Experience counts in orchestras – but where are the opportunities?

Esker Festival Orchestra and SinfoNua will be among victims of musical decline at RTÉ

The philosopher Ivan Illich was the first person I ever came across who wrote about the absurdity of the idea of degree qualifications. We had somehow reached the point that in order to get a job, it was not enough to be able to do it, you had to have acquired a qualification that showed you ought to be able to do it.

I was ripe for the message. As a student I had spent many an hour in the foyer of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where there was a board showing which teachers were in or out. And I had noticed that all of the best ones – in my judgment – were ones who had no “Dr” honorific before or letters after their names.

The most important thing they had to learn on day one was how to fake

In the musical world, you’ll find the biggest discrepancies in the area of conducting. You’ll find many a seasoned practitioner who has no qualifications specific to conducting, and many graduate conductors who have rarely if ever been hired on the basis of the skills they’re supposed to have.

Obviously it’s not a black-and-white situation. And when it comes to professional musical performers, there is the whole issue of relevant experience.


I remember hearing from student friends about the first time they managed to get hired as an orchestral deputy. The most important thing they had to learn on day one was how to fake. That was the only way they could guarantee to never be heard messing things up in an exposed or difficult passage. And an experienced cellist in a string quartet told me about being advised by a mentor what to do if anyone in the quartet ever lost their place. The solution is to make sure the spike of the cello loses its grip on the floor and starts moving, so that it will be obvious to even the most inexperienced listener why the group has to stop and start again.

Experience counts

It’s a truism, but experience counts. And experience is exactly what two orchestras I heard in recent weeks have to offer – the Esker Festival Orchestra, which played at the Capuchin Friary on Church Street, Dublin, under Peter Joyce; and SinfoNua, which played at the National Concert Hall under David Brophy.

On one level the two groups could hardly be more different. The Eskers are a self-governing group with a base in Galway. SinfoNua is a project created by the State’s major musical institution, the National Concert Hall. But they’re both there to provide emerging professional musicians with the kind of real-life orchestral experience that is so hard to come by.

When it comes to orchestral jobs in Ireland the market is shrinking

It is good that we now have such institutions. Five years ago neither of these orchestras existed. But the future that their members face here in Ireland is far from solid. When it comes to orchestral jobs in Ireland the market is shrinking.

The latest issue of Sound Post, the magazine of the Musicians' Union of Ireland, carries an article by John Swift, which gives the current staffing of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra as 71, and of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra as 41.

It was back in 1989 that RTÉ announced the first major expansion of its symphony orchestra since the 1950s. The expansion was to take the orchestra from 71 players to a permanent playing strength of 93, and the then director of radio programming, Kevin Healy, described the development as “the most significant event in Irish orchestral activity since the establishment of the Symphony Orchestra in 1946”.

He may have been blinded by the renaming of the orchestra from RTÉ Symphony Orchestra to National Symphony Orchestra, because his RTÉ perspective completely excluded the establishment of the Ulster Orchestra in 1966 and its later expansion in 1981, as well as the creation of the New Irish Chamber Orchestra (today’s Irish Chamber Orchestra) in 1970.

Healy also described the development as “a substantial indication of RTÉ’s determination to fulfil its public service obligations not only over the airwaves but also in the concert hall and in the community”. Sadly, those lofty ambitions were never to be fully realised. And the activity of the orchestra outside Dublin has languished appallingly in recent years.


The gist of the orchestral expansion nearly 30 years ago was that RTÉ had accepted that its existing orchestra was inadequate as a national institution, and that the time had come for that deficiency to be rectified. It had an internal report from its own activity review unit, run by Conor Sexton, to go on.

How it justifies the current situation is anyone’s guess. The NSO has been without a principal conductor since 2015. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra is also without a principal conductor. The national broadcaster has reached the point where it no longer as a matter of course actually records and broadcasts all of the concerts given by its orchestras. This fact is especially surprising since the same man, Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, is in charge of the performing groups as well as the broadcasting of music on RTÉ Lyric FM. It’s interesting to wonder what kind of conversations he has with himself about his radio side failing to support his performing groups side.

Support of the orchestras is central to the licence fee

And among the victims of the musical decline at RTÉ will be the musicians of the Esker Festival Orchestra and SinfoNua. Their members have seen their employment prospects at RTÉ fall at an alarming rate in recent years. And the station’s current, generous, redundancy packages could actually make things a lot worse, if they are taken up in any number by RTÉ musicians.

The support of the orchestras is central to the licence fee. So the one big question in all of this is: who will take RTÉ to task for failing in its public service remit as it winds the orchestral clock back to 1989.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com