If you could choose a time to take over the running of a concert hall, then the year Limerick became City of Culture would surely top your list.
And looking ahead to the new autumn programme at University Concert Hall general manager Sinead Hope doesn’t deny the bounce it has given her and the venue in her first year in charge.
Less than two weeks after taking the reins in October of last year, she was signing contracts to bring Riverdance to the university venue where it would go on to sell out seven shows and play another less tangible but crucial role in Limerick’s year in the spotlight.
City of Culture certainly started with fireworks, though not the type anyone would have wanted - personality clashes, power struggles, mass protests and a feeling it might all fall apart before it even began.
But the angst faded and it was the huge success of Riverdance at UCH towards the end of January that helped wash away the doubts, generate good feeling and put people into a more positive frame of mind for the year ahead.
The Bill Whelan Gala with the national concert orchestra and Sir James Galway in June is another event fondly recalled.
“It was lovely to hear Sir James himself say he found the acoustics in UCH much more appealing than the National Concert Hall for the programme that was in it. He was raving about our acoustics, which was great to hear,” she says.
While orchestras and big ticket musical theatre shows are no stranger to the Castletroy venue they don’t appeal to everyone, so broadening the horizons of the concert hall is a challenge to be met for the year ahead.
“We want to be more accessible,” Sinead admits, “so we’re trying to bring the venue to a wider audience so nobody feels daunted by it, or feels that UCH isn’t for them. We’re trying to keep ticket prices as low as possible and bring in different genres towards that end.”
One of those initial forays into different genres will see superstar Van Morrison take the stage as part of this year’s jazz festival. A big name to launch a new direction, though far from a cheap option.
“That is a big name in the field, sure, and the show will be one of the highest ticket prices in recent years. It is hard to know what the public perception of that might be; he’s obviously got a high production cost and artist cost. We’re not out of recessionary times yet and people might see that high price and think someone is creaming it, but we’re not!”
More affordable seat fillers pepper the schedule, however, with comedy featuring throughout.
“There are huge audiences for comedy out there, so give people what they want, I say, there’s no point in avoiding it. If they want comedy, bring it in.
“So this year there will be things like The Ladyboys of Bangkok and 51 Shades of Maggie, which will both attract different audiences.
“We’re putting on our own city of culture project, ‘Limerick’s Dream Will Do’, with Jason Donovan in the lead role, so we have a world famous artist performing alongside local artists like Jean McGlynn, Shauna Daly, Nigel Dugdale, as well as Frontline Stage School and Limerick Music Society.”
Further highlights in the autumn schedule include comedian Dara O’Briain (sorry, sold out already), and this year the panto will be big and bold as ever over Christmas with 26 shows including a new sensory-friendly show.
Into the new year and Sinead points to the Princeton University Orchestra, as something to look forward to.
A native of Dunboyne county Meath, Sinead has settled in the city centre now: “It’s great to be able to pop into town and see a show, there’s so much happening. It’s a great base,” she says.
The entertainment the city centre has to offer is the major part of its appeal of course and building the perception that UCH has just as much for locals and visitors alike is the main aim of Sinead as she heads into a second year.
“I want to open UCH up more to local audiences, break down any perceived barriers and for visitors too,” she says, “so that when someone from Limerick or coming into Limerick is asking themselves ‘what will I do this weekend’, that they would say ‘let’s see what is on in UCH’. I’d like to put us to the forefront of people’s minds.”
That’s the Hope anyway.