Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 19 March 2009

Inquiry into the Funding of the Arts: Ulster Orchestra

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
The Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Mr David Byers
Mr Colm Crummey ) Ulster Orchestra
Mr Colin Stark

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):

I welcome representatives of the Ulster Orchestra to this morning’s Committee session. This part of the meeting will last approximately 45 minutes. Mr David Byers will make a 10-minute presentation, in which he will introduce his colleagues, and that will be followed by members’ questions.

Mr David Byers ( Ulster Orchestra):

We are delighted to be given the chance to come here to make a short presentation to you. With me, I have Colin Stark, an oboe player of long standing with the Ulster Orchestra, and Colm Crummey, the orchestra’s finance and administration manager, who keeps me in order.

I must preface my remarks with a correction. Paragraph 2.9 of our submission states that Belfast City Council contributes £134,000 of grant aid to the Ulster Orchestra, but it gives us £143,000. I apologise for that error.

I hope that the submission is comprehensive enough for you, but I will flesh it out with one or two complementary facts. The Ulster Orchestra has one of the largest allocations of arts funding in Northern Ireland, but we believe that it offers a huge return on the investment on many fronts. It is a finely balanced economic equation: money in very much equals money out. If we put one foot wrong, we go over the precipice.

We are a small to medium-sized business in Northern Ireland terms. We have 80 full-time employees, 63 of whom are musicians.

I will provide a brief summary of our work. During the season, we play around 33 concerts — including family concerts — in Belfast. This year, we will also play a joint concert with the Ulster Youth Orchestra. We play 12 free BBC invitation concerts — sometimes those are held in Belfast, and sometimes they are held in Derry or Armagh. They have moved out and about in recent times, but they may once again be forced back to Belfast because of economics. Those concerts are free, so they can be accessed by a wide range of the community.

We also play 15 of our concerts in the regions, in places such as Derry, Coleraine, Armagh and Enniskillen, and as part of the Opera Fringe festival in Downpatrick, to name but a few. Last year, we undertook a Christmas tour, which included Christmas concerts in the Andersonstown Leisure Centre and the Shankill Leisure Centre. In addition to those concerts, we gave 30 studio-recorded concerts for BBC Radio 3. Those concerts very much bring Northern Ireland’s orchestra to listeners right across the UK, and, thanks to Internet streaming, far beyond. We appear at the BBC Proms every so many years. We have established a Dublin season of concerts each year. We appeared at the Wexford and Kilkenny festivals, and we performed a border-area tour last year that was supported by the Arts Council of Ireland. We played in Letterkenny, Dundalk and Castleblayney.

So much of our work is under the radar. There is an enormous breadth and depth of engagement in all that we do. Last Saturday, we held a concert in the Waterfront Hall as part of the Pied Piper project, and that concert was a culmination of weeks of workshops in four primary schools in mainly deprived areas of Belfast. That performance involved some 240 children singing on stage with the orchestra and 60 young dancers from knee-high upwards. They all performed a piece that was written by our young composer in residence, Brian Irvine. It was the most inspiring event to attend, and it was performed to an audience of about 1,600, many of whom were the parents of those involved. The whole project — which I hope will not be a one-off — was awarded the Inspire Mark of the Cultural Olympiad because of the range that it covered, its work with people and its inspirational qualities.

The week or so before that, we played a concert in the Waterfront Hall to some 1,500 to 1,600 young people, which was presented and planned in part by my colleague Colin Stark. That is an example of what we want to do in the longer term now that we hope to move into the Ulster Hall. Two nights ago, we performed a St Patrick’s Day concert in the Waterfront Hall. That was a cross-community concert that appealed to all sections.

There is a breadth to the work that encompasses many of our players going to special-needs schools. They have devised special systems whereby the children relate to objects on a screen, which encourages them to participate by playing particular notes or identifying particular themes. To hear and see that in action is a most humbling experience.

The instrumental players are in the community providing advanced tuition in schools, colleges and the universities. For example, Colin is involved with the orchestra at Queen’s University. Many of our players provide the backbone of teaching and youth-orchestra coaching in organisations such as the City of Belfast School of Music, the Ulster Youth Orchestra, St Malachy’s College, Methodist College Belfast, and all over the place in primary schools and nursery schools.

The players are also involved with education and library boards. Each year, we do something with the Southern Education and Library Board, which is very supportive of our work. In one week, we perform three or four concerts in places like Dungannon, Newry and Craigavon. Those are fabulous concerts. They are not just free-standing concerts; they are always backed up by workshops in the schools. In that way, kids can draw on all sorts of particular musical experiences and training that help them to appreciate the concerts all the more. Furthermore, many of our players are involved with bands and choirs in the community. One of our viola players conducts a flute band that has been world champion for the past three or four years — its name escapes me at the moment. Those players bring a measure of talent to bear upon the whole community.

Our core business is very much about providing concerts, primarily of orchestral music. That encompasses all kinds of music, including film nights, popular classics, music from Broadway and the West End musicals and concerts with James Galway and Bryn Terfel. If you name it, we will do it.

In the past year or two, we have performed with Flash Harry at the Odyssey Arena, Duke Special and Sinéad O’Connor, and we have also played with The Chieftains at the Waterfront Hall. Above all, we play symphonic classics. We introduce new music by young composers from here, and we provide a platform for young musicians at the start of their careers. We do that partly in co-operation with the Arts Council and the BBC.

