Is the move by the RTÉ NSO to the NCH ‘a reverse takeover’?

The players have strong views on the major move – not that they’ve been asked

We live on an island where a hugely valuable and complex peace process was negotiated more than 20 years ago. There are moments in processes like that where detail and timing are crucial. Everyone involved needs to have bought in to the process and to have confidence and trust in the outcome.

There’s not been much in the way of sensitive timing in relation to the transfer of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra out of RTÉ and the placing of it under the remit of the National Concert Hall.

The RTÉ NSO is the large group of musicians who perform regularly at the NCH. That identity is so strong that I still meet people who have never grasped that the hall and orchestra are actually entirely separate entities.

The NSO is the State’s largest permanent group of performing artists – by some margin – and is funded by the national broadcaster, which allocates monies to the orchestra from its share of the television licence revenue. RTÉ’s performing groups, which will be broken up by the removal of the NSO, is currently the country’s largest arts organisation, with total expenditure some €4 million above that of the Abbey Theatre.

The orchestra, which for around a quarter of a century had an official roster of 89 salaried players, has been allowed to atrophy through retirements and redundancies. The independent review by Helen Boaden, published in April, documented just 68 filled posts. Further posts, including the crucial position of leader, have been vacated since then. The necessary numbers on stage are being made up through casual employment.

In November, RTÉ’s orchestral players were told by RTÉ executives that there would just be a single orchestra left by June 2018. That same month RTÉ commissioned the review of its orchestral provision from Boaden and Mediatique. In April that report recommended the removal of the NSO from RTÉ and that the orchestra “should be a national cultural institution, in its own right or within the NCH”.

On July 5th, the Cabinet "agreed in principle that the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra should come within the remit of the National Concert Hall and should not be established as a separate State body". The decision was welcomed in a formal announcement by Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan and Minister for Communications Denis Naughten.

The formal process leading to that decision was not initiated by or even assented to by the orchestra. It was driven at the behest of RTÉ. It was RTÉ that reached the conclusion it had insufficient funds to continue funding two orchestras, though that decision was about RTÉ’s priorities rather than anything else.

It seems that when the Government has been thinking of the RTÉ NSO it thinks mostly of the orchestra’s old masters in RTÉ and its new masters at the NCH, but not the people at the centre of it all, the players whose fate it will be to make the transfer.

Strong views

If the relevant Government ministers and their civil servants had consulted the actual orchestra as most people think of it – the musicians – they would have discovered that the players had strong views on the issue.   In fact the players took a vote on the two major options outlined in the report – an independent NSO, or an NSO placed under the remit of the NCH. And 61 per cent of the NSO musicians voted in favour of the independent option, the one the Government in its wisdom has chosen to take off the table.

Some musicians have tried to make the point that what’s being proposed is essentially a reverse takeover. The NSO, they claim, is a larger operation than the NCH. The hall’s latest annual report – for 2016 but covering only the months February to December – gives total income of €7.1 million, which would give an annualised total of €7.7 million or less. I say less, because January is one of the hall’s quietest months in the year.

The Boaden review gives the NSO’s expenditure in 2016 as €7.17 million, though that figure does not include what the review calls “central costs”, that is services provided and costs covered by RTÉ that are not accounted for directly within the performing group’s costs.

The NCH accounts show RTÉ’s rental as being €513,669, or €560,366 on an annualised basis. The RTÉ NSO, which has its home in the hall, has to account for the bulk of that. RTÉ accounts for 43 per cent of the hall’s hire and rental income and also a sizeable portion of the box office commission of €437,940 given in the 2016 annual report.

The NCH had a total employee count of 103 for 2016 while the two orchestras between them had 211, including part-timers. That number rose to 242 in 2017, as the two orchestra’s permanent numbers declined.

Curiously, the 2017 RTÉ Annual Report peddles a strange fiction by saying “There are more than 350 performers in RTÉ’s music ensembles, of which 130 are full-time professional musicians”. It’s been years since the number was as high as 130.

Such casual misinformation really does matter now, just as the views of players facing a new future do. The musicians may or may not be right about the reverse takeover, though it is obviously a close call. But the Ministers and their mandarins would be well advised to grasp the reality that placing the NSO under the remit of the NCH is unlikely to be the kind of slam-dunk that certain voices within the hall itself have chosen to present it as being.