Internal soundings on the PIANO


IT was the year in which everyone was free to speculate on PIANO and what it would or wouldn't recommend. This ministerially appointed review body (the acronym is derived from Provision and Institutional Arrangements Now for Orchestras and Ensembles) was set up 18 months ago. A report was initially promised for the end of 1994. But the wider issues which became of concern (some of them aired at a public forum in November) and the rough and tumble of internal debate were among the factors which extended proceedings by a further 12 months.

Current speculation seems to favour the notion that PIANO will be recommending the removal of the National Symphony Orchestra from RTE, a development supported in an editorial in this newspaper early in 1993. A full debate on how such a radical undertaking might be achieved and on whatever is going to be suggested in the broader fields of education and contemporary music, not to mention opera, will obviously be expected after the report makes its way into the public domain.

The National Symphony Orchestra continues to be maintained by RTE in an area of artistic zero gravity where it gets wafted this way and that. In many respects, the performing potential of the orchestra is at an all time high. The results achieved by the most successful of visiting conductors can be spine tinglingly good. I'm thinking, for instance, of Vladimir Altschuler's big hearted Tchaikovsky, of Robert Houlihan's startlingly intimate handling of Berlioz's Les nuits d'ete with Bernadette Greevy, and of the responsive stylishness of the playing under Maurizio Benini and Bruno Aprea at the Wexford Festival.

Overall, however, things are less well. There is an undue dominance in the orchestra's concert schedules of work related to the recording needs of the bargain price Naxos label. For instance, the current season employs what you might call in house conductors (Kasper de Roo, Albert Rosen, Colman Pearce, Proinnsias O Duinn), Naxos associated conductors (the very fine Alexander Anissimov who'll be recording Rachmaninov but also Rein hard Seifried, Stefan Sanderling and Rico Saccani). In addition to these, however, there's room for just one man, Robert Houlihan, who's been given a single concert.

How, one wonders, is RTE proposing to assess viable contenders to succeed the uninspiring Kasper de Roo as principal conductor or, indeed, to find a suitable candidate to fill the long vacant position of chief guest conductor? Sadly, the orchestra's eagerness to have Anissimov as its chief guest seems not to have found a sympathetic response from management.

The Naxos association, of which RTE boasts so much (though which, in my view, is a dangerous connection, as it has been spreading the orchestra's name in advance of the quality being right) may itself have begun to unravel. Mendelssohn's Symphony No 2, heard in concert earlier this month (essentially to provide free rehearsals for a Naxos recording), has not been completed the part, of the work involving the RTE Philharmonic Choir was at the last minute, and at the insistence of Naxos, postponed. And the recording relationship with the RTE Concert Orchestra has been broken off completely, as a result of what the players saw as an endeavour on their part to improve the standard of the orchestra's output on CD.

Following the departure of RTE choral director, Colin Mawby, the station's choirs seem to be in greater confusion than ever before. The RTE Chorus, axed in, 1991, was restored by the RTE Authority in May 1993 but hasn't been heard of since. The RYE Chamber Choir, similarly axed and restored, has appeared with all the reliability of the Cheshire Cat. And, based on RTE's track record in major musical appointments, the wait for a new choral director could last into the next century.

The best news on the orchestral front came from Limerick, where, within the University of Limerick and with Arts Council funding, the Irish Chamber Orchestra was established as an ensemble of 13 string players. This makes it the first permanent orchestra in the State to be established outside of the capital and the first to be free of the shackles of RTE.

The programme content of the orchestra's concerts is not yet always persuasive (an artistic problem of coming to terms with the small core size) and the firm hand of a principal conductor will be needed to stabilise the playing at a high level. But the musical potential of this exciting new development was well evidenced in the orchestra's responsiveness to that classically poised aristocrat of the violin, Franco Gulli, who appeared as soloist and director with the orchestra in June.

Full credit is due to the Arts Council for its initiative in funding the orchestra's development. How surprising, then, that the council has effectively dismantled the bursary scheme which helped fund the education of the very pool of players from which the ICO draws. And it's an even greater mystery that it continues to neglect the University Concert Hall in Limerick, the only dedicated music venue in the State apart from the National Concert Hall. Try thinking about that in terms of theatre and you'll see how absurd it is.

The Wexford Opera Festival's new artistic director, Luigi Ferrari, scored a bullseye with his first season, though lacklustre would be a kind description of what Dorothea Glatt achieved in her most recent season for DGOS Opera Ireland. Opera Theatre Company commissioned and toured an electronic version of Ogeo from Belfast composer Michael Alcorn (result Monteverdi 1, Alcorn 0) and put music lovers in their debt by launching a series of song recitals in Dublin. Kenneth Montgomery's artistic reign at Opera Northern Ireland limped to its conclusion in September and the activity of his successor, Stephen Barlow, will now be watched with special interest.

Belfast's Sonorities festival of 20th century music proved a less than enthralling mixed bag but it has to be good news that this festival the only one of its kind on the island is now being planned on an annual basis. RTE's disastrously unfocussed Music Now series has, incredibly been whittled down further, basically by spreading new works throughout the season (\where they used to be before the advent of Music Now). And the unforgivable withdrawal of IMRO funding curtailed the year's programme of the Project Arts Centre's ground breaking New Music Series.

The RDS geared up its concert activity and unveiled a long overdue renovation to its concert hall. But the longer term concert hall interest must focus on Belfast, where, as part of a £29 million project, the new Waterfront Hall will be opened in January 1997.