The Na­tional Sym­phony Orches­tra: Com­pos­ing a vi­sion for the fu­ture

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - WARN­ING SHOTS NEED TO BE FIRED

The re­cent re­port on the RTÉ or­ches­tras, by for­mer BBC ex­ec­u­tive Helen Boaden, com­mis­sioned by RTÉ, told us noth­ing we didn’t al­ready know: that the or­gan­i­sa­tion can no longer af­ford to main­tain the Na­tional Sym­phony Orches­tra, and that the NSO would be best es­tab­lished by leg­is­la­tion as a sep­a­rate na­tional cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion.

RTÉ at present has a statu­tory obli­ga­tion to sup­port “or­ches­tras” in the plu­ral. Demon­stra­bly, it is no longer able to do so. The days when RTÉ, as the “na­tional broad­caster”, could see it­self re­spon­si­ble ini­tially for one orches­tra (1926-47) and then for two (since 1948) is long gone. RTÉ is no longer in a mo­nop­oly position. In fact it is no longer the “na­tional broad­caster” ex­cept in so far as it pur­sues more of the pub­lic ser­vice ethos than its com­peti­tors.

The re­port did not ad­dress (why should it?) the cru­cial ques­tion: if the buck is to be passed, to whom? How is an in­de­pen­dent body, es­tab­lished by leg­is­la­tion, to do the same job as RTÉ has been do­ing, or bet­ter? If fund­ing is the crux to­day, how can that be avoided in fu­ture?

It is un­re­al­is­tic to sug­gest that the new NSO’s in­come from the ex­che­quer can be guar­an­teed: the Min­is­ter for Fi­nance will give it the min­i­mum nec­es­sary to sus­tain life and, when times are good, he or she will gain votes by flaithiúlach ges­tures — a gala con­cert here, an in­ter­na­tional tour there.

The ques­tion is: how much is the min­i­mum nec­es­sary? Is it the money cur­rently spent by RTÉ to main­tain a re­duced orches­tra of 73 play­ers (as at present), with a min­i­mal cadre of man­agers and pro­mo­tions staff, or an orches­tra equiv­a­lent in size and bud­get to NSOs in com­pa­ra­ble coun­tries?

If you can­not pay the piper, not only are you not en­ti­tled to call the tune, but you are so pre­oc­cu­pied with money prob­lems that you have no idea what you want him to play. A na­tional sym­phony orches­tra, play­ing the stan­dard reper­toire week af­ter week, with­out ex­plor­ing new ways of in­ter­pret­ing that reper­toire, or new work, or en­cour­ag­ing Ir­ish com­posers, or pro­vid­ing an ed­u­ca­tional ser­vice, is not worth the name.

In the 1970s the joint ini­tia­tive by RTÉ and the Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land pro­vided what was, at the time, prob­a­bly the world’s finest Fes­ti­val of Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tury Mu­sic. That kind of vi­sion, un­in­hib­ited by eco­nomic or ad­min­is­tra­tive con­sid­er­a­tions, and op­er­at­ing across the whole spec­trum of “clas­si­cal” mu­sic, should now be en­shrined in, and en­abled by, leg­is­la­tion.

The leg­is­la­tion should be part of a re­struc­tur­ing of the ar­range­ments for State sup­port of cul­tural life. But two warn­ing shots need to be fired at this time. The first is the suggestion that the new NSO should be or­gan­i­cally linked to the Na­tional Con­cert Hall (which is its cur­rent home). But the NCH is about to en­ter a re­build­ing phase that will see it dark for pos­si­bly the next two years. To leave the NSO in limbo for that time would be tan­ta­mount to kick­ing for touch and could end up with neg­a­tive re­sults.

Even more se­ri­ous is the suggestion that the leg­is­la­tion should re­flect the new govern­ment pol­icy of “Cre­ative Ire­land”. Any pe­rusal of the “Cre­ative Ire­land” doc­u­ment will con­firm that it is a spin-doc­tor’s dream: it has more windy words than the av­er­age gale warn­ing and is to­tally void of any com­mit­ment to con­crete ac­tion.

