Classical music: Playing outside the pit can broaden your horizons

Orchestra members fulfil vital extracurricular functions such as providing music education and road-testing new music

We're all familiar with the "tip of the iceberg" notion. What you see or know is sometimes only a fraction of the whole. That fraction can be unbelievably small. I remember reading a 1947 essay on the orchestra by Virgil Thomson and finding myself gulping at one of the statistics he gave. In 1937, he said, there were about 30,000 orchestras in the US.

It seems incredible. The numbers are not made up of the likes of the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic, but the orchestras in schools and communities around the country. It’s obvious as soon as you think about it. And today, here in Ireland, it’s still true that professional orchestras are only the tip of the iceberg.

If you want to sample what else is out there beyond the leader of the nonprofessional pack – the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland (at the National Concert Hall on January 4th) – you can check out the work of the Dublin Youth Orchestras (NCH, January 9th), and you’ll find similar groups from around the country at the 21st Festival of Youth Orchestras (NCH, February 13th). The individual schools and colleges that regularly find concert outlets for their orchestras, bands and ensembles are too many to mention.

But the iceberg analogy goes well beyond a division into professional and amateur orchestras. When it comes to permanent, professional orchestras, the concerts they give are also just the tip of the iceberg. There is often a range of extracurricular activities by players that acts as a fertiliser for the rest of the musical ecosystem.

You’ll find professionals playing in the orchestras that accompany amateur choral societies and amateur musicals. They form ensembles for the performance of chamber music, and play in groups that specialise in new music. In many instances, though not significantly here in Ireland, the chamber music concerts are presented and marketed as an integral part of the orchestra’s activity. It’s often said that you can judge the quality of any orchestra by the quality of the chamber ensembles it spawns.

Some orchestral players turn to conducting, sometimes as a second-string activity, sometimes as a new career: conductors such as Arturo Toscanini, Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, János Fürst (former principal conductor of what's now the RTÉ NSO), Thierry Fischer (former principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra), and John Storgårds (who conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra here earlier this month) successfully made that transition.

Orchestral musicians are also vital providers of music education. They teach at third level in our academies and colleges, they give concerts for young people and some of them do outreach work in our schools. In a city such as Dublin, music education as we know it would be almost unimaginable without them.

One of Thomson’s claims back in 1947 was that the US model of a civically supported symphony orchestra was “the most conservative institution in the western world”. Churches and banks, he believed, were more open to experimentation.

The European model may be different, but the conservatism is shared. Take the NSO. Thirty-one years ago, in the summer of 1984, RTÉ started a series of essentially experimental Tuesday lunchtime concerts. Repertoire that was deemed too light, too short or too close to the “hundred best tunes” end of the orchestral repertoire found a home here. And the concerts were also used as a test ground for instrumentalists, singers, and conductors who were not yet judged ready for the exposure of a full evening programme. That series, unchanged in essence, is with us still.

In 1999 RTÉ decided to grasp the nettle of new music with an innovative series of free, hour-long Explorer concerts by the NSO. The programmes featured works by Barry Guy, Michael Torke, James MacMillan, Hilda Paredes, Jorge Ritter, Kevin Volans, Joan Tower, David Dzubay, John Adams, Steven Stucky, and Joseph Schwantner.

A year later the name was changed to Horizons, the focus was advertised as “international trends in contemporary music” and the repertoire of the first concert consisted of pieces from 1954, 1939, 1930 and 1914. What a comedown. In 2001, still under the name Horizons, but moved from a 6.30pm slot to lunchtime, RTÉ farmed out the repertoire planning. Each programme was given to individual Irish composers, who were asked to include their own works as well as music that had influenced them in some way.

The formula stuck and the new starting time opened the concerts up to pupils studying music at secondary school. But this year’s series was the last. Something new is afoot, although RTÉ is not ready to divulge anything about it other than that it will address the contemporary repertoire.

A patchy relationship

RTÉ’s relationship with new music is patchy at best. The NSO’s subscription series is the prestige end of the national broadcaster’s live orchestral output. But in the 2015-2016 season the only living composers to be represented are Irish. Not a single foreign name makes the grade. And this in a period in which RTÉ was party to putting the 2016 New Music Dublin festival on hold. It’s hard to forget that, back in the 1990s, an inexplicable failure of oversight at RTÉ caused exactly the opposite: a subscription series with just one piece by a living Irish composer.

RTÉ is quite set in its institutional ways. The new Composer Lab due next year, a project to introduce new composers to orchestral writing, has been planned in co-operation with the Contemporary Music Centre, one of the partners in the New Music Dublin project. Composer Lab is only open to people who are registered with the Contemporary Music Centre. Trawl through that register, though, and you’ll find there’s not a single person on the list under the age of 25. The composers who are probably most in need of orchestral experience probably won’t get it. Here’s hoping that a similar short-sightedness won’t affect whatever RTÉ has in mind to replace the Horizons concerts.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com

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