The National Symphony Orchestra is to be restored to its full playing strength following its transfer from RTÉ to the National Concert Hall (NCH), Minister for Arts Catherine Martin said as she announced a bumper recruitment drive.
Ms Martin wants the orchestra and RTÉ choirs “not only to survive but to flourish”.
The Minister was speaking as she introduced legislation in the Dáil to give legal effect to the transfer of the orchestra and the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, RTÉ Cór Linn and RTÉ Cór na nÓg to the NCH that occurred in January this year.
“I am committed to seeing the orchestra return to full strength and take its place at the heart of Irish music and cultural life,” Ms Martin said.
The orchestra transferred because of the cost burden and “operational challenges” over a number of years while at RTÉ and will now be directly funded by Government through the concert hall.
An independent report in 2018 recommended the orchestra transfer to the NCH, and a Department of Culture report estimated the full operating costs of the orchestra at about €8 million a year.
In its heyday the orchestra comprised 89 performers, but when it transferred in January “we had 54 musicians and nine ancillary staff”, Ms Martin said.
Her department sanctioned recruitment to fill a number of vacancies in the orchestra and choirs. Recruitment is now under way for a music librarian; orchestra leader and first violin; section leaders for percussion, double bass, horns and timpani; and bass trombone principal — all of which are permanent positions.
The concert hall will also recruit 26 fixed-term guest musician contracts, and give contract extensions for four choral co-ordinators, as well as HR staff, to support this increased recruitment.
The Minister said her department is also making “a substantial capital investment in the orchestra’s equipment” with the purchase of a range of instruments.
Sinn Fein spokesman on arts Aengus Ó Snodaigh stressed the need to harness musical talent with a pathway to employment into the likes of the orchestra. Supports for schools and musical instruments “needs to happen on a greater scale”, he said.
Mr O Snodaigh said it was not always possible for poor schools to have the best equipment, and he cited schools such as St Ultan’s and Rosary College in Crumlin, Dublin, “where pupils are learning instruments that would not normally be associated with working-class areas”.
Social Democrats spokesman Gary Gannon said some communities feel removed from what the concert hall provides. A diverse schedule is necessary to avoid being seen as “an elitist institution”, he said.
“The NCH has made great strides in diversifying the performances on the stage, but that is not often reflected in the audience.”
There was work to be done on that he said, including a programme of performances and links regionally with towns and villages across the State.
Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh said it was “so important” that the orchestra was getting the resourcing to bring back touring.
He stressed that “playing in our national orchestras is a career and should be viewed as a career”. The Waterford TD said that “if musicians have gone into the business of playing in an orchestra to get rich, they have made some bad decisions because it is not a get-rich quick scheme.
“These people do not do it for the money but for the love of it,” but “that should not mean that they do it for nothing or next-to nothing. For all that, they deserve to be well paid and to have security in their employment,” he said.
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett described the Bill as a “good news story”. He pointed out that when the RTÉ Philharmonic Orchestra was originally set up it had 62 members and that figure went up to 89 in its heyday.
He said: “We need to get it up to the strength it needs so that it is secure into the future and we are not over-reliant on people operating on a freelance or casual basis.” That results in a turnover of people, which is undermining the cohesion and the creativity of the NSO, Mr Boyd Barrett said.