Mysterious musical chairs at RTÉ as arts job disappears

Executive Director of RTÉ’s Orchestras, Quartet and Choirs moves to new role

The biggest arts job in the country has just disappeared. The change happened on Friday when John O’Kane, the Executive Director of RTÉ’s Orchestras, Quartet and Choirs, moved to the new role of music and arts strategy executive “with immediate effect”.

The notification was made public when Jim Jennings, RTÉ's managing director of radio, circulated the information by email.

He explained that “RTÉ wishes to design and implement a new strategy for deploying its Orchestras, Quartet and Choirs that informs and becomes integrated into an emerging arts and culture strategy and corporate strategy 2018-2023.”

Jennings’s email explained that O’Kane’s new job will see him play “a key role in ensuring that the outputs of orchestral music align to all our broadcast platforms, along with developing key external partnerships for music content delivery”.

What Jennings calls “line responsibility” for the performing groups is being taken over by Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, who will also continue in his role as head of RTÉ Lyric FM.

The combined role, says Jennings, “will allow a greater alignment of content to broadcast capability in line with the evolution of our arts content delivery strategy”.

This raises an interesting question: is RTÉ trying to hide something?

O’Kane came to RTÉ with an excellent record in artistic and musical planning. Back in the 1990s, he was the musical brains behind the Belfast-based new music group Sequenza.

Imaginative streak

The programme content of Music Network concerts and the calibre of performers chosen for tours improved when he was the organisation’s director. He also shone when he programmed the Vogler String Quartet’s Spring Festival at Drumcliffe in Co Sligo.

His imaginative streak showed itself again when he came up with the idea of Composing the Island – September's major retrospective of the work of Irish composers from 1916-2016.

On the other hand, it was on his watch that Music Network lost major sponsorship from the ESB, and the organisation was not in the best financial shape when he moved from there to become arts director of the Arts Council.

His years in Merrion Square were tainted by his dogged promotion of the so-called Shannon Plan, a 2009 notion to merge Opera Ireland, Opera Theatre Company and Wexford Festival Opera into a new entity based in the opera house in Wexford.

I can still remember a long conversation with him about this plan, during which he steadfastly refused to acknowledge any significance in the blatant inconsistencies in the figures in that plan.

The fallout of this plan, combined with the leaden-footed energy the Arts Council and Department of Arts showed in forwarding then minister for arts Martin Cullen’s idea of a new, Dublin-based Irish National Opera, seriously set back the development of the art form in Ireland and has seen funding for the sector plummet.

O’Kane took up his appointment as executive director of RTÉ’s orchestra, quartet and choirs in June 2014.

Unless I’m mistaken, this is the shortest term on record, and leaves him as the only person to have held that post without appointing a principal or guest conductor to either orchestra.

Serious threat

His new move is not being interpreted as a promotion and, however meaningful the new RTÉ strategy may seem to the broadcaster’s senior management, it is also being read as a serious threat to the security of the performing groups within RTÉ.

It will take some time for exactly what occasioned the change and exactly what its effects will be to emerge.

The Vanbrugh Quartet’s 30 years, celebrated in Sunday’s presentation of a National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award, seems all the more remarkable by comparison, especially since most of those three decades were as RTÉ quartet in residence.

The concert was a succession of choice musical morsels, favourite movements from favourite works, many of them with favourite collaborators, clarinettist Michael Collins, soprano Cara O'Sullivan, pianists Hugh Tinney and Barry Douglas, double bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku, and the Ortús Festival Ensemble.

The Vanbrugh have often seemed to move up a gear when teaming up with colleagues, and so it was on this occasion, the highlights being the excerpts from Schubert’s Trout Quintet (delightfully lightweight with Tinney and Nwanoku), Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet (a beautifully poignant partnership with Collins), and the Brahms Piano Quintet (urgent and dynamic with Douglas).

Strange

It was strange that the evening was allowed to pass without anything by an Irish composer, living or dead, or – given the involvement of the National Concert Hall, which experienced criticism over all-male programming in Composing the Island – a female composer, living or dead.

Earlier on Sunday, the Music Network celebrated its 30th anniversary in the Great Hall of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, with a specially commissioned work for massed Irish harps by Philip Martin, preceded by a first half of traditional Irish music.

Martin’s 12-movement Avoca was traditional in many other ways, too.

It involved singer Liam Ó Maonlaí. It set traditional tunes in a tune and accompaniment style. And it showed a fundamental distrust of the soundworld of the Irish harp by reinforcing it with a pair of horns and a cello (everything heavily amplified) and giving them the meatiest of the musical material.

The nicest thing you could say about the piece is that Martin saw the assembly of Irish harps as a kind of jewel that he wanted to leave alone and be itself, and then set it off with the contrasting colours of wind and a solo string instrument.

But in creating such a dull setting, however heartfelt, he seemed to have turned a unique musical opportunity into a lowest common denominator community event.

mdervan@irishtimes.com