Can RTÉ effectively axe an orchestra?

Cuts in RTÉ’s pool of musician employees is fuelling speculation about a merger of its two orchestras

It was only last year, when working on the book The Invisible Art, A Century of Music in Ireland 1916-2016, that I came to realise the full enormity of the Irish State's disregard for classical music.

We had to wait until 1948 before a symphony orchestra was created and until 1981 for a concert hall to be opened in Dublin. A John F Kennedy Memorial Hall announced to great fanfare in 1964 was abandoned in the 1970s, and the National Concert hall that we know today was not a new build. It was created through the refurbishment of what had been the "large concert room" in the building erected on Earlsfort Terrace for the Great Exhibition of 1865-66.

Full-time degree courses for musical performers were not established until the end of the last century, and a full-time primary degree course for composers had to wait until the first decade of this century.

The Irish Academy for the Performing Arts, announced by Mícheál Martin as minister for education and science in 2000, was not delivered. And a new concert hall complex for Earlsfort Terrace, retaining a refurbished version of the existing main auditorium with two new halls (one larger, one smaller), was cancelled in 2011.


If you want to see what might have been there are online videos showing the plans of the two finalists in the architectural competition – 3XN and Henning Larsen Architects, both Danish.

The availability of music education in primary and secondary schools is among the worst in Europe, and Dublin remains in the strange position of being a European capital city without an opera house or a functioning, year-round opera company.

Contrast all of this with the fact that the new state was alert about the musical issues it was actually interested in. It was quick off the mark in setting up a Garda band and a number of Army bands, as well as an Army School of Music. All of these were up and running by 1923.

As late as the 1990s the Army was still in a league of its own as the largest employer of full-time musicians in the state. Its tally then exceeded the combined total of RTÉ’s two orchestras and the Garda Band.

Developments in RTÉ over the last few years have been eating away at the national broadcaster’s employment of musicians. The station has been using a form of atrophy, by not filling posts as they are vacated, as well as a more active strategy of allowing its orchestral musicians to avail of voluntary redundancy schemes.

More than 20 jobs have already disappeared in this way, and one highly placed source in RTÉ has said that by next June about one in five of the total of positions in the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra will have been vacated. The number of filled positions does not equate to the number of players on stage on any particular night. And RTÉ’s printed lists of players do not distinguish between actual members of the orchestras and deputies hired in for the occasion.

There has long been speculation about the disappearance of one or other of the orchestras. The rumours tend to peak when the station is tightening its belt, and after a bout of cutbacks in the mid-1990s the then minster for arts, Michael D Higgins, set up a review group to report on the situation.

The group was chaired by pianist John O'Conor, and in January 1996 its deliberations were published as the Piano Report – the acronym is derived from Provision and Institutional Arrangements Now for Orchestras and Ensembles.

The main recommendations were that “the NSO should be established by law under an independent board answerable directly to the Minster for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht”, that the orchestra should be strengthened by “the creation of more named posts”, should have “a radically new working arrangement”, should “in the long term” be funded directly by the Government. The report also recommended that the relevant legislation should be amended “to require that RTÉ adequately maintains and supports the RTÉCO and the RTÉ String Quartet”.

Broadcasting Act    

The Broadcasting Act 2009 does in fact state the third of the objectives of RTÉ as being “to establish and maintain orchestras, choirs and other cultural performing groups in connection with the services of RTÉ”.

All of this seems well and good, and chimes with the Government thinking behind Creative Ireland, which is intended to place creative and the arts at the centre of public policy. The cultural investment section on Creative Ireland's website even has an image of the front of the National Concert Hall.

But RTÉ's strategy document for 2013 to 2017 lists its performing groups as "complementary services" rather than "core services". And the shrinkage in RTÉ's pool of musician employees has triggered speculation about the merger RTÉ's two orchestras possibly as early as next June.

After the idea of a merger began to circulate, Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, head of RTÉ’s orchestras, lyric fm, quartet and choirs, felt the need to email the station’s orchestral players.

He explained to them that while their work is “integral to the successful implementation of RTÉ’s arts and culture strategy” the broadcaster has “committed to a review of its provision of orchestral services”. The review, which will be carried out “in the context of RTÉ’s current financial situation”, was put out to tender (the closing date was last Friday), and Ó Dubhghaill expects the finished document in February.

Will the Government’s much-vaunted creative strategy have any bearing on whether RTÉ can effectively axe an orchestra? Your guess is as good as mine.