The Ulster Orchestra is very much open to everyone — all ages and all creeds. It was heart-warming to discover that a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey from some years ago revealed that 33% of our season-ticket holders were, to use a horrible classification, C2DEs. Access is what we are about; we offer student standby tickets for all our concerts at a price of £3. We have special promotions and offers for people who live in residential homes. We have a sponsored bus scheme for elderly people from Ballymena and Armagh, which has really taken off this year and become a great success.

The events that we put on are non-confrontational; there is no sense of them being for one side of the community and not for the other. We believe with a passion that a modern, forward-looking society needs an orchestra. Not everyone wants to darken its doors, perhaps, but again, we were sufficiently heart-warmed by research that showed that a huge majority feels that Northern Ireland should have an orchestra that is seen to provide a real service to the community. That says something about that community to the outside world.

We are an important part of the creative industries, which, I have been told, employ more people in Northern Ireland than agriculture — that may say more about the state of agriculture at the moment than anything else. We want to, and do, fire up people’s creativity and imagination. We are about participation; I have mentioned several aspects of the orchestra’s work, but next month, for example, we have our annual ‘Come and Play’ concert, which brings in 90 to 100 people aged from seven years to 77-plus. They rehearse with the orchestra in the afternoon and take part in the concert later on. If anyone wants to come along, the event is free and takes place in the Ulster Hall. Again, it is heart-warming and inspirational — it is a wonderful event. Equally, participation is as much about people who simply want to come along, sit, watch, listen and just be part of things. It is about enjoyment, challenge, thought and wonder.

Some years ago, we won the first-ever Royal Philharmonic Society award for education work. Last year, we won the Arts & Business arts award for professionalism in managing our business relationships. We play a major ambassadorial role for Northern Ireland. Companies that are looking to invest here want to know what additional benefits exist for them, and we believe that the Ulster Orchestra is an important part of Northern Ireland’s offering. Tourists check the web for what is on here — nightlife, theatres, clubs and concerts such as ours.

The investment in arts funding sustains everything that I have mentioned. It sustains 80 jobs in the arts. Some years ago, that investment was shown to have been multiplied by a factor of 2·5 as regards economic return. I do not have a recent figure, because the research has not yet been done, but I believe that the way in which we have developed in recent years has increased that figure substantially.

The context of all our work in this part of the country is very important. We live in an environment in which our venues are the most expensive to hire in the UK and Ireland. We have the lowest orchestral salaries in the UK. Conductors, soloists and extra players cost more to bring in and out. We have a smaller population base than comparable orchestras, with the possible exception of Finland. We punch above our weight, and I believe that we provide excellent value for money. We have enjoyed huge success in increasing our box-office revenue, our sponsorship and philanthropic giving from individuals.

Sadly, the reality check is very much upon us now, in that we are not immune to the credit crunch. That fine balance — that precipice that I was talking about — is looking slightly crumbly at the moment.

Sponsorship has taken a nosedive this year. We have lost £150,000 because we are so reliant on the banks and financial institutions. Our bank interest, which we relied on to top us up, was earning us about £30,000 a year, but that has gone, as you can imagine. I am afraid that, next season, we will have to cut back on what we offer and, at the very least, implement a pay freeze from the beginning of the financial year until we work out where the economy is going. We need to do that to preserve our business for the future.

That is all I want to say at this stage — I apologise if I have talked for too long.

Mr McCarthy:

Thank you very much for your presentation. Paragraph 1.5 of your submission refers to the uplift in arts funding provided by the Government in the South — it has increased from €33·14 million in 1998 to €79·81 in 2006, some €46 million of an increase in eight years. What would be the best way of persuading our Northern Ireland Executive to provide a similar uplift?

Mr Byers:

A similar uplift would be wonderful. We need to hold up as an example what we do and what we achieve. At times, it is very hard to get people to come to events. Saturday’s event was mind-blowing and fabulous, but the task is to get people, including MLAs and councillors, to come out and experience such events and to realise their importance.

Mr McCarthy:

The €46 million increase in funding by the Southern Government over eight years was huge, and we are nowhere near that.

Mr Byers:

They took the basic step of saying that the arts would be important for the wider economy and for the wider sense of Ireland in the world, and that has paid off. Obviously, they are now pulling back a bit on aspects of the funding, but what they have achieved is fantastic. However, the Government funding and Arts Council funding in the South does not support an orchestra other than the Irish Chamber Orchestra, which is a small, chamber-sized ensemble. They are saved millions of euros because RTÉ supports its own orchestra.

Mr Brolly:

At times, I have been critical of the money spent on the Ulster Orchestra, but that is nothing to do with the quality of the work that it does. I am sure that, like myself, you are disappointed that classical music has not really invaded the homes of the ordinary. That is also a criticism that I have of the Arts Council generally — it is not totally proactive.

A lot of the money that is spent on the orchestra, and that the orchestra spends, goes to the small elite. I am talking about all things classical: for example, if I go to Castleward for an opera, I will not see any of my neighbours. Although not strictly a criticism of the Ulster Orchestra, I am always disappointed that classical music and opera are still seen as the preserve of the few. If that perception is correct and is added to the fact that more money goes to the Ulster Orchestra than to any other organisation, it seems that the funding is a bit misaligned — the least people are getting the most money.

Mr Byers:

I do not agree with that. We reach out to different audiences from across society. I worry about the word “elite”, because it is being used in a pejorative way in this context. As I tried to convey in the submission, we aspire to being elite, because we want to achieve the best quality in the same way as a rugby team or another sports team does. Our young musicians want to be the best and to be trained in the best possible way. There is nothing wrong with that. However, the argument that the orchestra appeals to only a few rich people does not stand up to analysis.

