Tricky handover as ConTempo Quartet take RTÉ Cork spot from Vanbrugh

Perhaps it is time to revisit Music Network’s idea of a series of quartet residencies around the country

ConTempo String Quartet: Galway’s ensemble-in-residence for past 10 years

ConTempo String Quartet: Galway’s ensemble-in-residence for past 10 years


The wait is over. RTÉ has chosen a new group to replace the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet as the national broadcaster’s resident quartet in Cork. The Vanbrugh’s successors are no strangers to Irish music lovers. The ConTempo Quartet, originally from Romania, and Galway’s ensemble-in-residence for the past 10 years, have won the tender.

The first question you might reasonably ask is what the new development means for Galway. Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, interim executive director of RTÉ’s performing groups, addressed the issue in his statement welcoming ConTempo to the fold.

“With this appointment,” he said, “we open another exciting chapter for chamber music in Ireland. With an exceptional background in performance and education, the RTÉ ConTempo Quartet will maintain the chamber music and string quartet presence in Cork while also opening up a new and welcome musical presence for RTÉ in Galway.”

The ConTempo’s success was achieved at the expense of the Vanbrugh, as the incumbent also put in a tender.

The fine print of the new arrangement won’t become clearer until the ConTempo’s programme for 2014 is announced. But, according to RTÉ, ConTempo “will seek to develop opportunities through a range of activities including concerts, broadcasts, recordings, educational and community workshops, multimedia, digital and social-media initiatives at local and national levels.”

The Vanbrugh have had a difficult time with RTÉ over the last few years. The quartet have worked for RTÉ since 1986, initially as employees, later as a group contracted to provide services. As an independent contractor they suffered a level of cutbacks that was not visited on the station’s employees. And after RTÉ considered Philip Hammond’s Report on Future Options for RTÉ in Chamber Music Provision early in 2010 and decided to open the area up to competition, their relationship with RTÉ was only guaranteed until the end of this year, when their contract runs out.

The transition between Vanbrugh’s predecessor, RTÉ Academica String Quartet, and Vanbrugh itself, was similarly complicated. A change of membership in the Academica created a peculiar crisis, which Charles Acton described in these pages in October 1984. “I understand that last spring,” he wrote, “when things came to a head, there was a ballot, the result of which was that the viola player, Constantin Zanidache, voted to continue being the RTÉ Academica Quartet, and the other three voted No. Therefore there was thereafter no RTÉ Quartet.”

The Academica continued independently without any RTÉ connection with a new viola player from the US, and two of the original members continued to live and work in Cork, where they have contributed in no small way to the city’s musical life. The transition between the previous RTÉ String Quartet and the Academica was even more complicated, with the group having to give concerts as a string trio to keep the show on the road.

So congratulations are in order for RTÉ in having negotiated what looks like being a relatively seamless transition between the Vanbrugh and the ConTempo. However the temperature of the rehearsals for the groups’ joint programme of octets by Bruch, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn in Cork last Thursday may have been something else.

Orchestra for Cork
The very existence of a quartet in residence in Cork goes back to a campaign in the 1950s by the redoubtable Aloys Fleischmann. The composer’s aim was rather grander than a string quartet. He wanted an orchestra for Cork, and felt that since Dublin had two it could well spare one for the southern capital. That would make perfect sense, of course, in a perfect world. In the Ireland of the 1950s it appears to have been unthinkable, save for a visionary like Fleischmann. But his consolation prize was a string quartet, which, like the choral festival he founded in 1954, has survived through many a vicissitude.

It’s probably no accident that when Music Network came to mastermind a musical residency for Sligo in the 1990s, and when Galway sought an ensemble in residence at the turn of the century, that the choice fell on a string quartet. Cork had shown the way. All three ensembles – the Vogler Quartet from Berlin in Sligo – did far more than give concerts. They became involved in festivals, in education and community projects, and they sent out a clear message to talented young people that music was a viable career.

Making a success of a string quartet, of course, is extremely difficult. The repertoire is among the best there is, but the fees are not high and money has to be split four ways. The groups that make a living purely by playing quartets are extremely rare. The members of some quartets lead separate freelance careers, working together only on a project-by-project basis. Some hold down jobs in orchestras, or on the teaching staff of conservatories. Others teach in universities or other institutions.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Ireland’s situation is that while there are current quartets in Galway and Cork, and one in Queen’s University in Belfast – Poland’s Royal String Quartet – and a thriving festival in Sligo from the residency there, there’s still no comparable quartet in Dublin, where the greatest potential audience lives.

If anything, the provision of quartet concerts in the capital has declined over the last 25 or 30 years. When the Vanbrugh were new to Ireland, the RDS’s annual winter chamber music season, with frequent quartet visits, was still in full swing, and the late John Ruddock and his Limerick Music Association were bringing a regular flow of quartets – and other soloists and groups – to Dublin and venues around the country. The situation for the rest of the country has picked up greatly since then through the work of Music Network. But Dublin is less well provided for than it used to be.

Brave idea
Thinking again of the Sligo residency reminds me of the fact that it was never intended to be a one-off as far as Music Network in the 1990s was concerned. The Sligo project was seen as the first of a series of residencies that would lead to professional ensembles, seven in all, if I remember correctly, in strategically selected centres around the country. A brass quintet for Waterford, a city with a long and proud brass tradition, was proposed as the next step. It seems like a missed opportunity that nothing more ever came of such a brave idea.

The ConTempo Quartet’s next appearances are in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery on December 15 (playing Dvorak and Steve Reich), and in Galway on December 17 (a Christmas concert). Digitised versions of Aloys Fleischmann’s diaries from 1926 and 1927 are now available online at

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