The UK orchestra with the fewest women

The UK orchestra with the fewest women


norman lebrecht

January 16, 2019

Outside of the string sections, the Ulster Orchestra has only one woman in its ranks – the flautist Jennifer Sturgeon. Woodwind, brass and percussion are a wall of males.

Which may have something to do with reports of bullying and cronyism that have come to our ears.

Not a happy bunch, the Ulstermen.

And they are about to play host to the Association of British Orchestras’ annual conference next weekend.

This is the brochure cover:

Should be fun.


  • Amabass says:

    Unfortunate, after so many worked so hard to save the Ulster Orchestra…too bad that energy is put toward politics and tribalism instead of the great music they are lucky enough to be paid to perform.

  • Frances says:

    Add; Corporate bullying, Racism, Total disregard for health and safety (more accidents in the last three years than ever before) . Allowing a drink culture to exist at work. Misuse of public money and you start to get close to the management problems in the Ulster Orchestra.

    • Fermata says:

      Let’s not forget favouritism, unequal treatment and protecting a player against numerous sexual harassment complaints.

    • Susie G says:

      This article only scratches the surface re. the misogynistic culture which predominates in some sections. Despite genuine efforts to improve the culture within the organisation, I believe true transformation is unlikely without a LOT more meaningful, and painful, self-examination.

    • Tiffykins says:

      Frances, there are people who abuse drink throughout society, and it obviously affects the working environment. What constitutes a drinking culture, vs. the presence of substance abusers at work?

      • Frances says:

        It’s part of the macho, misogynistic culture which exists in the Ulster Orchestra. I guess a drink culture is one where the management are aware of the drink problem but by their inaction over many years they condone the behaviour. Most of the players who drink during the working day are male brass or percussion players which probably goes some way to explain why there are no female players in these sections.The drink culture and the bullying go hand in hand and it generally reduces morale throughout the orchestra. Most British and Irish orchestras have stamped this behavior out but in the Ulster Orchestra it exists at board level.
        Some players in the bass section, the cello section, the trombone/tuba section, the horn section, the timpani and the percussion section drink during regularly at work. Most concerning of all is the lack of action by the management against the principal percussion player who is a player board member. I don’t know if you were at the concerts recently when the principal percussionist has been unable to play the second half, allegedly because he was too drunk to continue. The UO is aware that this is an ongoing problem so if they are really serious about adressing drink/bulling problems why do they allow this player to remain on the board?

    • Allegronongropo says:

      Some of the UO’s management and a few players have realized that they can get away with things they couldn’t elsewhere. Northern Ireland is generally regarded as a remote outpost, and the fact that people on the mainland don’t really seem to care what goes on here gives the perfect cover for corruption. As long as they work together unchallenged, the UO front office and a small group of players can write their own rule book as they go.

  • FS60103 says:

    So what about their principal piccolo, Elizabeth Bennett? And given that their string section is more than 50% women – and that the Ulster Orchestra currently has fewer than 60 players on contract, less than any other UK symphony orchestra – this is a slightly disingenuous assertion, to say the least.

    Taken as a percentage of current strength, the Ulster Orchestra actually has a higher proportion of female members than the London Symphony Orchestra (to take just one example). Not to jump to conclusions about either ensemble, or their recruitment practices – correlation does not equal causation, and UK regional ensembles don’t exactly operate on a level financial playing field – just wondering why a Northern Irish orchestra, in particular, has been singled out for a slating.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      The piccolo’s name was not on the website when I looked earlier today. And curb your indignation: there are major bullying issues in that orchestra which will be brought to light if the local press can still recognise a story from a backstop.

      • FS60103 says:

        Presumably we were looking at different websites this afternoon then. In any case, the point about the overall gender balance stands.

        Many UK orchestras have severe bullying issues that never make it into industry, local or national media: I’d be as interested as you to see if this is the rare exception that does. But these are serious issues that need frank discussion – I don’t see what’s helped by muddying the waters with fake news when there’s real stuff to be addressed.

