The man from Finglas would surely approve of RTÉ’s new head of music

John O’Kane will have a better understanding of player issues than any previous head at RTÉ

O’Kane faces a much easier situation in Dublin than the one facing the Ulster Orchestra (above) in Belfast

O’Kane faces a much easier situation in Dublin than the one facing the Ulster Orchestra (above) in Belfast

Wed, Apr 2, 2014, 01:00

When I think of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra I often think of the man from Finglas. This particular man is an Irish Times reader who, when I wasn’t a wet day working as this paper’s music critic, sent me a copy of a letter he had sent to RTÉ. He wasn’t renewing his subscription for the upcoming NSO season, and his letter explained exactly why.

He had no issue with the choices of conductors or soloists, nor with the music on offer. What he objected to was the way it had all been put together. He was perfectly happy with the music chosen, but he didn’t want to hear the particular programmes into which it had all been packaged.

He justified his case by taking everything on offer and repackaging the pieces into the programmes that he would like to hear. I found myself completely persuaded by his case. In every instance he seemed to have got it right. Think of him as a sort of musical Gordon Ramsay or Mary Portas: someone who could see well beneath the surface of the problem and, with a combination of common sense and expert vision, realise the potential of something that had become too tired and predictable.

Appointment of O’Kane
The man from Finglas didn’t have to deal with the practicalities of the situation, of course, but I think of him whenever a new season is announced, and I’m thinking of him now, because he would have a new person to write to if the NSO’s programming is still not to his taste. RTÉ has announced the appointment of John O’Kane as executive director of RTÉ’s orchestras, quartet and choirs. The appointment has great potential to keep the man from Finglas, and any others like him, happier than they may have been for quite a while.

O’Kane has been a senior manager at the Arts Council for more than 10 years. Before that he was chief executive of Music Network. He began his career as a professional cellist, spent a stint as associate principal cellist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and also worked with both of RTÉ’s orchestras and the Ulster Orchestra. This should mean he will have a broader understanding of player issues than any previous head of music at RTÉ.

More important, from the man from Finglas’s point of view, are O’Kane’s years with the new music ensemble Sequenza in his native Belfast, and his time with Music Network, during which he was effectively the artistic director of the ESB Vogler Spring Festival, which grew out of the Music Network-nurtured Vogler Quartet residency in Sligo.

These projects showed an artistic sense that is sound and adventurous. As the musical brain behind Sequenza, O’Kane advocated the work of Górecki (before the Dawn Upshaw recording of his Third Symphony rocketed him to fame); the Baltic composers Erkki-Sven Tüür and Peteris Vasks; and featured the work of Denmark’s Hans Abrahamsen 24 years before Crash Ensemble cottoned on to him. His commitment to new music can be gauged from the New Music Dublin festival, which was an Arts Council initiative under his watch. And it was his programming in Co Sligo that put the Vogler Festival (now called Music in Drumcliffe) on the map.

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