Cause for deep concern as symphony orchestra moves under NCH’s wing

Dearth of Irish and female composers in new season offerings at National Concert Hall

Principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Photograph: Maxwell

Principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Photograph: Maxwell

 

The new season’s offerings of both the National Concert Hall and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra were announced at the end of last month. It’s a particularly interesting conjunction at the moment, because the kind of staggered, separate season announcements that have been the norm since the hall opened will soon be a thing of the past. If everything goes according to plans announced by the Government last year, the two institutions will in the near future cease to have separate existences. 

The Government’s decision is to transfer the NSO from the remit of RTÉ to the remit of the NCH. There’s an oversight group (with representatives from the Department of Culture, the Department of Communications, RTÉ and the NCH) and a working group (“a subset of the oversight group”) at work on the transfer. 

Neither group is feeding information into the public domain, but a spokesperson for the department told me last year that a “specific engagement and communication process” would be put in place to provide “relevant, timely information and engagement opportunities for all key stakeholders including the members of the NSO”. 

Stalled

The silence that has ensued suggests strongly that there has been nothing either relevant or timely to communicate yet. It has been put to me by a number of sources that the process is moving so slowly that it is effectively stalled. And, in the meantime, the core strength of the NSO – that is, the number of salaried players on the payroll – has been allowed to reach levels not known since the middle of the last century.

So what do the two seasons tell us about the two organisations? Well, the NSO’s core output remains small by international standards. The orchestra’s quoted total of 43 concerts boils down to 31 symphonic programmes, one less than it was 10 years ago. 

It’s the first season with Spain’s Jaime Martín as chief conductor, but his involvement is extremely low for someone who is expected to shape the orchestra’s playing style. He has just six programmes – less than half of what Simon Rattle does with the London Symphony Orchestra – but his repertoire choices are interesting. As well as repertoire staples (Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Shostakovich’s 10th, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloé), he has chosen works by living Irish composers (Ian Wilson, Elaine Agnew), a work by Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer and an overture by Fanny Mendelssohn. Living Irish composers feature in other programmes, too, with pride of place going to the first performances of John Kinsella’s Symphony No 11 on November 29th.

Mainstream

Principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann’s four programmes are altogether more mainstream – not a living composer in sight or a work by a woman. But she has so far been a rewarding interpreter, and next season’s offerings will include Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, Bruckner’s Seventh and Debussy’s La mer. 

For the record, the NSO seems to be taking the issue of women composers quite seriously. As well as those I’ve already mentioned, there are works by Ina Boyle, Sofia Gubaidulina and Caroline Shaw. On the other hand the use of the word “national” in its title is now absurd in relation to its concert-giving outside of Dublin. The new season lists just a single concert in Waterford. 

Unlike the NSO, the NCH has explicit commitments to female musicians: a Female Conductor Programme and what is now called the NCH/Sounding the Feminists Series (previously called the Female Composer Series). Yet, incredible as it may seem, not a single female composer, let alone a specific work by a woman, is identified in the season brochure. 

American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Simon Pauly
American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Simon Pauly

The NCH grades its presentation information through a system of status bias. The important stuff is mostly the imported concerts by international orchestras and soloists. These are the gigs with the highest ticket prices and presumably the greatest risk at the box office. They always take priority. 

What we’re talking about this year are the likes of Staatskapelle Dresden under Myung-whun Chung with Yuja Wang as soloist, Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan, pianists Emanuel Ax and Paul Lewis (the latter with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra), the wonderful mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato with ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, and the Hallé Orchestra under Mark Elder with Benjamin Grosvenor as soloist.

Split

The International Concert Series runs to 14 concerts. Ten years ago this strand was split into a Celebrity Concert Series of 10 concerts, and an International Orchestral series of six concerts, a total that’s more than 40 per cent higher than the level of today. 

Full programme details of most of this season’s international series are provided in the brochure. The information is spread over 30 pages. But the far greater number of chamber-scale concerts where Irish performers dominate are confined to just two pages. Not a single name is listed for the NCH/Sounding the Feminists Series, and, for a new project called Tionscadal na nAmhrán Ealaíne Gaeilge (the Irish Language Arts Song Project), which is to present 50 new art songs commissioned from 12 Irish and five international composers, the only names given are those of three singers, Anna Devin, Jennifer Davis and Rachel Kelly.  

It’s to the NCH that the Government has chosen to entrust the future of the National Symphony Orchestra

Can you imagine any theatre company on the island having such a low regard for Irish writers that a season announcement would include the names of actors but not playwrights? Or any other arts institution on the island which would so blatantly create a tiny ghetto for the Irish creators and re-creators whose work they were featuring? I hope not. 

These kinds of failings have persisted at the hall for decades. And yet it’s to the NCH that the Government has chosen to entrust the future of the National Symphony Orchestra. The hall and the orchestra have not yet given the slightest hint of what they intend to do over the 30 or so months from 2021 when the venue will be dark to enable long-overdue refurbishment to take place.

Given their joint turnover of around €15 million, that period of closure has to be the biggest issue facing the arts in Ireland over the next few years.

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