Mr Brolly:

Not necessarily rich people; I was trying to say that I am somewhat critical of what the Arts Council does. My accusation is that it hands out funding but has no hands-on involvement. I appreciate all the orchestra’s work in education, and so forth, but the ripples of that work do not yet spread far enough.

Mr Byers:

That is an argument for having a bigger cake rather than simply divvying up the existing cake into smaller and smaller slices with the result that we cannot achieve all that we ought in society. I am not speaking as a representative of the Arts Council, but I assure you that it is not an easy shout to obtain funding. The Arts Council studies our programme, argues about some aspects of it and has quibbles with others, but it is supportive.

The money is not simply handed to us on a plate. We always need and want more funding, but so does everyone else. In general, the arts, historically, have always received support. Some years ago, the support came through patronage, which has been superseded by Government funding. Members should consider other countries in which Governments have invested in the arts. For example, in the South, the investment in the arts has produced substantial returns that extend to all areas, including traditional music.

Mr Brolly:

Are you telling me that all that is required is more money? Should you not examine your strategy?

Mr Colm Crummey ( Ulster Orchestra):

You are right, Mr Brolly, to say that barriers must be broken down. Before I became the orchestra’s accountant, my background was in traditional music. However, the more that I am exposed to classical music, the more I love it. It is a matter of how to increase its exposure to more people.

Mr Brolly:

That was basically my question.

Mr Byers:

It would seem crude to say yes in answer to your previous question about whether we simply require more money. Strategically, we want to develop, and we hope to move our office to the Ulster Hall in June 2009. Had life here been normal, without the credit crunch, now would have been the time to grab opportunities. It is the perfect time to bus schoolchildren to the Ulster Hall to hear concerts by the orchestra in that environment. Our focus should be to introduce people to classical music at that young age.

People who live in the suburbs, or elderly people who no longer want to come into the cities at night but can travel free on buses, can come into the city for lunchtime concerts; now is the time to develop that. Although the orchestra is funded and we receive salaries, most concerts incur an additional cost. The only concerts from which we make money are the ‘Messiah’ and the Viennese concerts.

The sponsors are the people who make the difference. With sponsorship, we can achieve so much more, but all of a sudden that has gone. Will I be able to put on lunchtime concerts? The orchestra has one sponsor who is committed to lunchtime concerts for the next year, so they will go ahead.

However, we ought to be putting on schools concerts, as I would love to do, but I would have to pay for a conductor to allow the orchestra to play the sort of music that is attractive and appealing to that audience. The orchestra has 63 players, and that is the minimum number required to perform. However, to perform the music from ‘Star Wars’, for example, we would need additional trumpets and percussion because each piece of music incurs an extra cost.

There is no point in putting on a bit of Mozart or Haydn. Nowadays, orchestras have to shake people up with something more contemporary, but that costs more. Where can we get the money? Sponsorship is the direct answer, but there is none available. I would love the city and DCAL to invest in the orchestra, so that we could get on with performing. I am sorry to say that it comes down to the crude issue of money.

Mr Shannon:

As you rightly said, Northern Ireland is blessed with, and enriched by, a variety of musical talent, such as the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band, and the flute bands from Ballygowan and Ballywalter. I am sure that other members are also proud of the bands in their areas. The Ulster Orchestra does a magnificent job of promoting the Province, and it promotes Northern Ireland wherever it plays. Therefore, I understand the importance of the orchestra, and I do not need to be convinced of it.

I have a couple of questions. First, you mentioned the South Eastern Education and Library Board in your submission.

Mr Byers:

I meant to say the Southern Education and Library Board.

Mr Shannon:

You mentioned the importance of developing musical talent and of people going on to join the Ulster Orchestra. What relationship do you have with the boards as regards that issue?

Secondly, the per capita spend has been a key issue in the inquiry. At the moment, it seems that our per capita spend is lower than the per capita spend in other parts of the United Kingdom — although we are waiting for confirmation of that. In your submission, you suggested that the per capita measurement should not be the sole criterion for arts funding. Northern Ireland has a small population compared to Scotland, Wales and the Republic, so is it fair that a small country should have to pay more? I am keen to get your opinion on that. How could that be addressed differently and, at the same time, not be cost prohibitive?

Mr Byers:

We have closer relationships with some boards than with others, and that is down to the particular boards and whether they have any flexibility with regard to money. I am returning to the issue of money again. We have a very good relationship with the Southern Board, and it works alongside councils in Newry, Dungannon, Craigavon and other places that we have recently visited. Those councils provide £1,000 per concert and the education and library board provides the same amount of money. Therefore, by working in partnership, we can stage those concerts. We put on two concerts a day, with around 1,000 kids at each concert. Therefore, it is a partnership.

We have good, close working relationships with the staff in the South Eastern Education and Library Board with regard to workshops and other things that we do. However, it is only the Southern Education and Library Board that is involved in the larger-scale school concerts. We have close contact with the staff in the Western Education and Library Board, the South Eastern Education and Library Board and the North Eastern Education and Library Board, and our workshops are held in schools right across Northern Ireland. They are not simply parachuted in. The work is delivered in consultation with those area boards, and we get advice from them.

Mr Shannon:

Is there a natural progression for young pupils who show an interest in music to receive tuition from the education boards and then go on to join the Ulster Orchestra? Is there a methodology to enable that to happen?

