In 2018 the Ulster Youth Orchestra celebrated its 25th Anniversary by embarking on an ambitious, educational and inspirational project to showcase our local talent on the international stages of Vienna and Bratislava before returning to the iconic Ulster Hall in Belfast on Saturday 25th August 2018.
The journey began in February 2016 when the Board of the Ulster Youth Orchestra approved plans to explore the possibility of a tour and new commission to celebrate 25 years of the very best of Northern Ireland’s young musical talent.
The repertoire was carefully planned to present not only the exceptional young orchestra players and professional alumni but also to champion Northern Irish composers, both contemporary and 20th century. Belfast born conductor Courtney Lewis, now Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony in the US, joined composer Ryan Molloy, UYO alumna soprano Aoife Miskelly and alumnus clarinettist William Curran in an exclusively Northern Irish artistic team, further enhanced by Hamilton Harty’s wonderful closing piece, The Children of Lir. The Orchestra also chose to celebrate the anniversaries of others, most notably Leonard Bernstein who was born exactly 100 years ago on 25th August 1918 and Debussy who died 100 years ago in 1918 at the age of 55.
Ogham by Ryan Molloy was commissioned especially for the Ulster Youth Orchestra’s 25th Anniversary with funds from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and was given its world première in Vienna on 21st August 2018.
With invitations from the MuseumsQuartier Summer Season in Vienna and the Cultural Summer and Castle Celebrations in Bratislava the UYO set off on the musical adventure trip of a lifetime!
Application forms were released for UYO 2018 in September 2017 with 160 entrants. Two days of auditions in December followed when musicians, aged between 14 and 23, presented a selection of orchestral excerpts and two contrasting pieces to a panel of professional musicians. 91 of the finest young musicians were chosen to be part of this year’s orchestra and the rest of the year flew by in a flurry of activity, including education and outreach events, chamber ensembles and many fundraising events.
One such event saw David Smyth, Chair of our board (pictured below) and 6 friends cycling 3,500km across 7 countries in 7 weeks, ending in Vienna on concert day. Over £10,000 was raised to be shared equally between the Ulster Youth Orchestra and Marie-Curie.
Almost £11,000 was raised by the young players themselves by holding recitals, bake sales, sponsored walks and other events.
The annual educational residential course was held at Greenmount Agricultural College, Antrim commencing on Tuesday, 14th August, 2018.
It was straight into a mixture of sectional and tutti rehearsals, led by rehearsal conductor Gordon Bragg and a team of highly respected and experienced professional tutors. The students worked hard, often for 9 hours a day, as the tutors sorted out wrong notes and advised on topics such as articulation, bowing, style, rhythm, confidence and the art of listening to each other. They were a formidable team of enthusiastic and passionate musicians who led the Orchestra professionally yet sensitively through the difficult repertoire.
The tutors for 2018 were Adrian Levine (first violin), Helen Paterson (second violin), Steve Tees (viola), Benedict Rogerson (cello), Ronan Dunne (double bass), Meyrick Alexander (woodwind), Lindsey Stoker (French horn), Ewan Easton (brass), Graham Johns (percussion), Tanya Houghton (harp), David Quigley (piano) and Gordon Bragg (rehearsal conductor).
Gordon Bragg is sub-principal second violin of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. As a conductor Gordon studied in Manchester and Zürich, and has conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, NYOS Camerata, Scottish Ballet and Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie.
He acted as assistant to Donald Runnicles at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra while being the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Conductor Fellow from 2011 to 2013.
After five days of intense learning the course naturally shifts a gear when the tutors and rehearsal conductor depart and the performance conductor arrives to take over.
Courtney Lewis – Conductor
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lewis read music at the University of Cambridge before attending the Royal Northern College of Music, where his teachers included Sir Mark Elder and Clark Rundell. As a young conductor, Courtney Lewis has served as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, and Dudamel Fellow with the LA Philharmonic. The 2017/18 season marked his third season as Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony.
Ryan Molloy – Composer “Ogham”
As a composer and performer, Ryan Molloy’s work has been performed to international audiences on four continents for over ten years. In great demand as an accompanist, he has recorded over a dozen albums and his repertoire spans numerous genres from traditional Irish music to contemporary classical music. Currently a lecturer in composition at Maynooth University, he studied at the University of Oxford and at Queen’s University Belfast. His compositional work has won numerous prizes and has been broadcast both nationally and internationally.
