The University of London Symphony Orchestra

The University of London Symphony Orchestra is widely recognised as one of the leading student orchestras in the UK. Founded in 1955, ULSO was established to give students from the diverse academic backgrounds of the University of London the opportunity to develop their interests in orchestral playing.

The Orchestra seeks to provide the unique opportunity to study and perform some of the most challenging symphonic repertoire to the very highest standards, both for students not specifically studying music who wish to further their performance skills, as well as those pursuing careers as professional musicians.

Repertoire highlights include Strauss' Eine Alpensinfonie, Shostakovich Symphony No.11 and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In addition, the orchestra has had the privilege of working alongside world-class soloists such as Nicola Benedetti, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Michael Collins, and Tom Poster.

The University of London Orchestra was founded in the early part of 1955 by a group of amateur musicians within the University. The aim of the Orchestra was to give students of London University who are not specifically studying music the opportunity to develop their interests in orchestral playing. During the years it has acquired a high reputation, having given concerts in places as far afield as West Berlin.

The Orchestra’s first Music Director was John Hollingsworth and in 1956 he was succeeded by Normal del Mar. The full orchestral repertoire has been performed from the very beginning and memorable performances of symphonies by Sibelius (No.1), Brahms (No.3) and Borodin (No.2) are reported with del Mar. From 1962 to 1966 John Carewe conducted the orchestra, an association that began with a successful performance of Bruckner’s formidable Symphony No.2. It was under his direction that the Orchestra made the first of two extremely successful tours of West Germany.

When John Carewe was appointed conductor of the BBC Welsh Orchestra he handed over the baton to Gordon MacKie. In his first concert the Orchestra combined with the choir of Morley College to perform Mozart’s Requiem Mass. In December 1966 the second tour of Germany took place and the Orchestra played Bruckner’s Symphony No.3 together with works by Mozart and Malcolm Arnold in West Berlin. It was also with Gordon MacKie that the Orchestra performed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and a year later Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Gordon MacKie stayed with the orchestra until 1969 when Graham Treacher conducted for one year.

For six years from 1970 Gordon Kember conducted the Orchestra and in that period the Orchestra acquired for itself a place in London’s music making. The Orchestra instituted two concerts annually in St John’s Smith Square. In this period the Orchestra gave two concerts in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in 1972 and 1975, both to capacity audiences. Works performed under the baton of Gordon Kember again covered the whole spectrum of classical music, the climax being his final concert as conductor when the programme was the Strauss Oboe Concerto followed by a superb rendering of Bruckner’s Symphony No.7.

Ian Reid (later of English National Opera) took over as conductor in October 1976 and contributed a great deal of enthusiasm and drive to the Orchestra. 1977 saw performances of Mahler’s 1st Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in Eb, K297b, with soloists drawn from the wind sections of the Orchestra. Under Ian Reid the Orchestra reintroduced Summer Chamber Concerts at St James’s, Picadilly and celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 1980 with a tour of northern universities.

In September 2008 ULSO toured to Hong Kong. An incredibly successful tour, during which the Orchestra played alongside celebrated young soloists Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich, performing in two of the city’s most prominent concert venues, Sha Tin Town Hall and Hong Kong City Hall.

In March 2009, ULSO performed for the first time at the internationally-recognised Cadogan Hall in London. An extremely successful performance, the programme comprised Haydn Cello Concerto in C with soloist Guy Johnston and Shostakovich Symphony no. 4. Following the success of their debut, the Orchestra was welcomed back to Cadogan Hall in March 2010 for their first collaboration with conductor Daniel Capps, alongside Michael Collins, widely considered to be the world’s most versatile clarinettist, performing Weber Clarinet Concerto No. 2 and Mahler’s epic Symphony no. 6.

In July 2010, internationally-renowned conductor Daniel Capps took over as Music Director of ULSO. Highlights for his debut season included Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and a return to Cadogan Hall in Spring 2011 to perform Shostakovich Symphony no. 11. ULSO also returned to St. John’s Smith Square in February 2011 with a programme of Wagner's Tannhauser Overture, Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto, and Sibelius Symphony No.1. In addition, the orchestra collaborated with guest conductor, Matthew Wood, in Summer 2011 for a programme including Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and Respighi's Fountains of Rome.

The 2011-12 season saw ULSO embark on an ambitious programme of eight projects, including a recording of Puccini's La Boheme for Silent Opera and Sky Arts, plus performances of repertoire such as Stravinsky's Petrushka, Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra and Shostakovich Symphony No. 10.

The following season included performances of Stravinsky’s Firebird (complete) and Sibelius Symphony No. 2. The orchestra welcomed soloist Eve-Marie Caravassilis for Dvorak's Cello Concerto in a charity concert for Trinity Hospice and, later, Guest Conductor Justin Doyle to perform Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 9

The Covid pandemic, which began in 2020, touched the lives of almost everyone on the planet. Countless lives were lost and the restrictions imposed affected the livelihoods of many. The impact on the Arts was enormous and ULSO was no exception. The Orchestra shut its doors for a full 18 months, during which time the University of London Union closed permanently. Determined to preserve the future of the Orchestra, everyone involved worked tirelessly to stage a 2021-22 season despite having lost all financial support. The industry and imagination of several former Chairs saw the formation of a Charitable Trust to support the Orchestra both with their finances and through a mentoring scheme for serving committee members. It is our hope that the immeasurable effort and deep-rooted enthusiasm of all involved will succeed in securing the future of the Orchestra for generations to come.

As a student-run society, ULSO must rely on sponsorship in order to survive. The orchestra was generously supported by the University of London Union until its closure in 2020. The orchestra was also supported by Faber Music Ltd. from 2009 - 13. In addition, ULSO is extremely grateful to its Friends, without whom none of the fantastic projects it undertakes would be possible.