Mr Byers:

There is progression, but Northern Ireland does not have a third-level college of music, and, indeed, we are too small to sustain such a college. Therefore, a lot of our young pianists, for example, go to study with John O’Conor at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Other people go to study at the Royal Scottish Academy, the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London or the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Quite often, those people get freelance jobs, so they do not necessarily all come back here. However, there is some progression to enable those people to climb the ladder. They are given tuition and join the youth orchestras in those area boards, and, if they are really keen, they may go to the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland. If they are really good at college, they can become freelance teachers, for example.

Mr Colin Stark (The Ulster Orchestra):

We have players in the orchestra who have come through the system. I am one of those people, so it can happen. Indeed, during the worst of the Troubles, many of our most talented players went away to study and chose not to come back. However, it is very refreshing that several of our recently advertised posts have been filled by young people from here who have chosen to come back and play in the Ulster Orchestra.

Mr Shannon:

What about the per capita spend?

Mr Byers:

We have to find a way to supply adequate funding for the arts — indeed, more than adequate, if possible. The per capita issue gets so confused at times; are we really comparing like with like? I was trying to consider the matter on a European basis, and it is well nigh impossible. The BBC is one of our major supporters, and it is not in a particularly healthy state at the moment. We are engaged in an ongoing discussion with the BBC about our appearances at the Proms. Scotland gets two appearances, as does Wales, and we feel that appearances are, in a sense, part of the per capita commitment. We should have two appearances. A per capita argument is being used now to say, “Hang on, there are so many licence payers in Northern Ireland”. So, now, there is only one every five or six years, which galls me slightly.

It is how the statistics are used that is somewhat bothersome. I am afraid that I have no answer to your question. When we look at per capita spending at face value, it is clear that we are so behind the Republic and Scotland. Scotland is surging ahead at the moment — just look at the expenditure figures for the five key cultural institutions. The progress there is phenomenal. If we had half of what that orchestra is getting at the moment, we could do so much more, but then I think that Scotland’s per capita spending is about £12 a head.

Mr P Ramsey:

We have talked about levels of deprivation and poverty and also the culturally poor and cultural poverty. Can you explain how you would enrich the quality of life of someone who comes from a marginalised community or a TSN area? How would you get them involved and help them to gain access to your organisation? What are your strengths in that regard?

Jim was right; the Committee is trying to gather qualitative evidence to convince the Executive and our Ministers that there are good reasons to invest in the arts. Various channels were explored, and the ValCAL study was abandoned. That evidence is not available. Earlier, Francie mentioned that the great investment in the arts in Ireland had resulted in a huge return to the economy. Can you explain what the return is? Where is the evidence that there has been a return?

Mr Stark:

I will give you an example of work in TSN areas. At the moment, I am working with kids in a primary school in Poleglass and one in Rathcoole — they have sort of adopted me. Those kids are not musicians, they are just part of a class group. I talk to them about the orchestra, play my instrument and we listen to music and play some games.

The kids then come to an informal concert, and I meet them there. Afterwards, we talk about the concert, and I show them around. I then go back to the school and prepare them for coming to a full-on, serious evening classical concert. They come to that concert and meet my colleagues, and I pop round to see them at the break. Once again, I go back to the school, and we talk about their experience. I ask the kids whether they found the concert boring or whether they enjoyed it. We ask them what they would like by way of follow up. I do little instrumental performance classes with the musicians, and some of the parents and other teachers get involved.

In a sense, it is a microcosm of a complete musical experience. We keep in touch with that school and go back to visit it. We will follow the children’s progress, perhaps into post-primary education. Those children are then familiar with the Ulster Orchestra; they see that the orchestra is not on a different planet and that it is an ordinary group. The children come to see the orchestra and have a bit of craic.

That is how we follow through on progress. At best, that experience develops our young artists; at the very least, it develops an audience for classical music in the Province. Such work is taking place on a very large scale with several of my colleagues all the time. I take Mr Brolly’s point that there is still not enough access. However, it is not for want of trying; it is a matter of resource. As Mr Byers said, a lot of what we do is under the radar because we cannot shout about everything all the time.

Mr P Ramsey:

I take that point, and the work is fantastic. However, how do you measure it? You have worked with young people who may not have had access to music or played an instrument, but how will the outcome of that work be measured in the future? How will you know that, as a direct result of your actions, people are going back to their own communities and joining bands and participating in music, and so on?

Where is the evidence to show that that is happening? How do you ensure that the work that you do in a school one week is not forgotten the next week?

Mr Stark:

I can only offer anecdotal evidence. We do not have the resource to follow that up in a scientific way. It would be wonderful to take a large sample of pupils and follow them from Key Stage 1, through to the end of their education and into their working lives in order to see how many people stay with us. The only evidence that I can offer you is the change in the kids’ attitudes from when I first go in — when I may as well be from Mars — to when they go to concerts —

Mr P Ramsey:

You are the Pied Piper.

Mr Stark:

We work through a project, and that results in the children having a completely different attitude. I have been doing that for a long time, and teenagers and young adults come up to me and remind me that I visited their school. They tell me that they are going to Ulster Orchestra concerts or that they have encouraged someone else to do so. It is not only for the ABC1s.

Mr Byers:

The research is good in the sense in that it shows that a large percentage of our current audience has reached the orchestra through having met it as schoolchildren. It is a matter of getting people when they are young and bringing them into it. The evidence is there, but resources are needed to follow it through.

Mr P Ramsey:

You talked about money and why that is so important. What added value would you bring to the table if you were to get extra public money?

Mr Byers:

We would expand our reach to people of all ages.

