Richard Pine

On hav­ing two na­tional or­ches­tras

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY RICHARD PINE Richard Pine is the au­thor of Mu­si­cand Broad­casting­inIre­land (2005). He worked in RTE’smu­si­can­d­pub­li­caf­fairs­di­vi­sions 1974-1999 and is now di­rec­tor of the Dur­rell Li­brary­ofCorfu,where­he­lives

The first time I wit­nessed bal­lis­tic was in 1981. Charles Haughey had just ap­pointed Fred O’Dono­van to the chairs of both the RTÉ Author­ity and the new Na­tional Con­cert Hall. O’Dono­van was, in ef­fect, Ire­land’s En­ter­tain­ment Man. And I watched as he tore Ger­ard Vic­tory, RTÉ’s di­rec­tor of mu­sic, to lit­tle pieces.

Vic­tory was ar­gu­ing that RTÉ had a dual re­spon­si­bil­ity: to ed­u­cate the pub­lic and to sup­port Ir­ish com­posers. So O’Dono­van evis­cer­ated him not once, but twice. “Re­spon­si­bil­ity? Ed­u­cate? Don’t give me that guff. It’s fid­dles and flutes. It’s Mozart and Tchaikovsky. It’s bums on seats. Get out!”

The ad­vent of the Na­tional Con­cert Hall changed the re­la­tion­ship of the per­form­ing groups to both their pub­lic and their broad­cast­ing func­tion. It was a turn­ing point in the for­tunes of to­day’s Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra and Con­cert Or­ches­tra. Within a few months Vic­tory’s res­ig­na­tion had in­au­gu­rated a pe­riod of un­cer­tainty per­sist­ing up to the present day.

He­len Boaden, for­mer head of BBC Ra­dio,

has been hired to re­solve that un­cer­tainty and tell RTÉ how to safe­guard its two or­ches­tras while recog­nis­ing the fi­nan­cial con­straints which have brought RTÉ into trou­bled waters.

But her terms of ref­er­ence have a de­signer fault. As­sum­ing that Boaden is sen­si­tive to the na­ture and needs of two quite dif­fer­ent types of or­ches­tra – one (the NSO) de­voted to the sym­phonic reper­toire, the other (the Con­cert Or­ches­tra) to a much wider range of mu­sic – she will also be fa­mil­iar from her BBC in­sti­tu­tional ex­pe­ri­ence with the chang­ing for­tunes of a “na­tional” broad­caster amid the re­al­i­ties of to­mor­row’s me­dia world.

Boaden isn’t the first top-rank­ing BBC con­sul­tant to ad­dress these prob­lems. In 1961 Ra­dio Éire­ann (as it then was) asked Ge­orge Wil­loughby, the BBC’s con­certs man­ager, to as­sess the sta­tus of the fledg­ling sym­phony or­ches­tra. Wil­loughby ad­vised that it should be repo­si­tioned as the “Na­tional Or­ches­tra of Ire­land”. He also ob­served that if it was to achieve in­ter­na­tional sta­tus the strings sec­tions should be in­creased from 44 to 60 play­ers, giv­ing a to­tal or­ches­tra of 88.

Then di­rec­tor-gen­eral Ed Roth ac­cord­ingly ad­vised the RTÉ Author­ity that the or­ches­tra re­quired “an in­crease in money and a spe­cific and clear-cut di­rec­tion”. To dis­band the sym­phony or­ches­tra “would create a cul­tural vac­uum of se­ri­ous pro­por­tions”.

Fast forward to 1989, when some­one fi­nally took note of Wil­loughby. RTÉ an­nounced it had “de­cided to reaf­firm its com­mit­ment to or­ches­tral ac­tiv­ity by guar­an­tee­ing the fu­ture of the RTÉ Sym­phony Or­ches­tra and estab­lish­ing it as Ire­land’s na­tional sym­phony”. The new NSO would have 93 play­ers. “This con­firms RTÉ’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to ful­fil a pub­lic ser­vice obli­ga­tion not only over the air­waves but also in the con­cert hall and in the com­mu­nity. Build­ing on the estab­lished strengths of the RTÉ Sym­phony means that the hu­man and mu­si­cal re­sources of a fine and mature ensemble, with its huge col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, can be har­nessed to the re­al­i­sa­tion of this new ini­tia­tive.”

I wrote those press re­leases, and I re­ally meant it. Hav­ing grown up in the wood­work of RTÉ Mu­sic – 10 years as con­certs man­ager – and to­day still as­so­ci­ated with the NSO, I know that in its heart of hearts the or­gan­i­sa­tion cher­ishes and ad­mires the or­ches­tras but the facts of life, spelled out many times by di­rec­tor-gen­eral Dee Forbes, ar­gue against care and ad­mi­ra­tion. He who pas­sion­ately au­dits the pa­per­clips and asks “Why do you need two or­ches­tras when one will do?” is king.

A study by the Na­tional Trea­sury Man­age­ment Agency in 2014 made it clear that the or­ches­tras reg­u­larly ex­ceeded their tar­gets and com­pared favourably with other Euro­pean broad­cast­ing or­ches­tras. It con­cluded wryly that “it is not an area that ef­fi­ciency increases can eas­ily be achieved as one can­not play a con­cert at a faster rate than the previous year”.

The Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar says he’s con­cerned about the or­ches­tras: but for him to refer the mat­ter to the Min­is­ter for the Arts dis­plays an ig­no­rance of where the NSO ac­tu­ally lives. The Min­is­ter has no re­spon­si­bil­ity what­ever for the or­ches­tras and Heather Humphreys – who has since moved on to Busi­ness, En­ter­prise, and In­no­va­tion – was happy to say so in the Dáil.

