The hall guy: the man with a new plan for the NCH
Gary Sheehan has had a relatively radical year at the National Concert Hall – and he’s only getting started
Gary Sheehan, head of programme planning at the National Concert Hall: ‘It takes time for people to get their head around new ideas.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
It has taken some time, but it seems as if the National Concert Hall is being gently pulled into the here and now of cross-genre fertilisation. Just over a year ago, Gary Sheehan – formerly overseer of Note Productions, an Arts Council-funded promotions company that brings in musicians from jazz, world, electronic and contemporary classical – was appointed head of programme planning at the NCH.
His work at Note, says Sheehan, “was about bringing in the best of international names of real quality in specialist music in the broadest sense. We also liked to create project-based shows – it was probably through looking at what the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall in London were doing, and then taking an international perspective on what was happening in Dublin.”
Building loyalty within an audience is one of Note Productions’ core values. Another one is developing a level of trust between promoter and concert goer.
“And so the audience trusts you with the next show,” says Sheehan, “even if they’re unfamiliar with the artist. For all the talk of the amount of concerts back then in Dublin [about six years ago], the range was actually quite narrow. There were lots of rock and classical, but swathes of music were under-represented.”
Developing trust, increasing audience awareness, making new connections – all of these were on Sheehan’s mind when he posted his CV to the NCH.
“I’ve always looked at the NCH as a venue with an amazing and deserved reputation for classical music, and I thought that if the venue was interested to expand its programme, enrich it, vary it, develop it – all of those words – then there would be a real possibility to do something interesting.”
As discussions progressed, it transpired these were some of the items on the agenda of NCH chief executive Simon Taylor. But there was more: how to improve the range and quality of what’s on offer, how to look at bringing in new audiences while maintaining the core remit of the classical music programme.
Sheehan says the NCH has always engaged with traditional music, and that, along with its commercial programme, “it has always talked to a broad audience. With me involved, however, it was more about how do we make the interventions more strategic and structured? How do we apply a more curatorial approach than merely react to a touring scenario, where promoters just take acts that are readily available?
“You look at the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall, and you see a range of music alongside an amazing classical programme, so there’s no reason why that can’t happen. And, of course, the NCH has a great advantage of a substantial audience base. Blending that with what I do can be a very exciting proposition.”
And so it has turned out. There may have been startled looks from some loyal NCH visitors when they heard the likes of Bell X1, Sinéad O’Connor, Bryan Ferry and Spiritualized would be performing at the venue (all four performed sold-out shows during this year’s scorching summer as part of the ESB Live Concert series), but Sheehan has for years been convinced “that people want to see high-quality music in a hall and not in a field”.
Further proof of Sheehan’s curatorial style (which, he emphasises, “isn’t a case of a maverick turning things on its head”) can be found in the NCH’s major new music series, Perspectives 2014.
Next year, cosying up to the venue’s esteemed classical programme of events, we can expect to see the likes of English experimental folk maven June Tabor (January 25th), German techno minimalist Pantha du Prince, with Norwegian music collective Bell Laboratory (March 26th), world-renowned jazz musician Wayne Shorter (June 14th), lauded soundtrack composer Clint Mansell (in October) and Brassland@NCH (December 13th/14th), which sees the titular Brooklyn-based record label (co-founded by brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National) curate a weekend of concerts that will feature Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and experimental improv band Megafaun.
There is more to be confirmed outside of Perspectives 2014, Sheehan assures us, but he isn’t prepared to spill the beans just yet.
The responses to Sheehan’s developmental style (which has included the creation of 12-month-tenure specific writing spaces at NCH for Irish songwriters Paul Noonan, Neil Hannon, Glenn Keating, Cathy Davey and James Vincent McMorrow) have, he gently implies, not always been immediately enthusiastic.
“It takes time for people to get their head around new ideas, but on the other hand there was an overwhelming sense of people being enthused by seeing a full hall in the middle of summer, with serious artists doing great gigs.”
Sheehan has had a good look at the way the Barbican has been engaging with audiences.
“Something such as the Meltdown shows there changed how concert halls presented certain kinds of music, so it isn’t rocket science to bring that level of insight into the NCH. If you do that, then you also bring a new energy that hopefully takes it to a new place, while maintaining what is already good about it.”
As the NCH is the home of classical music in Ireland, is there concern that non-classical programming is going to take over from the core classical? A firm shake of the head. “It’s not going to, it can’t and it should never do.” A glint in the eye. “But there is scope to add stuff.”
Which, in essence, is cross-genre awareness, exploration of same, and the continued generating of trust between venue and audience.
“I don’t think the NCH audience is half as concerned about genre as the people in the industry sometimes are,” he posits, quite likely hitting the nail on the head. “Audiences are much more fluid in terms of genre these days, and we’re reflecting that.”