An era of tonal solidity and depth, by George
In his two decades at the NSO, conductor George Hurst brought a kind of middle-European firmness and purpose to the orchestra’s playing
GEORGE HURST, first principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, has died at the age of 86. As well as being a conductor he was a teacher of the great and the good among conductors, and the list of his Irish pupils includes Robert Houlihan, who went on to join him as a tutor at his celebrated Canford Summer School of Music. He was even an inspiration to Simon Rattle: a George Hurst performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony turned the young Rattle’s head towards conducting.
George was one of those conductors who could transform the sound of an orchestra over the course of a couple of rehearsals for a single concert. That’s exactly what he did the first time I heard him, back in the days when the then RTÉSO had no proper hall in which to play and gave its subscription concerts at the Gaiety Theatre. There was an extraordinary electricity in his handling of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a work that effectively heralded the future of orchestration.
George not only seemed to have spotted its every special touch but also knew how to make the players deliver them.
Rehearsals were pretty fraught, with some players venting their grievances to his face, and although he returned for a concert not long after the National Concert Hall was opened, his appointment as principal conductor, announced in June 1988, took most people, especially the members of the orchestra, by surprise. In the end, his relationship with RTÉ lasted just 14 months. It was his difficulties with management rather than with the players that saw him step down from what, from January 1990, had become the National Symphony Orchestra.
I had dinner with him on one occasion and felt at times from his questioning as if everything about me was under the microscope. If I was going to be writing about him week in, week out, he wanted to find out all he could about my musical background and musical preferences. And it wasn’t just me he was curious about. He hadn’t been able to make sense of the picture RTÉ management had painted for him of the music scene in Dublin, so he had question after question to ask about orchestral repertoire here, as well as audience taste in and responses to all kinds of music. I photocopied old season brochures and sent them to him, so that he could have chapter and verse on some of these issues rather than just my word.
Early 1991 saw RTÉ in considerable disarray, as it dealt with a shrinking budget from the fallout of the Broadcasting Act 1990. The musicians of the NSO and the RTÉCO refused to merge for a performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony at the end of January, and the industrial dispute that followed saw the cancellation of concerts. In March, George tendered his resignation, issuing a statement to say his departure had nothing to do with the players and he would be submitting “a full report” to the broadcaster’s board of management.
It’s the kind of departure from which you might expect there to be no return. But George was canny in his business dealings, and he conducted the orchestra again, in Dublin and on a 10-concert tour of Germany, in 1992. He returned to conduct the RTÉCO in 2000, and, just as he had with the RTÉSO 20 years earlier, he made the orchestra shine by taking it fully out of its comfort zone.