Aoife Miskelly – Soprano
Belfast soprano Aoife Miskelly originally studied ‘cello with Morag Stewart and was a member of UYO in the 1990s. Upon realising she would make more noise as a singer, Aoife gained a Masters Degree in Opera from the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2012. Recent highlights include The Woman in The Last Hotel at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House for Wide Open Opera, Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Japan, and Eliza Doolittle for The Royal Opera House Muscat. Aoife made a critically acclaimed debut for Opera North in the title role of Snowmaiden by Rimsky-Korsakov, and covered the role of Sophie (Rosenkavalier) for Welsh National Opera.
William Curran – Clarinet
Belfast born William read music at Queen’s University, graduating in 2015 with 1st class honours. William was a member of the UYO from 2013-2017 and was principal clarinet from 2014. He was selected for Professional Experience Schemes in the 17/18 season, allowing him to perform with the BBC Philharmonic, The Hallé and the Ulster Orchestra. In 2016 William was awarded the first ‘Young Artist’ with the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble and that summer he was also chosen as one of 12 musicians from Ireland to attend the Camerata Ireland Academy at Clandeboye Festival.
Course Tutors and Conductors – Benefits and Outcomes from UYO members
(Gordon Bragg) “I think that Gordon was effectively able to power the orchestra through the week of rehearsals while always being friendly and approachable.”
“Courtney (Lewis) had an excellent vision for what he wanted out of the repertoire and is a great conductor.”
“He (Adrian Levine) was an excellent tutor who helped immensely, especially in all of the repertoire’s difficult passages.”
(Helen Paterson) “Very helpful.”
(Steve Tees) “Helpful and good fun as always. UYO wouldn’t be the same without him.”
(Benedict Rogerson). ”Legend. Very relaxed and helpful.”
“Ronan (Dunne). My tutor was so encouraging and really inspired me to improve my playing.”
“(Meyrick Alexander) Very patient and great at explaining things. Also a lovely person and can have a good laugh but also get things done.”
(Lindsey Stoker) “Good teacher – helpful and encouraging.”
“(Ewan Easton) Excellent tutor, really learnt a lot. Made me think of different ways to do things. Definitely have improved with him as a tutor.”
“(Graham Johns) I thought it was great that UYO was able to get such professional tutors. Graham was very friendly and encouraging and I learnt many valuable tips”
“Tanya (Houghton) helped us a lot with every piece and really prepared us for the concerts.”
During the course the UYO’s dedicated welfare team produced a variety of social events for the players to help them mix and unwind. The social schedule included ice-breakers, quiz, karaoke, informal concert, pizza nights and a Sunday morning non-denominational prayer meeting. A registered nurse is always on duty during the course, day and night for everything from first day nerves to string players’ blisters!
The Welfare team are a vital component of the UYO experience as explained by the students themselves below:
“Having the welfare staff helped me enjoy the course, knowing they were there if I needed advice or help or simply someone to talk to.”
“The welfare staff were really amazing throughout the course. They went above and beyond what was necessary.”
“Welfare was very good this year. Good mix of being strict and giving us space.”
After six intense days of preparation at Greenmount College, 91 students, 12 welfare and management personnel and 4 professional artists flew to Vienna to be met by our wonderful tour guide Christine Grivas from The International Music Exchange as we stepped into temperatures upwards of 30 degrees.
The first day was a leisurely introduction to Vienna with a coach tour in the morning and a walking tour in the evening as our local guides brought us to the Vienna State Opera House, the Imperial Palace, St Michael’s Church (where Mozart’s Requiem Mass was held), St Stephen’s Cathedral and much more.
Day two was concert day and after a fun trip to Prater Amusement Park we arrived for a breezy afternoon rehearsal in the beautiful surroundings of the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna.
A large and appreciative audience of approximately 700 filled the courtyard with many parents, friends and UYO board members there to support the orchestra at the evening outdoor concert.
On Wednesday 22nd August the orchestra crossed the Slovak border and began the day with a tour of the historical city of Bratislava where Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt and Salieri all played.
Our performance venue was the more modern Slovak Radio Hall, built in 1967 and what it may lack in traditional beauty it more than made up with its wonderful acoustic which the players picked up on immediately.