Mr Crummey:

More money would result in more exposure. As with anything, the more exposure something gets, the more people will begin to like it.

Mr McNarry:

You are welcome, gentlemen. Your submission states that £143,000 was made available by Belfast City Council and that, unfortunately, that was returned in hall-hire charges. Is that pure coincidence?

Mr Byers:

Yes, in fairness, it is.

Mr McNarry:

So, you receive a grant, but it is not to cover hall charges?

Mr Byers:

No. It is a grant towards the orchestra.

Mr McNarry:

The money that is available from the grant is equalised by the amount needed for hall charges?

Mr Byers:

Yes.

Mr McNarry:

That was just a bit misleading. Were you trying to make a point by saying that?

Mr Byers:

I am concerned that it seems strange that the Ulster Orchestra has to pay the greatest hall-hire charges of any orchestra in these islands.

Mr McNarry:

I am very sympathetic to that point, and I am glad that you made it, not me. We now know how much Belfast City Council offers in grant aid and how it takes that money back.

Mr Byers:

I should add that Belfast City Council has invested money in the Ulster Hall and that we are looking forward to developing a healthy relationship with it. I would like to think that that relationship will blossom.

Mr McNarry:

That is progress. I was trying to get to the bottom of why that comment was included in your submission. We know where you stand with Belfast City Council, but how much funding does the Arts Council of Northern Ireland provide?

Mr Byers:

This year, funding is at a standstill of £2,050,000.

Mr McNarry:

Can you justify that?

Mr Byers:

Absolutely; we can more than justify that.

Mr McNarry:

You do not produce any balance sheets. I hear what you say, but how do you justify that figure?

Mr Byers:

We produce them every year. We can give general figures —

Mr Crummey:

That money goes towards our activity for the year. We are a charity, and we are non-profit-making, so all of the money that comes in is spent on our activities. We try to have a surplus each year in order to build up a reserve level, because we are a small-to-medium-sized business, and the Charity Commission recommends that charities have six months’ expenditure in their reserves. In our case, that would be approaching £2 million, but our reserves are £336,000, so the precipice that David Byers mentioned earlier is always in the back of my mind when he is trying to plan events.

Mr McNarry:

I am not saying that you do not need it; I am just saying that you need to justify it.

Mr Byers:

To give a round figure, it costs nearly £4 million a year to do what we do. That is funded by roughly £2 million from the Arts Council, £750,000 from the BBC and £143,000 from Belfast City Council. We have additional regional council support, which amounts to a few thousand pounds. Our box-office income is around £400,000, which is 10% of our outlay.

Mr McNarry:

I think that we get the picture. In your submission, you say that the Arts Council and Belfast City Council review your needs annually. Why do they do that? Is it because they give you grant aid annually? One organisation gives you £143,000; the other gives you over £2 million. What is the role and influence of those organisations in that review of needs? Do they lay down stipulations, or do they tell you what to do?

Mr Byers:

We apply for a grant; we put on paper our proposed programme and what it will cost, and we ask for a certain amount of money. We discuss with the officers the rationale for what we are doing and the nature of what we are doing. Eventually, we get a letter saying that we have been granted a certain amount of money.

For many years, we have been arguing for three-year funding grants so that we can plan ahead. Belfast City Council has been most effective in that respect. It stuck to its bargain of a three-year deal, which was uplifted by 3% each year. The Arts Council, because of its situation, has not provided, what would have been, an inflationary uplift. At the moment, inflation may disappear anyway. However, we are waiting to see what that will mean for our ability to forward plan. I have heard only in the past few weeks what my funding will be for next year, although the programme is well in place. The funding bodies keep a strict eye on it, and the funding is all argued for.

Mr McNarry:

Finally, you say that the orchestra is a charity and that it plans to do this, that and the other. However, your submission specifically states that the Ulster Orchestra is similar to a medium-sized business enterprise. It employs 80 people and has a turnover of £4 million.

Mr Byers:

If I may rudely interrupt, I would add that we are not on safe ground. The hope is to have reserves to support the business. The board made a decision to make a reserve of £500,000 by 2012, which is much less than the amount that PricewaterhouseCoopers recommended to us. Years ago, we were not allowed to make any profit as such. We have managed to salt away some money, and we are trying to add £40,000 each year to our reserves in order to build them up. That is not money that we can dip into; it is to support redundancies and cash flow and that sort of thing. At the moment, as a business, we are not on the best foundations.

Mr McNarry:

I am sad to hear that; however, that is, in a sense, the fate of business.

Mr Byers:

Yes.

Mr McNarry:

I am concerned that because you are operating, on the one hand, with handouts, and, on the other hand, you are adopting — quite rightly in my opinion — a business sense, you risk losing your own identity in order to meet performances off the balance sheet? It is a fine line, and that is where funding and help are crucial.

Mr Byers:

That is the big issue that we will face next year. I had to spend the weekend — and I do not make a case that we are exceptional — pruning the programme for next year to such an extent that I worry that it will damage the box-office income, which we rely on. It also stops artistic progress and affects the identity of what we are doing and the nature of the music that we are playing. We are now carving the programme back to the very minimum just to survive. Of course, I want the business to survive so that in a couple of years’ time, when the economy turns upwards, we will be there and ready to go. I do not want to jeopardise the institution.

Mr McNarry:

What do you think that the Committee could encourage the Arts Council to do for you, in recognition of the current circumstances? It seems that the Ulster Orchestra’s structure is vulnerable due to its reliance on outside funding, and yet it contributes to society locally, and it gives us a good name internationally. How can we help so that the orchestra is not put in jeopardy through overindulgence in a belief that the orchestra must survive monetarily at the sacrifice of what it actually does?

