Orchestra funding should be ringfenced at RTE, says Martin

New Music Dublin festival director claims rumoured cutbacks would have trickle-down effect

Everyone seems to be on the same page when it comes to RTÉ and its orchestras. The belief that the national broadcaster is readying itself either to disband one of its orchestras, or merge two into one is almost universal. It’s certainly the view that dominates the discussion when the issue comes up in the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin brought the subject up in Leaders' Questions on Tuesday of last week. "There is no sense of future planning or vision for these orchestras," he told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. "The Government cannot wash its hands of this and cannot stand idly by. The orchestras are a national treasure. They have developed a tradition of musical excellence that has been built up painstakingly over decades and are a key part of our national cultural life."

He went on to ask the Taoiseach “to intervene to ensure that the allocation for orchestras be ringfenced and not fall victim to RTÉ’s genuine financial difficulties. It cannot become a victim in the ongoing tug of war between RTÉ and the Government regarding the licence fee.”

The Taoiseach, he said, should ask the Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan and the Minister for Communications Denis Naughten “to do what is necessary”.


And he added: “If that requires further exchequer funds in addition to their revenue from the RTÉ licence fee allocation, then so be it, that should be done.”

The Taoiseach and the Opposition leader were at one. “I share the deputy’s sentiments on the orchestras,” Varadkar said. “I would not like to see either being lost, or the two being merged.” He accepted the poor state of provision in Ireland (he mentioned Finland as the shining example from the opposite end of the spectrum) and said he would ask the two Ministers “to examine the issues to see if anything can be done to secure the future of the two orchestras”.

The Taoiseach brought in a couple of other considerations. “It is important,” he said, “that the orchestras do not get caught up or find themselves used as part of any attempt to campaign for an increase in the licence fee.”

“It is always important to consider the opportunity cost of not doing things. I would not like to see the Arts Council or Creative Ireland budgets reduced to provide funding for the RTÉ orchestras.”

I later spoke to Martin about the issue and he reaffirmed his view that the orchestras are “genuine national cultural institutions,” which “should be retained and put on a platform where they can be developed”. He believes “we should make an objective assessment of what the two full orchestras would cost and take that out of the licence fee and ringfence it.” Otherwise, he feels, the two groups could always “potentially become victims of the next crisis in RTÉ”.

He said he was “open to suggestions” on whether the orchestras should stay within RTÉ or be made independent, but his belief was that it needed to be statutorily clear that there are ringfenced funds for the orchestras. “We need to insulate the orchestras into the future.”

Providing for the orchestras, of course, is already written into the Broadcasting Act 2009. So as things stand RTÉ has no choice but to maintain its orchestral services somehow or other. The big unknown is how seriously our politicians are going to follow up on the views they have so clearly been airing in the Dáil.

The long-standing musical status quo in RTÉ – an 89-member RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and a 45-member RTÉ Concert Orchestra – has already been abandoned. The biggest issue is no longer actually one of preservation. It’s one of restoration. And RTÉ’s actions over the last few years have already put the real-life costs of replacing lost posts into seven figures.

New Music Dublin festival

You probably haven’t noticed it, but some of the details of next March’s New Music Dublin festival – which will run from Thursday, March 1st, to Sunday, March 4th – have been made public.

The event is a collaboration between the Arts Council, RTÉ and the National Concert Hall, but you won’t find the information where you might expect it.

The NCH's spring "what's on" brochure devotes a full four pages to the event and names six composers. Gráinne Mulvey, Deirdre Gribbin, Unsuk Chin, Kevin Volans, David Fennessy and James MacMillan, an evenly gender-balanced list. But not a single concert listing is provided.

The RTÉ website is a complete blank when it comes to festival events, but five concerts are already on sale on the NCH website.

The big presence is Scottish composer MacMillan, who will conduct the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and RTÉ Concert Orchestra in his Credo, and Chamber Choir Ireland and the Irish Chamber Orchestra in his Stabat Mater.

Ryan McAdams conducts the concert orchestra in Gribbin's percussion concerto Goliath, with Toby Kearney as soloist. David Brophy conducts the symphony orchestra in Chin's Su, and Volans's new Gol na mBan san ár. Both works involve a marriage of orchestra and traditional instruments, the Chinese cheng (played by Wu Wei) and the Irish uilleann pipes (played by David Power).

Fennessy's Conquest of the Useless will feature Fennessy himself on electric guitar among the soloists with the symphony orchestra under Jean Derover and also in the festival line-up is a gig by This is Not This Heat with Daniel O'Sullivan.

Festival director John Harris is among those concerned about the orchestral future in RTÉ. He likened the situation to an ecosystem in which the RTÉ orchestras function as the big trees. Remove one of those trees, he told me, and you're likely to wipe out a wide range of the activity that flourished under its canopy.

The new Irish National Opera company that’s due to unveil its 2018 programme next month will also be using the RTÉ orchestras. The threat to its schedule is even greater than that to New Music Dublin.