The Ulster Orchestra is a symphony orchestra based in Belfast, the only full-time professional orchestra in Northern Ireland. The orchestra plays the majority of its concerts in Belfast's Ulster Hall and Waterfront Hall. It gives concerts across Northern Ireland, including performances at the Belfast Festival, the Wexford Opera Festival, the Kilkenny Arts Festival, and the National Concert Hall, Dublin. Since 1985, the Orchestra has been a regular visitor to The Proms. The orchestra currently employs 63 full-time musicians and 17 administrative support staff.
The orchestra was founded in 1966 by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, with Maurice Miles as its first principal conductor and with János Fürst as its first concertmaster/leader. Fürst later became the orchestra's assistant conductor. The Orchestra has existed in its present form since 1981, when the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra (BBC NIO) was disbanded. The Ulster Orchestra Society Ltd was then established (a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity) with funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the BBC, Belfast City Council and Gallaher Ltd., and the size of the Orchestra was increased with players from the disbanded BBC NIO.
Past Principal Conductors have included Bryden Thomson, Vernon Handley, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Thierry Fischer, and Kenneth Montgomery. Handley also held the title of Conductor Laureate from 2003 until his death in 2008. Since the 2009-2010 season, the orchestra's principal guest conductor is Paul Watkins. In May 2011, the orchestra appointed JoAnn Falletta as its next principal conductor, effective with the 2011-2012 season, with an initial contract of 3 years. She is the first American and the first female conductor to be appointed the orchestra's principal conductor.
Past Associate Composers with the orchestra have included Brian Irvine, and the current Associate Composer is Ian Wilson. Past chief executive officers of the orchestra have included David Byers, who was named as interim chief executive in June 2002, and was formally named to the position in March 2003, initially for a 5-year contract. He retired from the post in September 2010, after which Dick Mackenzie became interim chief executive. Declan McGovern was chief executive on secondment from the BBC between January 2011 and March 2012.
The orchestra has made commercial recordings for such labels as Chandos, Naxos Records and Toccata Classics.
The Ulster Orchestra Society Ltd receives core funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Belfast City Council. Through an agreement with the BBC, the UOS receives significant payments for a specified number of broadcast recordings (an essential and vital part of the funding equation). The BBC maintains exclusive distribution rights over the performances which it records. These are broadcast locally on Radio Ulster, and nationally on BBC Radio 3.
Further funding comes from Lottery awards for Audience Development and New Works, from local councils for concerts and education work, from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for capital works and touring, and from a number of Trusts and Foundations for specific projects for staffing.
Other key sources of income include Box Office receipts, programme sales and advertising, corporate sponsors (including additional funding from Arts and Business), Friends' subscriptions, Gift Aid and private philanthropic donations, including legacies.
The Orchestra's annual turnover in 2001/02 was in excess of £3.4 million. Byers has guided the orchestra through recent financial issues, including the increase of a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from GB £1.34 million (2002) to £1.69 million (2003) and to £2.05 million (2008).
Education and community outreach 
The Ulster Orchestra undertakes a wide range of outreach projects, including workshops in schools throughout Northern Ireland, pre-concert talks and instrument master-classes. The Orchestra received the Royal Philharmonic Society's first award for an education project (in West Belfast). Recent major cross-community projects involving Belfast schools in areas of social deprivation have included Gulliver in 2005, A Marvellous Medicine in 2007 and The Pied Piper in 2009. Brian Irvine, then the Orchestra's Associate Composer, composed the music for these last two projects. The Pied Piper project was awarded the Inspire Mark of the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad.
Principal Conductors Maurice Miles (1966–1967)Sergiu Comissiona (1967–1969)Edgar Cosma (1969–1974)Alun Francis (1974–1976)Bryden Thomson (1977–1985)Vernon Handley (1985–1989)Yan Pascal Tortelier (1989–1992)En Shao (1992–1995)Dmitry Sitkovetsky (1996–2001)Thierry Fischer (2001–2006)Kenneth Montgomery (2007–2010)JoAnn Falletta (2011–)
Through its BBC work and/or with help from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Lottery Fund, there have been many commissions for composers in Ireland and Northern Ireland, including Ciaran Farrell, Elaine Agnew, Gerald Barry, Michael McGlynn, Derek Bell, David Byers, Bill Campbell, Donnacha Dennehy, Stephen Gardner, Deirdre Gribbin, Philip Hammond, Piers Hellawell, Rachel Holstead, Marion Ingoldsby, Brian Irvine, Frank Lloyd, Neil Martin, Kevin O'Connell, Ian Wilson and Paul Wilson.
Commissioned GB composers include Mark Bowden, Edward McGuire, Stephen McNeff, John Tavener, Adrian Thomas and Malcolm Williamson. Commissioned composers from outside the UK and Ireland include Lyell Cresswell, Rodion Shchedrin, Pawel Szymanski and Kevin Volans.