Mr Byers:

In addition, we have the lowest orchestra salaries in the UK. To return to my earlier point, in order to attract back people who went to study in places such as London or Wales, our salaries should be, at least, on a par with those of other organisations. Musicians will be far more attracted to stay in London or Manchester, where they can pick up freelance work or get a regular job that is better paid, than to come back here. At one time, we could have argued that the cost of housing here was lower; however, that has all changed now.

Mr McNarry:

One could say that if the venues were cheaper, salaries could be increased.

Mr Byers:

All of that has an impact.

Mr McNarry:

If your turnover was better, your salaries could be increased.

Mr Byers:

It is a vicious circle, no matter what you do. It comes back to the crude business of having enough financial resources to build the structure.

Mr Crummey:

Also, we do not have any assets as such. Given that we do not own a building or premises, it is difficult to secure a bank loan in a situation where cash is tight.

Mr McNarry:

I understand all that. However, everyone who comes in here and sits where you are sitting has a bowl in their hands; everyone wants us to do something for them. You have established that you run a professional organisation, but you also run a business. Either you survive or you sink on that basis. I think that part of the issue is whether you can increase your performances. However, I do not know whether that is the case, because there is not enough information in the submission. Can you get more revenue? Rather than simply asking for money, can you not generate some money yourself? You should be telling us what you are going to do, and we will see whether we can back you. What do you need to do?

Mr Byers:

The sad thing is that, without sponsorship and a significant level of individual giving, our funding comes down to the public purse, because each concert costs money. Therefore, it is cheaper to leave the orchestra at home doing nothing in order to survive than it is to put on a concert.

Mr McNarry:

Seriously?

Mr Byers:

That is the embarrassment of it. However, I would not do that, because that would be immoral. It would be immoral for public funding to go into an organisation that did not do anything. Therefore, we put on concerts, but there is a cost involved in doing so. Next year, in order to break even, or to have reserves of £30,000 or £40,000, I will be looking at a balance of minus £300,000. However, I have cut £150,000 from programme costs. I will also have to look at a pay freeze and, depending on expenses, a potential pay cut of up to 4% — despite having the lowest orchestral salaries. All of that is to ensure that, if not balanced, our accounts will be minus only £40,000.

Mr McNarry:

I appreciate that.

Mr Byers:

It is tough, and I am fully aware that is tough for everybody. I am not making a special case.

The Chairperson:

At least four more members have questions that they want to ask, and we are already over time, so I want to move on. Colin, did you want to say something?

Mr Stark:

I wish to make two brief points. First, I take Mr McNarry’s point absolutely. However, given that he was surprised by the fact that it would be cheaper to sit at home than it would be to put on a concert, I will provide some perspective. A disproportionate amount of the cost of putting on a concert goes to paying the conductor and the soloist. Their fees are very expensive, even though they stay here for only a couple of days. Therefore, if we were to put on a dozen more concerts a year, those fees would add significantly to our costs.

Secondly, the fine line between being a business and being an excellent business ties in absolutely with Mr Brolly’s point. Our prime purpose is to be an excellent classical symphony orchestra and to have excellent access and outreach — one informs the other. We cannot have a true community arch without a centre of excellence. One cannot lower the common denominator to the point where the orchestra is no longer excellent. We must juggle between being an excellent orchestra and making ourselves more accessible, but that is extremely difficult. Indeed, at the moment, that is an impossible balancing act, because our resources are on the edge.

The Chairperson:

I am sorry about this, but I must ask Dominic and Raymond group their questions and Wallace and Nelson group their questions. After that, Ken can ask a question.

Mr D Bradley:

Colin said that he came through the music-education process in Northern Ireland, from the education and library board to the orchestra. How many of the players in the orchestra are from Northern Ireland?

Mr Byers:

Around 12 members are from Northern Ireland.

Mr D Bradley:

That seems to be quite an imbalance.

Mr Byers:

I probably should not even answer that question, because I feel that it is unfair. There are musicians who have been in the orchestra for 20 or 40 years; they have moved here, and are part of our community. We are part of the EC.

We have a vacancy for a principal clarinet player, as ours is retiring after 40 years. We have had 100 applications from around the world, and that appointment will be determined, ultimately, on the best that we can get. We have a timpani player who is from Australia —

Mr D Bradley:

I was just wondering where all the young players who are educated through the education and library boards’ services are going.

Mr Stark:

They are going all over the world, because classical professional music-making is truly international. I do not take your point that it is disproportionate. There is disproportion, but it is the reverse of that which you imply. There is quite a high proportion of local people in the local orchestra. In the Birmingham or London Symphony Orchestras, there are probably fewer people, proportionately, from those centres —

Mr D Bradley:

So, are you saying that the employment field is global?

Mr Stark:

It is absolutely global, and an orchestra is 100% a meritocracy: every seat is filled by someone who deserves to be there.

Mr Byers:

My son was the Northern Ireland Young Musician of the Year; he moved to London and stayed there, and he travels all over the world to work. I am not sure that I could entice him back.

Mr D Bradley:

I asked that purely out of interest; the question that I was going to ask was —

Mr Brolly:

I must remember that one. [Laughter.]

Mr D Bradley:

I was going to ask whether you have any way of estimating the economic return from the orchestra, over and above ticket sales, CD sales, and so on. What are the spin-off effects for local businesses in cultural and social capital?