To sub­mit a vi­brant body of cul­tural ac­tiv­ity with a track record of seventy years to this would send it into a no-man’s-land of in­tel­lec­tual and artis­tic in­er­tia.

What is needed, if the buck is to be passed from RTÉ to govern­ment, is leg­is­la­tion that is alert to both the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and op­por­tu­ni­ties of such a body, and pro­vides, by the most in­tel­li­gent means, for lat­i­tude in the re­spon­si­ble in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Act.

Above all, it re­quires an in­tel­li­gent de­ploy­ment of hu­man re­sources who are more highly trained than al­most all other skilled work­ers.

It calls for due vig­i­lance, breadth and in­ten­sity of vi­sion, free­dom to ex­am­ine all av­enues, and adapt­abil­ity. In short, it re­quires pre­ci­sion plus élan.

The framers of the leg­is­la­tion should look at the many fac­tors, and the am­bi­tions and cau­tions of the key play­ers, in­flu­enc­ing the evo­lu­tion of the Arts Act 1951, be­cause in the sphere of mu­sic the leg­is­la­tion will carry all the “dreams and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties” that are re­flected in that Act and the way it has since been in­ter­preted by sub­se­quent Arts Coun­cils. This is how it could be: “An Act to es­tab­lish a na­tional sym­phony orches­tra and to pro­vide for its man­age­ment, artis­tic pol­icy and promotion, and to fa­cil­i­tate its ef­fec­tive oper­a­tion in­clud­ing per­for­mances, re­cruit­ment pro­ce­dures, fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments, com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties, com­mu­nity re­la­tions at na­tional and re­gional lev­els, in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and all other matters per­tain­ing to its func­tions, as laid down in this Act and in any sub­se­quent min­is­te­rial orders or ex­ec­u­tive reg­u­la­tions.”

When fram­ing the en­abling leg­is­la­tion, pol­icy-mak­ers would do well to look at the gov­er­nance and fund­ing sources of the Ul­ster Orches­tra which, de­spite se­ri­ous fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, main­tains re­gional tour­ing and com­mu­nity out­reach among its core func­tions.

In fact, the Boaden re­port per­sis­tently re­ferred to the NSO as the only such orches­tra “in Ire­land”. This is demon­stra­bly un­true, since Boaden clearly meant “the repub­lic” and did not take into ac­count Ire­land’s other sym­phony orches­tra, the Ul­ster Orches­tra, which, sig­nif­i­cantly, was re­con­sti­tuted af­ter BBC North­ern Ire­land de­cided, in 1981, that it could no longer sup­port its own orches­tra.

A strate­gic re­la­tion­ship with the Ul­ster Orches­tra should be a key con­sid­er­a­tion of the NSO’s new man­age­ment.

If the new NSO is to be truly na­tional and in­ter­na­tional — com­pa­ra­ble not only to sym­phony or­ches­tras work­ing in other broad­cast­ing en­vi­ron­ments but to the lead­ing or­ches­tras in coun­tries of sim­i­lar size as Ire­land — it will need spe­cific pro­vi­sion for the cost. But it can­not do so un­til it is of suf­fi­cient stan­dard, and its mem­bers have suf­fi­cient morale, to make it ca­pa­ble of im­press­ing dis­cern­ing au­di­ences in Lon­don, Vi­enna, Paris and Moscow. If noth­ing else, we owe to­day’s sur­vivors in the NSO to re­store their morale, their self-con­fi­dence and some­thing they have not had for a long time — a vi­sion of the fu­ture that can ac­tu­ally be achieved.

Pay­ing the piper: The Na­tional Sym­phony Orches­tra joined singers at the ‘A Na­tion’s Voice’ event as part of the 1916 com­mem­o­ra­tions

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