        • norman lebrecht says:

          I’m afraid it is you that foisted fake news on us. The piccolo player you cited as proof of gender equality was, two years ago, a victim of this orchestra’s fetid atmosphere.

        • Bruce says:

          In response to this conversation, I just checked the Ulster Orchestra’s website (10:20 AM here in western US, 6:20 PM GMT). Under “player profiles,” the piccolo player is listed as Diomedes Demetriades. Doesn’t say anything about how long he’s been there, or who held the job previously.

          I have no basis on which to comment on bullying or hiring practices in that orchestra.

      • Ex says:

        And then if you looked beyond the orchestra to the admin in years fine not too far by too…..

    • VeryChillVC says:

      Elizabeth Bennett was forced out 2 years ago

  • Frances says:

    I think that you’ll find that Elizabeth Bennett was yet another player who was bullied to leave the UO a couple of years ago!

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Ah, I thought I recognised the name from an internal bullying report.

      None of this, I imagine, will be discussed by the ABO.

  • Fermata says:

    Players who “resigned” or retired unexpectedly in the last couple of years include: John Leeming Section Leader Cello, Gill Leeming violin and long time union representative, Paul Schumann clarinet, Paul Young Section Leader Trumpet, John McKernan violin, Richard Glynn cello, Ruth Bebb Principal Viola, Libby Bennett piccolo, William Goodwin Section Leader Viola. Most of them were subjected to bullying and harassment. None of them were recognized publicly by management for their services. Many of them served for more than 30 years with the orchestra.

    • Ruth Bebb says:

      I should not be in the list of “resigned” or retired, as I left to become freelance.

      • A440 says:

        It’s no secret that you along with your Sub-Principal Steve Begley were harassing your Section Leader William for years up until the day you left the orchestra. Would you have stayed knowing that Steve’s continued efforts would ultimately get management to force William’s resignation?

        • Nintendo64 says:

          The orchestral community in the UK is very small. Most of us knew about the bullying and harassment going on in the UO viola section for quite a while. The most disturbing element is that UO management was aware of the situation all along and chose to ignore the problem for a few years.

    • Frances says:

      You forgot David Collins 2nd Trumpet who was bullied into leaving and whose wife was racially abused.

    • CallmeISMael says:

      Where is the Union in all of this? Do they protect the players? Why haven’t we seen legal actions, or more public resistance in the face of such pervasive failure by the UO and its board to manage the health and safety of its employees?

      • Verity Veritas says:

        To answer your question I’ll have to give a bit of background. A couple of years ago when George Bain ‘Saved the Ulster Orchestra’ from his own incompetance, he discovered that he had a major problem. How was he going to get a new chief executive to take the UO seriously and take up the vacant position. Well as it happened he had appointed ex 2nd trumpet Patrick McCarthy to the position of director of operations. McCarthy had not yet qualified in any arts management course but he had a mentor in the form of Richard Wiggley who to my knowledge had no chief executive experience. So that Bain could get out quickly with his honour intact, he appointed Richard Wigley as chief exec to join McCarthy and unqualified finance director Auveen Sands to run the UO.
        None of them have a clue about what constitutes bullying and the UO has no HR department.
        This is where it all started going wrong for the players of the UO. Contract changes were foisted on the players which are now the most flexible in the UK. Players were asked to take up roles for which they had no training. Any training offered by the management was bogus. The contract is now being subjected to creeping change where players are too frightened to complain if the contract is not adhered to.
        The Musicians Union has allowed this to happen. The UO MU rep Mark McDonald is far too close to the management position and does not represent all MU members equally.
        William Goodwin was recently forced out of the UO using a mechanism which was outside the UO MU contract. The MU stood by and allowed it to happen. This may have nothing to do with the fact that No.3 viola Steve Begley (who bullied William) is a close personal friend of Morris Stemp MU Orchestras Official but I leave you to your own conclusions.
        My advice is join the ISM they have a proper legal team.