Mr McCartney:

I have a couple of out-of-interest questions to ask first. [Laughter.]

The figures for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra show that it has 83 players and 24 administration staff. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has 70 players, and 36 administration staff. You have 82 staff, 63 of whom are musicians and 19 are administrative staff —

Mr Byers:

We have 63 musicians and 18 full-time and one part-time administrative staff.

Mr McCartney:

Is that the bare minimum of administration staff that you can have?

Mr Byers:

Yes, that is the absolute bare minimum.

Mr McCartney:

Are musicians, such as Colin, contracted to do the outreach work? Does that work involve only a set number of musicians, or are all musicians in the orchestra under that sort of contract?

Mr Stark:

Only the musicians who are committed to, and interested in, doing the outreach work do all the individual projects. As regards giving concerts with the full orchestra, that is part of everyone’s contractual commitment.

Mr McCartney:

It is not part of your contractual commitment to do the outreach; that is something that you just do?

Mr Crummey:

It is channelled through the orchestra.

Mr Byers:

Mr Bradley asked about the economic return, PricewaterhouseCoopers measured that return in 2004 or 2005. At that point, for every £1 spent, there was a return of £1·93, plus an additional 41p from other sources, such as restaurant meals and that sort of thing —

Mr Crummey:

Taxis and hotels.

Mr Byers:

It was roughly £2·50. I believe that that figure has increased since then, because the whole organisation has blossomed in recent years — or it had up until now.

Lord Browne:

I apologise for arriving late and missing the presentation. I have read the submission, which was extremely informative, and I had the pleasure of attending the opening night at the refurbished Ulster Hall. There was a terrific atmosphere, and a terrific performance.

Now that you are moving into the Ulster Hall, there will be a reduced capacity of somewhere in the region of 1,000. Will that affect your box-office takings? What percentage of seats is filled at your concerts? I am unclear about your contract with the BBC; how does that operate?

The Chairperson:

You may have to note those questions in a ministerial fashion, Mr Byers, because Nelson will ask his questions now, too.

Mr McCausland:

I have two questions. First, the review of public administration will change the composition of councils. However, at the moment, what financial input is there from councils outside Belfast? Secondly, how will you broaden your markets and attract new clients? I assume that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra marked the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. Is there potential to include Burns Night in an annual programme here? You could reach into that market. I am unsure how an orchestra would do that, but I will take your guidance on the matter.

Mr Byers:

I will answer Lord Browne’s question. In 2008, the hall capacity was filled to 86% across the season. That figure is unbelievably good. It was a very good year, but given the economic nosedive, I do not know what will happen.

The Ulster Hall has reduced its capacity. I am worried that the economic return will decrease while the costs on stage remain the same. However, if we use the Waterfront Hall, the costs will be magnified. Moreover, if a typical Ulster Hall-size audience were to attend a concert there, it would be either half full or half empty, depending on one’s perspective. That causes a problem with morale.

Lord Browne:

Do you intend to raise charges for the public? I know that you offer many concessionary charges, but will there come a time when you will have to charge more realistically?

Mr Byers:

In a sense, the obvious answer is that we ought to raise charges in order to achieve the best possible return. However, such an approach will limit access and deprive people who cannot afford to attend. The loyalty of audiences is remarkable. Many people visit five or six times a year, and people pay into 20 concerts. That is a large outlay. If we raise costs, will we retain that audience? Furthermore, if the audience is reduced, it will still have a significant impact on us. Therefore, we try to gauge the effect. However, I do not envisage, for obvious reasons, that we will be able to raise prices in the short term.

The Chairperson:

Lord Browne asked about your relationship with the BBC.

Mr Byers:

Our relationship with the BBC has been very good for many years. We are about to enter the second year of a three-year contract, which has not been signed yet. I tried to hold out for the inclusion of an agreement to have one Prom a year, but I have singularly failed to achieve that goal. It is not worth continuing that fight, because we need to ensure that the contract is signed. There is no suggestion of a diminution in the BBC’s support, but we must be wary that it is making general staff cutbacks. I want to play the regional card in order to ensure that we receive our fair share of BBC resources. We could not survive without the BBC.

Mr Crummey:

We organise 12 free concerts a year and do much studio work for BBC Radio 3 and Radio Ulster.

Mr Byers:

We are based in the Belfast City Council area, and our main halls are located there. Derry City Council has been reasonably supportive, and we tried to organise a major series in Derry some years ago. That did not work out. The Millennium Forum is one of the few places that can accommodate the whole orchestra. It does not, unfortunately, have the nicest acoustic for the orchestra. The council pays us approximately £20,000 a year for specific concerts.

There is a good partnership in Coleraine between the university, Coleraine Borough Council and Flowerfield Arts Centre, which you visited last week. It also pays approximately £20,000, and we are talking to them at the moment. They want to reduce that figure because of the economic situation, and, therefore, we will lose some money. We hold two concerts a year in Enniskillen at a cost of approximately £16,000. We arrange concerts in other places on a one-off basis.

As a result of the Arts Council’s withdrawal of support for some venues around the country, which was probably a move to get the councils to fund the arts more, those venues are saying that they can no longer afford us. The minimum above-the-line cost for a concert in the regions is £6,500 to £7,000, and, for that amount of money, venues could put on, perhaps, 17 nights of a one-man show. I have great sympathy with them, although I wish that it was not that way.

