RTÉ not making right noises about musical movements

Recent changes in the national broadcaster have serious implications for music groups

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra: “Post-recession attrition has been used to reduce the playing strength of the orchestra to a level of 82”

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra: “Post-recession attrition has been used to reduce the playing strength of the orchestra to a level of 82”

 

Imagine this. The government becomes so concerned at RTÉ’s management of its music groups that the minister for arts sets up a review group to prepare a report on the matter. The review group canvasses submissions and holds public consultations.

The report it submits recommends the removal of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra from RTÉ and its establishment under an independent board answerable directly to the minister, although still with funding from RTÉ.

If your memory is long enough, you will know that this is not fantasy. It’s exactly what happened just over 20 years ago. The Piano report – the acronym derives from Provision and Institutional Arrangements Now for Orchestras and Ensembles – was published in January 1996, and the minister who commissioned it was Michael D Higgins.

The background was the fallout from the notorious Broadcasting Act 1990, which had capped RTÉ’s advertising income and led to swingeing cuts, which affected RTÉ’s two orchestras, string quartet and choral groups.

In the early 1990s the station had lost George Hurst as principal conductor of the NSO, just as it recently lost John Wilson as conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

Post-Hurst, RTÉ found it difficult to hire a principal conductor for the NSO; the same applies in 2016, despite the station having twice extended the tenure of Alan Buribayev with the NSO. This time, of course, RTÉ is in the undesirable position of having principal conductor vacancies in both of its orchestras.

In the wake of the Broadcasting Act 1990, the national broadcaster had also let the size of the NSO fall below the level it had itself declared to be the “full international strength of 93 players”.

The “full international strength” description was used back in 1989 when the station was proudly boasting of transforming its 72-member radio orchestra, the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, into a genuinely national orchestra that would also, for the first time, be able to hold its head up sonically in the company of international peers.

Music festival

Fast-forward to today, and post-recession attrition has been used to reduce the playing strength of the orchestra to a level of 80 and falling, and the out of Dublin concert exposure RTÉ generates for the still "national" orchestra is also at or close to an all-time low.

Two other features from the early 1990s that are also being replicated today are the bundling-up of management roles and shilly-shallying about the provision of a new music festival in Dublin; RTÉ is one of the stakeholders in the annual New Music Dublin festival, which was allowed to skip a year last March.

After the recent sideways shift of John O’Kane (from executive director of RTÉ’s orchestras, quartet and choirs to music and arts strategy executive) and the new double-jobbing arrangement for Aodán Ó Dubhghaill (who will be adding O’Kane’s old brief to his current full-time job as head of RTÉ Lyric fm), I tried to get clarification from RTÉ about the real-life implications of the changes that have been made.

Jim Jennings, managing director of radio, mentioned in his email announcing the new roles for O’Kane and Ó Dubhghaill, that “RTÉ wishes to design and implement a new strategy for deploying its Orchestras, Quartet and Choirs (OQ&Cs) that informs and becomes integrated into an emerging Arts and Culture strategy and corporate strategy 2018-23”.

When I asked for information about these strategies I was told they were “in progress and not yet published”.

‘General ambition

’ O’Kane is expected to ensure “that the outputs of orchestral music align to all our broadcast platforms” and to develop “key external partnerships for music content delivery”.

I asked what sort of developments were envisaged. “The general ambition,” I was told, “is to drive a closer relationship between the orchestras and RTÉ’s broadcast platforms, particularly RTÉ lyric fm and digital, identifying more opportunities for transmission and broadcast projects and to enable greater access to the orchestras by the audience.”

I thought that the person in charge of the performing groups – and indeed the head of Lyric – would always have been pursuing this goal. It should be remembered, though, that conflict of interest between live performance and broadcasting was what led to the creation of an executive director in the first place.

I asked if Ó Dubhghaill’s involvement with the performing groups was a permanent or a temporary arrangement. Neither, seems to be the answer. RTÉ’s explanation is that it is “an ongoing arrangement”, though I was also able to establish that there are no plans to advertise the post of executive director of the performing groups, as it is now held by Ó Dubhghaill.

I asked if Ó Dubhghaill’s new responsibilities with the performing groups in Dublin would have any staffing implications for his role with Lyric in Limerick. The answer was a clear: “No.”

When it comes to the hiring of new principal conductors, “Aodán Ó Dubhghaill will have this responsibility, in conjunction with the general manager of both orchestras and other key individuals in the OQ&C’s area”.

Programme planning for both orchestras will be shared: “It is anticipated that all those involved in music and arts strategy will collaborate across divisions.”

John O’Kane has been promoting the creation of a pool of orchestral musicians from which the needs of the two orchestras might be serviced. The members of both orchestras are beyond wary about this idea, given the unpredictable impact it could have on their working lives. RTÉ declined to give any further details on this plan.

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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