The orchestra were welcomed by both the British and Irish Ambassadors to the Slovak Republic who visited during the afternoon rehearsals. The concert was in collaboration not only with the Cultural Summer and Castle Celebrations but also with Slovak Cancer Research and the concert began with speeches from Hilda O’Riain, Irish Ambassador and representatives from the promoter and charities involved.
The Irish Embassy tweeted,
“Honoured to welcome Ulster Youth Orchestra to #Bratislava yesterday. Beautiful music, particularly Irish pieces Ogham (R. Molloy) & Children of Lir (Harty), performed by talented musicians from all communities in Northern Ireland. Standing ovation from appreciative audience!”
The following day was a trip to Salzburg, the home of Mozart. The long coach journey from Vienna was rewarded with stunning scenery, a traditional Austrian lunch and a walk in the footsteps of Mozart (and Julie Andrews!) around the cultural and picturesque city.
The Ulster Youth Orchestra at Mozart’s statue in Salzburg
On our final day, after a morning of sightseeing and souvenir shopping in Vienna we travelled home, exhausted but exhilarated by what had been the musical, educational, cultural and social trip of a lifetime!
The Ulster Hall Concert
On Saturday 25th August the Ulster Youth Orchestra returned to the iconic Ulster Hall for the finale concert in front of an audience of almost 800 family, friends, supporters and local dignitaries. The sense of occasion was tangible and the orchestra summoned every last drop of energy to deliver an electrifying performance – a fitting end to a wonderful project.
Quotes from audience members
“Congratulations first of all on the brilliant concert last Sat evening. Spectacular playing and such ambitious repertoire too!”
“I took my nine year old grandson to the concert in order to show him what he could aspire to if he continues to practice and put in the hard work.”
“Congratulations to all the members of the UYO who played superbly last night. A concert to be proud of.”
Press and PR
In the lead up to the concerts, a press release was submitted to the media and human interest stories, involving members of the Orchestra from every area in Northern Ireland, were offered to a huge number of local newspapers and radio stations. In addition, there was extensive marketing of the concerts using posters, flyers, the UYO website, Facebook and Twitter with the intention of raising the profile of the Orchestra and making as many people in Northern Ireland aware of the national youth orchestra’s activities. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland produced and distributed a video publicising the anniversary course, tour and commission and BBC Radio Ulster’s Classical Connections extensively covered the anniversary and featured articles from UYO Alumni. Other articles appeared on Belfast 89FM, in the Ulster Tatler, the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and many other local newspapers.
Ciaran Scullion, Head of Music at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland with leader Susie Griffin and oboist Russell Coates. Belfast Telegraph 21.8.18
Bachtrack- the leading music site for worldwide reviews and listings of classical concerts, opera, ballet and dance, reviewed the Ulster Hall concert on Saturday 25th August.
Ulster Youth Orchestra marks its quarter-century
“Marking the date of what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday, there is no more fitting way to open the evening than with the exuberant overture to Candide. It was conducted by the Belfast-born conductor Courtney Lewis at a brisk tempo. There was nothing cautious about the playing without it feeling rushed. Brimming with enthusiasm, the orchestra romped through the piece, but at times the percussion became too prominent. That contagious vigour generated appreciative applause from a proud audience of teachers, family, friends and Belfast regulars. This was followed by Debussy’s Première rhapsodie for clarinet, performed by UYO alumnus, William Curran. Giving the orchestra a piece that requires such subtlety was an ambitious choice but the string players showed maturity in handling the delicate palette. It was an admirable reading producing a subtlety varied hue of sound but the clarinet playing occasionally retracted too deeply into the texture. Bringing the first half to a fitting conclusion was Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Whilst there were initial blemishes at meter and tempo changes, Lewis’ conducting was clear and kept the players on track. The orchestra played with increasing confidence and a real sense of fun capturing the vivacious spirit with a youthful glee. In the solo violin passages, Susanna Griffin showed what a capable player she is. The brass here were commendable too; technically secure and truly understanding the spirit of jazz. Andrew Milligan on tuba and Joshua Cargill on bass trombone shone through with shapely and detailed phrasing. After the interval the concert championed music from two Northern Irish-born composers. The first, a 25th anniversary commission supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, was from Ryan Molloy. The piece entitled Ogham, draws inspiration from the Irish stones of the same name which