        • Fermata says:

          “And the Truth Shall Set You Free!”
          ( John 8:32 )

        • Veritas Vincit says:

          It’s also interesting to note, that shortly after Wigley’s arrival the Music Director has decided to leave and the Principal Guest conductor disappeared along with the Associate Conductor…

  • Mark Hildrew says:

    ==disregard for health and safety (more accidents in the last three years than ever before)

    That’s interesting. What sort of accidents do you mean ?

    • Frances says:

      Cellists falling off risers in the opera pit because there was no clearly defined edge or safety edge. Other cellist (known to be under the influence of alchohol by the director of operations) falling and injuring themselves at work. Unexplained damage to a double bass. Generally heating and lighting is highly unpredictable and no proper risk assessments appear to be being done.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Have they absolutely nothing else to do but count female heads and then report their findings to the Stazi equivalent? We are living in putrid dictatorial times where people are on lists, being watched and monitored. I think many of you people long for a return of the east German regime and the wider soviet project. Then you can monitor EVERYBODY. And there won’t be bullying because EVERYBODY is a bully.

  • Anon says:

    It’s an aside, but the ABO Conference is next week (Weds-Fri), rather than this weekend.

  • Oboechick says:

    FS60103 Your numbers are incorrect. Women actually make up less than half the string section, and just over a quarter of the orchestra based on the orchestra’s website-
    I’ve heard about sexism in this group, and the numbers don’t lie.

  • Plucky picker! says:

    I make it 41.67% woman in the string section. 15 out of 36. Just saying..

  • Frances says:

    It might be a good Idea for Mr Lebrecht to suggest that anyone commenting on this site, plays the ball and not the player. Also NL you seem to have gone very quiet. When are you going to put all the information that you claim to have in the public domain?

  • Tobias says:

    Clearly reading between the notes here there appears to be allusion to discord and If it be so topsy-turvy between the rank and file and management of the Ulster how do they expect to run a happy orchestra. A happy orchestra is a good orchestra? What has changed since the days of Brydon Thompson and Vernon Handley?

    Will we get to know about the saga? Not heard anything in the press as yet.

    Anyone know what the scale of the saga is?

    • A440 says:

      Don’t expect to hear anything about this in the local press. The orchestra has used its influence to kill negative stories in the recent past.

  • Anonbychoice says:

    From someone who has worked with the orchestra…….. ‘tip of the iceberg’! I remember hearing of a job that was open in the wind section. There was a girl in playing as a dep in the open seat and a section principal turned to her and reportedly said ‘there’s no point in you going for the job, i won’t sit beside a woman.’ This isn’t an isolated incident either. It’s also amazing that the orchestra has so much money to pay to fly professionals and students from all over europe to play rather than using local professionals. I see the money worries are over.

    • Cary Fergus says:

      It would be interesting to receive an accounting of the cost of extras brought in to fill posts left unfilled for years at a time. Additionally, I notice some leaders missing more frequently than others, or even playing with their sections for only part of the performances. Surely, leaders have to be on stage to lead!

      • HungryforBlood says:

        Name and shame those terrible leaders who must be very weak players then.

      • Veritas Vincit says:

        Almost all of the guest players filling the vacant string positions are friends of the Section Leader double bass. They are brought in from England and beyond. Being close to management has its advantages.

    • Frances says:

      Yes there is also a very talented local female trumpeter who although she has been booked as an extra has always been overlooked for full-time positions. She has also been regularly subjected to derogatory comments about her physical appearance by other members of the brass section

      • Curious Cat says:

        That’s very specific Frances, you must be a very close friend/colleague of said Trumpet player to know such information.
        You seem to know a lot of gossip from within the UO. Maybe you are yourself a UO player with a grudge?
        I can hardly wait for the next UO scandal/revelation from you.

        • Frances says:

          Careful what you wish for. There is a lot worse to come. Btw this is common knowledge in the musical fraternity. Sorry if the truth hurts!

