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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On the future of the Ulster Orchestra,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Ask Alice

Many moons ago, when I and all the world was young — well, fairly young, I was twenty-three — I auditioned for the Ulster Orchestra. I was heavy-hearted, having gotten trials (periods of being assessed for jobs while working with the orchestra) with the CBSO and Bournemouth (no luck either time). I was also nervous, having been fed a lot of idiotic ideas about how 'dangerous' Northern Ireland was in the early eighties — well, they still had the 'troubles', no question, but it was never a war zone. Most of the victims of violence were partisans, on one side or the other, though of course by no means all.

I was completely unprepared for Northern Ireland, first of all for its beauty and its greenness. (I'd thought Wales green, but both Irelands have a very special richness to their green, provided probably by lots and lots and lots of rain!!!!) Secondly, for its people. I was given the address of various B&Bs by the then-orchestra manager, who was mortified when I admitted, upon showing up on the second day, that I'd spent the night being bed-bug-bitten at one of these. But he wasn't the only friendly one. The entire orchestra went out of its way — yes, even the brass and timpani people — to say hi, and thanks for coming and hope you enjoy being here. I was overwhelmed, calling my husband Simon to say that the orchestra was not only marvelous but full of wonderful people ... The couple of weeks of my trial there were a revelation: even people in restaurants, in the street even, were welcoming. The cello section, led now as it was then by John Leeming, was practically a family ... In fact, the orchestra has always had a family feel, as the only symphony orchestra in Northern Ireland. They play chamber music together, teach at the same places, marry each other and go to pubs together coming back from concerts in Coleraine. In fact, by the time John Leeming turned to me and offered me the job I had already told Simon that he ought to look for a job there as well, being blissfully unaware that junior lectureships in musicology were no easier to get than cello positions ...

When he offered me the job I burst into tears of joy, which clearly embarrassed John terribly. (He probably still remembers this.) I went home and tried to persuade Simon it could work, with him at the University of London (Goldsmiths) and me in the Ulster Orchestra. We argued for about a fortnight and then I gave in, and the phone call I made left me utterly bereft, even of hope. But my sorrow was so real that they continued to call me, as an extra player, for over a decade. First at the York Hotel, listening drowsily to the subdued roar from the bar all night — not particularly subdued the night Barry McGuigan won his boxing world crown!!!! — then on Michele Strong's floor — I spent over two years of my life (a fortnight here, a week there, a TV broadcast, numerous radio broadcasts, a tour of Austria) with the Ulster Orchestra. (There wasn't a person in it without real character ... I often felt there was not one novel but a trilogy in them!!!) I loved their conductors (Tod Handley especially); I loved their cellos; I loved the Ulster Hall; I loved the shops and the people and the welcome and the Irishness of it. And the feeling from the audience was very special too. One night as I left the Ulster Hall in the pelting rain I was stopped by a middle-aged woman with tears in her eyes. She said, 'Thank you!!! You'll never know what you mean to people in this province!'

I felt almost guilty — I wanted to tell her that I was flying back to London in the morning — but I'd teared up too, and was too embarrassed and too young. But I never forgot it: I told several people. It made me feel even prouder that they'd wanted me ... And still wanted me, when they had a big programme. So I was utterly shocked to learn, just in the past couple of weeks, that they are in such horrific financial trouble (BBC not helping, government cuts in the arts) that they might go bankrupt in November!!!! This: the only orchestra in Northern Ireland, the benchmark for Northern Irish culture!!! This: the source of music lessons and inspiration for a whole region — and such magic people!!! (Of course the administrators aren't to know about the people, but the music? Shouldn't they have a clue about the standard and the importance of the music?)

In common with so many: music lovers, musos, cultural commentators, Facebook movers and shakers, Tweeters, I've signed petitions, encouraged on the Save the Ulster Orchestra Facebook page, pledged support and written to the BBC. This is an important orchestra. (Of course, all orchestras are important, but this is an especially important orchestra!!!) Please, please, once you read this, and if you haven't already, sign this petition and get in touch with the Facebook page below. 'Else another light might go out' (John Steinbeck)


Copyright © 31 October 2014 Alice McVeigh, Virginia, USA

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