The Min­is­ter for Com­mu­ni­ca­tions De­nis Naugh­ten is re­spon­si­ble for RTÉ and the or­ches­tras. So there is also a mis­match be­tween Gov­ern­ment pol­icy and the re­al­i­ties in which RTÉ finds it­self. Quite apart from the fact that most politi­cians don’t know their harp from their oboe, the Gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to dou­bling arts fund­ing is also irrelevant, since the or­ches­tras re­ceive no pub­lic fund­ing out­side RTÉ. Cre­ative Ire­land – the Gov­ern­ment’s cul­ture ini­tia­tive – which the Taoiseach rules out as a fun­der for or­ches­tras, con­tains as many windy words as a gale warning.

At present, the NSO is run­ning on 73 play­ers – that’s the pre-1989 level. For any sym­phony or­ches­tra, let alone one hop­ing to hold up its in­ter­na­tional head, that is un­sus­tain­able. It of­fers no job op­por­tu­ni­ties for young Ir­ish play­ers, it is unattrac­tive to top-level soloists and con­duc­tors, and it is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive in terms of its ap­peal to the con­cert-go­ing pub­lic.

RTÉ has said that Boaden’s re­port will not nec­es­sar­ily re­sult in job losses. There are at present 16 va­can­cies in the or­ches­tras that will not be filled. In Novem­ber, Gareth Hud­son, the act­ing man­ager of the Con­cert Or­ches­tra, stated that a fur­ther 15 re­dun­dan­cies could be an­tic­i­pated. If Hud­son’s pro­jec­tion is cor­rect, then Boaden’s job be­comes im­pos­si­ble, since it’s in­con­ceiv­able that RTÉ could run the NSO and the Con­cert Or­ches­tra with a to­tal of less than 100 play­ers. Which is where the ru­mour of a “pool” of mu­si­cians, sup­ply­ing the dual needs of the or­ches­tras, comes in. To create a “pool” would be so in­con­gru­ous in terms of “best prac­tice” that RTÉ would be­come an in­ter­na­tional joke.

For 70 years RTÉ has pro­vided a gra­cious home for mu­sic. But the me­dia en­vi­ron­ment and the gen­eral ex­pec­ta­tion of en­ter­tain­ment have changed so rad­i­cally that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween an or­ches­tra and a broad­caster has to evolve or die.

In 1994 when it looked as if the NSO might be taken away from RTÉ, Wil­liam Dow­dall (prin­ci­pal flute) stated: “Many mem­bers of the NSO could play in any or­ches­tra in the world but have made a con­scious de­ci­sion to re­main in this coun­try with the am­bi­tion that some day we will be an or­ches­tra of in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion and stature. This am­bi­tion is em­i­nently at­tain­able. We have al­ways op­er­ated in RTÉ based on the good­will of RTÉ and we have no argument against RTÉ.” That is still the po­si­tion of the Mu­si­cians’ Union which is af­fil­i­ated to Siptu.

In the present cir­cum­stances, RTÉ, He­len Boaden and, ul­ti­mately, the Min­is­ter for Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, find them­selves in a “So­phie’s Choice” sit­u­a­tion: choose one or­ches­tra over the other. RTÉ can­not con­tinue to claim the cus­to­di­an­ship of the NSO and yet al­low it to shrivel back to its pre-1989 size and con­di­tion.

The most re­al­is­tic de­vel­op­ment would be to af­firm the Con­cert Or­ches­tra as one of the most ver­sa­tile broad­cast­ing or­ches­tras any­where in the world, to cop­per­fas­ten its fu­ture within RTÉ and to es­tab­lish the NSO on the ba­sis it de­serves as Ire­land’s pre­mier source of sym­phonic mu­sic.

But in addition to po­lit­i­cal will, the creation of a sep­a­rate NSO gov­ern­ing body with statu­tory author­ity re­quires leg­is­la­tion, a man­age­ment struc­ture, guar­an­teed fund­ing and an ef­fec­tive tran­si­tional pe­riod of at least two years.

Pro­gram­ming a sym­phony or­ches­tra re­quires artistry but also busi­ness acu­men, alert­ness to both fash­ion and tra­di­tion, and an in­tel­li­gent in­ter­face be­tween the ad­min­is­tra­tion and the artis­tic di­rec­tion.

No man­age­ment con­sul­tant could ever run an or­ches­tra un­less he or she had the em­pa­thy and the hu­man­i­tar­ian pas­sion that recog­nises and cel­e­brates the fact that it is in­fin­itely more com­plex and more chal­leng­ing than a col­lec­tion of 88 highly trained in­di­vid­u­als.

If you decide to play Mes­si­aen’s Tu­ran­galîla you need to bud­get not only for the hire of an on­des Martenot but also some­one to play it. Not cheap. But nec­es­sary, if one is to keep faith with Mes­si­aen.

And keeping faith is what it’s all about. Keeping faith with the mu­si­cians who have ded­i­cated their ca­reers to this work; keeping faith with the reper­toire; with new works both in­ter­na­tional and Ir­ish; with the up­com­ing gen­er­a­tions of new play­ers from our acad­e­mies and con­ser­va­toires; and keeping faith with our loyal Ir­ish au­di­ences.

Politi­cians find it dif­fi­cult to keep faith. Mu­si­cians can do lit­tle else.

A study by the Na­tional Trea­sury Man­age­ment Agency in 2014 made it clear that the or­ches­tras reg­u­larly ex­ceeded their tar­gets and com­pared favourably with other Euro­pean broad­cast­ing or­ches­tras


Mem­bers of the RTÉ Con­cert Or­ches­tra and (above right) the Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra: will the mu­si­cians be “pooled” un­der a re­view cur­rently tak­ing place.

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