          • Curious Cat says:

            As thrilling as all this is, at the end of the day it’s just gossip and this thread is a glorified gossip column. If you have a genuine story with witnesses then why not take it to the papers and stop hiding behind a keyboard. Let’s be honest anybody can come on here and say anything, but that doesn’t make it true.
            Thanks for the entertainment it would make a good soap opera.

          • Etty Mologist says:

            This is just an aside but I cannot recall ever hearing the phrase “Musical Fraternity” to describe the UK music profession/business/industry before. I’m interested: is that phrase used more commonly in the USA Frances?

          • Frances says:

            Mais vous et completement fous. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Peut-etre je suis Francaise!

          • Just saying says:

            Well your spelling of behaviour/behavior suggests American.

          • Trotsky says:

            If the comment was made by person of same style as you, they maybe could make the spelling so to confuse, like mask?

          • Bobby says:

            Sounds like you really want to bring this group down Frances?
            That is very sad, I’m sure they can’t all be bad people?
            Your country is in such a political mess and it sounds like this group is not far behind.
            Hope it can all be resolved.

      • Susie says:

        Up until this point I’d read the comments shocked that an individual had the audacity to write such unsubstantiated comments. But I suppose Frances, if you were a disgruntled ex member of the orchestra with with a vindictive vendetta, you’d have nothing to lose. But the recent comments in which you have personally named individuals in your poisonous lies has filled me with utter rage. The lack of consideration as to how your callous and hurtful comments might affect the people named is shameful.

        • Trotsky says:

          Is said that honest word to some causes pain. Especially power needs words which fight its attack against person with less power. Especially if contract is not fight for player by union.

        • Frances says:

          Hi Susie. I’m not aware that Frances has named anyone by name other than to clarify two individuals who were bullied from their positions. I think I stated earlier on in the blog that people commenting should play the ball and not the player. There are no lies. The information came to me from a reliable source and where you get this notion that I’m an ex player with a grudge from I don’t know, but it’s laughable. However I’m sure there must be quite a few ex players with a grudge.

          • Retired says:

            I think your reliable source is playing a dangerous game. These stories unless backed up with water tight proof could come back to haunt them and cause that individual a whole world of grief. I’m sure enough feathers within the organisation have been roughed up enough to start a witch hunt.
            As an observer of this thread I would recommend a different outlet for your sources frustrations as all this thread is doing is creating enough rope for them to hang themselves.
            I suggest you take your complaints to a lawyer and start a case against the orchestra if you have genuine complaints about their behaviour.
            Have a nice day ma’am.

        • Trotsky says:

          You say lies, Susie? This you know as fact? How do you know? What is lies what Frances has give to us to be reading?

    • Gecko17 says:

      The scary thing is that I don’t know which incident you’re referring to…

    • Veritas Vincit says:

      Yes, the money worries must be over… they spend a fortune on bumpers every week for the 1st horn player who has the stamina of a koala!

      • Balconybob says:

        What, exactly, is a bumper?

      • Joe Public says:

        I was led to believe that it is standard practice in most orchestras to have an assistant for the 1st horn.
        I have listened to recent broadcasts of the Ulster and I haven’t been aware of a weak 1st horn.
        Quite sad really to see how much hatred there seems to be towards this fine orchestra.

  • Balconybob says:

    I have heard that leaders have been treated poorly in the past. I love listening to the current leader–and the orchestra sounds better when he is there. I hope he is being treated well.

  • Mildred says:

    I work in an office and have a colleague who is allowed,by management,to blatantly read a copy of The Daily Mail whilst at work,with brazen regularity,in full and open view of the workforce.
    Heaven knows what extremist websites this individual will visit after salivating on this far right publication.
    Only The Guardian or The Morning Star should be permitted and,surely,this is shocking and undeniable proof that homophobia,racism and xenophobia are celebrated and sponsored to flourish,generally,in today’s workplace.

  • Mel says:

    There’s a much more even gender balance in the orchestra these days.

  • Des says:

    I want an orchestra of men not a load of wingers, all this equality woke stuff is killing orchestras.