are inscribed in their own unique alphabet. Putting a new commission in the hands of inexperienced orchestral musicians, let alone younger players can be brave, but this piece played to the orchestra’s strengths. Whilst giving the musicians the thrill of a première it allowed them to engage wholeheartedly with a piece of contemporary music. Ogham avoids the cliché of something overtly celebratory, but this was a weightier, more substantial composition. The piece created a sombre, monumental mood with dark and cold colours; textures were varied and as complex as the stones themselves. On occasions there were echoes of Britten’s Sea Interludes in the strings and percussion. The young players, in the capable hands of Lewis, showed maturity beyond their years, appearing to have a real empathy with the music, capturing all the nuisances admirably. The brass again were excellent in the fanfares, the woodwind assured in their complex overlapping polyrhythmic parts. The prominent piano part played by Michael Burrowes was played wonderfully. Concluding the concert was the very substantial tone poem The Children of Lir by Ulsterman Hamilton Harty. Premiered in 1939 and based on the Irish legend of the same name, this tragic tale of the four children of King Lir is captured in Harty’s rich tapestry of brooding orchestral colour and mood. The turbulent opening depicts the Sea of Moyle, as seen from the hills of Antrim – not a million miles from Ulster Hall, a landscape perhaps in the blood of these musicians. The UYO with Lewis really understood the Irish character with its folk-like tunes, laments and reels which were played convincingly; the violence of what Harty himself describes as “storm and tempest” depicted using a battery of percussion against some brash brass chords came across realistically. A wordless solo voice, projected effortlessly from behind the orchestra, by another Belfast born and UYO alumna, soprano Aoife Miskelly. She created an ethereal quality characterising the voice of Finola, Lir’s daughter as she cries out from the swan in which she has been trapped. With the toll of a church bell the spell is broken and the swans are transformed into their true selves but no longer as children, now they are old and close to death. Approaching the end, a toll of bells and violin solo create an elegy in a real moment of poignancy portraying the death of the children. Concluding the piece are a dramatic and rousing few bars (with three timpanists) which filled the Ulster Hall with the sound of crashing waves, bringing us full circle to a vision of the sea. The concert showcased the diverse and immense talents these young people possess. It gave the young players an aspiration of what could be ahead of them. Nothing can replicate the thrill of being part of a 90-strong ensemble and the invaluable experience it gives. In terms of the changing political landscapes this group show the continuing cross-generational and cross-community harmony brought together through the unifying entity of music.”
Benefits and Outcomes from UYO 2018 members and their parents
“Thank you for everything, I had an amazing tour and really really enjoyed myself.”
“I just wanted to say thank you so much for an amazing tour with the orchestra. I had a really wonderful time and I feel that I have progressed so much in my second year of UYO. I am very lucky to have been a part of something so special with amazingly talented people. These memories and friendships will stay with me forever. I am excited for the future!”
“Such an amazing opportunity and experience for all the young musicians, they are making friends for life and showcasing the best of N. Ireland. Thoroughly enjoyed following UYO to Vienna, Samuel is so happy to have been part of it. Last night’s Ulster Hall concert was a brilliant and fitting end to a successful tour.”
“Thanks to you all for your dedication. Jacob is exhausted but exhilarated! He has travelled Europe, played with excellent players, and made new friendships to last a lifetime!”
“On the journey home from the Ulster Hall last night, my son was buzzing. It was Sean’s first time with the orchestra and he has had the most amazing experience. He loved the programme of music played, the concert venues and the fabulous input of the tutors and conductors. He feels his music has developed so much during the time away. The Welfare team were really excellent… with Sean being just 14, they gave him support when needed but also the space for him to develop his own independence. And he got to develop friendships with other young people who share the same love and excitement for classical music, which isn’t something he comes across every day. A very independent, confident and happy young man came home in the car with me last night. Thank you so much, Ulster Youth Orchestra.”
“Can I take this opportunity to say a huge Thank You both to you and the entire UYO team for doing really and truly, a mammoth job from beginning to end. You are all wonderful! Seamus enjoyed the tour so much and made great friends. I think this trip has had a massive positive impact on him.
Thank you all and please keep up this wonderful work, so many kids will benefit from it. Hopefully the world will be a better place because of people like yourselves.”