With respect to the question about Burns Night, every year I consider putting something on for Burns Night, such as Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony, but it has never quite worked out. Some years ago, although it was during the festival, we did a concert with Eddi Reader. On St Patrick’s Day, we adopt a cross-community approach to our programme, which includes a mixture of Ulster-Scots and Irish traditional music. However, I have yet to construct a programme for Burns Night that would achieve that mix. If someone wishes to talk to me, I would be happy to discuss it — all the better if he or she were to bring some sponsorship funding to the table.

Mr McCausland:

Given that Belfast City Council sponsors St Patrick’s Day events, I am sure that we could talk to it about sponsoring Burns Night events as well.

The Chairperson:

If there are 63 musicians in the orchestra, how many of them are involved in the valuable outreach work in Rathcoole and Poleglass that Colin Stark mentioned?

Mr Stark:

Although it is hard to give a number, probably 20 people are constantly involved in that work. Sometimes we pull in other people for bespoke projects. However, close to a third of the orchestra is heavily committed to that work on an ongoing basis.

The Chairperson:

Is there an argument for including engagement in such work in musicians’ contractual arrangements?

Mr Stark:

Yes, up to a point. Everyone is involved when we stage full orchestra concerts as part of our outreach work for the education boards. However, on an individual level, people must want to work with young people and be comfortable doing so. It is not what they were trained to do.

Mr Byers:

Some years ago, we went down the route of attempting to get everyone to do education work by making it part of the contract. However, a person is employed by the orchestra, in the first instance, because he or she is a wonderful clarinet player or trumpet player. That person might be death in a classroom and not suited to such work. Therefore, we play to our strengths, and reward people accordingly.

Mr K Robinson:

Your point about schools is valid; the worst thing that one could do would be to put an excellent musician into a school if he or she has no rapport with either the staff or pupils. That would be an absolute disaster, although I know that Colin Stark is not like that, because he was well grounded in Cavehill Primary School.

There are two aims for the orchestra: the short-term aim is to get over the economic hump and the long-term aim is to grow audiences. You have started to engage with schools, but I perceive a gap emerging in people’s middle years, when they move on from school and are lost until they have young families of their own. Only then do they come back with their youngsters. Perhaps that is an area that you might wish to address. What are your thoughts about that matter?

Mr Byers:

That is right.

Mr K Robinson:

I wish to issue a disclaimer, Mr Chairperson. Mr McCausland — the banker for Belfast City Council — and I have been examining your ‘Move to the Music’ programme. First, neither of us are over 70 years of age, and we do not live in Ballymena or Armagh, so we lost out on both of those counts. Moreover, we wonder whether we would have wanted to go to ‘Flights of Fancy’, ‘Repentant Thief’, ‘Beethoven Inspired’ or ‘In the ‘Classical Charts’. We thought that the one that we would probably have understood most was ‘In the Classical Charts’, but the others left us cold. For the rest of the 2008-09 season, we have gone for ‘Fate and Destiny’, which is heavy stuff, and ‘Symphonic Dances’.

Mr McNarry:

They are philistines. [Laughter.]

Mr Byers:

Those brochures are sent with details of what is in the programmes.

Mr K Robinson:

You are giving people a menu, but is it the right musical menu? Rather than giving people what you think they should hear, are they ready for that programme, and is it likely to grow audiences? I think that there is long-term slippage in the development of audiences as they come through from schools and short-term slippage with respect to your current markets.

Mr Byers:

The concert programme must attempt to be all things to all people. Those little leaflets are accompanied by programme details that help people choose what is most attractive to them.

We select programmes that will, we hope, be appreciated more than others, and also programmes that we can perform in a larger hall that can cope with busloads of people. There would tend to be more concerts in the Waterfront Hall, rather than the Ulster Hall, for example.

As regards the age profile, there is a noticeable gap in the middle — that applies across the world.

Mr Crummey:

That applies not only in relation to music. I coach under-age hurling teams, and many of the players leave at the age of 16. It is difficult to get those players back later.

Mr Byers:

There is a cost involved in going to concerts. There is a much larger cost in going to a pop concert, but one would go to, maybe, one or two of those a year. We are looking for more regular attendance if possible. A night out, even with our relatively cheap prices, would involve paying £30 for a couple of £15 tickets, as well as paying for car parking, babysitters, and all that sort of thing. The costs mount up, and that is what we are up against.

Mr Stark:

It is my experience that the audiences come back; if we capture them young, they then enter the dark tunnel of adolescence, but they will come back again. We are also experimenting, when we can afford to do so, with family concerts, which are held late on Saturday afternoons or early on Saturday evenings, and the take-up for those has been terrific. Those are attended by three-year-olds, which makes for a very noisy concert, but young families are coming when concerts are accessible to them.

Mr Byers:

The research in the United States led to grave worries 10 years ago that audiences for classical music concerts were dying out. One can look at all the grey heads and think that it is terrible. However, that has not happened. The audiences are constantly being replenished as people come on board.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps Ken, Nelson and Wallace would like to declare interests?

Mr McCausland:

I am a member of Belfast City Council.

Mr K Robinson:

I am a member of Newtownabbey Borough Council, and we have not had a concert for a very long time. I think the last one that I attended in official capacity was in 1991 or 1992 when I was Mayor.

The Chairperson:

That should change as a result of your intervention.

Mr Byers:

We are talking to that council at the moment; it wants us to perform at the opening of the new civic arts centre.

The Chairperson:

You have an interest to declare in that you are talking to your former pupils, Ken.

Lord Browne:

I am a member of Belfast City Council.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much, David, Colin and Colm for a very good engagement.

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