Changing of the guard at RTÉ orchestras presents an opportunity

As the principal conductors of the NSO and the CO finish up, the question arises: how best to deal with their succession?

The times they are a-changing. Both of RTÉ's orchestras were in action last week in strong outings under their principal conductors. On Friday the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra joined with the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir under Alan Buribayev to glory in the fervently patriotic cantata Prokofiev developed from his music for Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky. Buribayev brought new layers of atmosphere to Siobhán Cleary's Cokaygne, which the orchestra was playing for the second time. And Esther Yoo gave an extraordinary, full-throated, larger-than-life account of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.

Vivid colours and high emotional impact were the order of the day, too, on Saturday, in John Wilson and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra's concert performance of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, featuring Talise Trevigne as Butterfly and Bruno Ribeiro as her heartless nemesis, Pinkerton.

Friday’s concert marked Buribayev’s final appearance as principal conductor of the NSO, and RTÉ has also announced that Wilson is to step down from the RTÉ CO when his three-year contract runs its course next December. His successor will be announced in due course, according to the RTÉ press release.

Credit is due all around – to conductors, players and management – for the fact that both orchestras are at the moment in better shape than they have been in a long time. But the fate of orchestras is in many ways as fragile as those of football teams. When it comes to team effort, leadership is always important, and most orchestral managements strive very hard to ensure smooth successions between principal conductors and to avoid leaderless periods.


There was a point in the 1990s when RTÉ’s then head of music, Cathal MacCabe, said that principal conductors were just conductors who did more concerts than anyone else. That could not be further from the truth. Principal conductors are a focus for audiences. They help establish an orchestra’s character and shape its identity, and in many ways they can effectively set the parameters of its musical potential.

What this means for the two RTÉ orchestras is that when a principal conductor is functioning well, the concerts given under anyone else will also benefit. If you look at the history of the past few years here in Dublin, you will see that that has been the case.

The received wisdom in RTÉ is that conductors need a try-out before they get a job. That process is well under way at the NSO. Certain names are cropping up in successive seasons, as individuals’ work is being tested from a variety of angles. It’s certainly one way to go about managing the succession, but it’s by no means the only one.

Why not just try out a couple of names? Say a way were found to appoint the likes of Simon Rattle, Mariss Jansons, Gustavo Dudamel or Bernard Haitink as principal conductor of the NSO. The playing standard would leap upwards, as would attendances. No trial period necessary. The big question is how far down the list of desirable conductors you could go and still have the necessary transformative effect. If football clubs were to take an RTÉ-style cautious approach to appointing managers, sporting life would be a lot less colourful.

This is an idealised presentation, of course. Real life is never quite that simple. RTÉ’s music division has had its budgets slashed to the bone in recent years, and it may well be too strapped for cash to have the options it really needs.

Shortage of money

You can certainly deduce a shortage of money from the 2016-17 season that the RTÉ NSO has just announced. Ten years ago, the 2006-7 season included more programmes in Dublin as well as a bigger regional footprint than the orchestra has managed for years. Contemporary music concerts and collaborations with the NCH, which in 2006 were counted outside of the core subscription season, are now being included in the headline number in the press release to bump that number up.

On a like-for-like basis, the orchestra would have to add more than a dozen regional concerts and other events to lift the tally up by about 40 per cent to bring the current season back to the levels of 10 years ago. The much-vaunted recovery has a long way to go yet to make itself felt in the world of orchestral music.

That said, the orchestra is still managing to innovate. The NSO and RTÉ Philharmonic Choir are presenting two performances of Messiah on January 6th (2.30pm and 6.30pm).

There will be first performances of new works by Gerald Barry, his Humiliated and Insulted for choir and orchestra (within the subscription season on February 10th) and Ann Cleare and Sebastian Adams (in the free, lunchtime Music of Our Time concerts on February 14th and April 4th, respectively).

Major strands include Bruckner’s Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and his Te Deum, Shostakovich’s Tenth, Eleventh and Fifteenth Symphonies, and all of Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra over a weekend with Barry Douglas as soloist under Russian conductor Alexander Vedernikov.

There's also an all-Arvo Pärt evening on October 28th, a return of Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie (March 31st), and the orchestra's first performances of Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium (April 28th), and Magnus Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto (May 26th).

And the names of those conductors whose names keep cropping up? They are, in order of appearance, Jonas Alber, Richard Farnes, James Feddeck, Nicholas Collon, Nathalie Stutzmann, Cristian Macelaru, Alexander Shelley, Hans Graf, and Jean-Luc Tingaud.

Note: I owe an apology to clarinettist Paul Roe, whose name was inadvertently omitted from last week's coverage of the Association of Irish Composers' Echoes and Memory concert