a palpable buzz and sense of achievement as the final pizzicato notes fell.
Feedback from members, parents and tutors on UYO 2021
“Thank you so, so, so much for such a fantastic week of UYO – it has been very special, much needed and I’ve loved every minute of it! I can’t wait until next year’s course!!”
“I just wanted to say a big thank you for a spectacular week and finally being able to play together was breath-taking! It was clear how much effort was involved in keeping the UYO spirit going! I absolutely loved playing on Saturday and it was the highlight of my year!”
“I just wanted to email and say thank you so much again for all the work you put into this year’s course: it was so fantastic to play in an actual orchestra after over two years of madness. I absolutely loved all of it, but being able to play in person and see everyone again was really special. I can’t wait for the video to come out.”
“I absolutely loved the challenge of learning all four movements of the Sibelius, it was my first experience of performing a symphony but I was very familiar with the piece (he is my favourite composer, so needless to say I was very excited when I found out what we would be playing!). The Shostakovich was a fantastic contrast, I was amazed at how much I learnt about such a famous piece through playing it in-person.”
“I really enjoyed the repertoire for this year. Being a part of the Shostakovich concerto was a great experience for me because I had never accompanied a piano concerto before so it was great to learn that new skill set. I found the Sibelius very challenging but it really pushed me to practice and work hard and reaping the results on Saturday was really rewarding.”
“I really enjoyed the conducting masterclass, as I have considered conducting as a career. It was really interesting to see how much work goes into conducting an orchestra, and there were lots of things mentioned that I hadn’t thought about before.”
“I was a bit worried coming in about what we would sound like as most of us haven’t played in an ensemble in ages, but the first chord was just absolutely magical – it nearly made me cry because I realised how much I’ve missed it. I’m also friends with loads of people in UYO, so to be able to see them and have a catch up was incredible.”
“I just wanted to thank you very much for the amazing week you gave my son- he loved it!
I can honestly say that in all the various things my 2 kids have done over the years, we have never had anything as well organised. It must have been such a mammoth task to get that week sorted in terms of the pandemic restrictions and I wanted to just let you know how grateful we are that he got the opportunity to experience UYO.”
“To all the UYO 2021 team! My son absolutely loved the course and it was so good to see all the players come together at the end of a busy week of online sessions and preparation.
Thank you so much for the hard work, dedication, support and encouragement. Our young musicians are very fortunate to have this wonderful opportunity! Huge thanks and many congratulations to everyone!”
“Thanks so much for a wonderful week. It was great to be involved with UYO and I was so impressed with your organisation and general enthusiasm… super refreshing to see these days.”
“The course was great fun and the young people so responsive. It must have brought a tear to the eye to hear them all together on Saturday! I thought the cellos sounded great in the little clip sent out on the day. Congratulations on holding it together and putting the course on. Incredible job-I can only imagine the levels of determination required!”
The success of this year’s blended course can be attributed to many different factors; our board and management, the conductor and professional tutors, the choice of repertoire, our welfare team and the opportunity given to reconnect in person but most of all, the success is down to our young people.
We are incredibly proud of our young players. They were good humoured, hard-working and always engaged. They showed patience when technical problems held them back and were praised by the tutors for their politeness and friendly welcome.
We commend them for sticking with us as there is nothing that can quite replace a residential course and public performances in established concert halls.
Although some Covid-19 restrictions in Northern Ireland had been relaxed by August 2021, it was still necessary to implement the mitigations laid out in our risk assessment to enable the orchestra to rehearse in person. The risk management policy proved resilient in resolving any issues that arose as the course progressed and provided the General Manager with a robust framework to work within.
At the time of writing we are planning with renewed optimism for Summer 2022 and desperately hope we can give these talented young musicians the full UYO experience that they deserve.