Matthew McDonald, NSO and Jaime Martín
National Concert Hall, Dublin
The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) has been in quite a turmoil for longer than anyone cares to remember. The lockdowns, with their cancellations, masks and social distancing, took a toll. Its final couple of years under the management of RTÉ saw an exodus of players and the elimination of full-time posts, an unwarranted exercise in corporate bloodletting given that the maintenance of the orchestras was one of the core uses for the money the national broadcaster receives from licence-fee payers.
Playing standards were affected by the departures of the NSO’s leader Helena Wood in 2018 and chief guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann in 2020. And when the orchestra transferred to the National Concert Hall (NCH), in January 2022, its core playing strength had been reduced from 89 to 54.
The move from RTÉ and the orchestra’s integration into the hierarchy of the NCH bred uncertainty. The failure to achieve momentum under the new management has been dispiriting. And some kind of nadir was reached in June, when the Musicians’ Union of Ireland, an affiliate of Siptu, referred “issues related to health and safety concerns” to the Workplace Relations Commission “following a failure of management to engage with union representatives on the matter”.
In July, NCH’s chief executive, Robert Read, decided that “all recruitment processes currently under way” in the orchestra would be put on hold until “credible solutions” were found for issues he had been presented with. And just over a month ago, there was a major management reshuffle.
This saw Anthony Long, the orchestra’s general manager since early 2017, take up the new position of head of strategic projects for the NCH. Nigel Flegg, head of learning and participation, has taken on the management of the orchestra and choirs in addition to existing duties. And Gary Sheehan, the head of programme planning, has been elevated to head of programme, with oversight of all programming, including the NSO.
This information is not to be found on the NCH website and the NSO’s programmes no longer list administrative or support staff. NCH, obviously, is not immune from the extraordinary secrecy that RTÉ is still so fond of. The 13 names that featured under the list of players last May has been reduced to just one: Robert Read.
Never mind. Friday’s programme under Jaime Martín, the NSO’s chief conductor, found the orchestra in better form than I’ve heard for years. Martín drove the overture to Glinka’s 1842 opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla, with edgy energy.
The Irish premiere of Gerald Barry’s From the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was given by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal double bassist, Matthew McDonald, for whom the quirkily Barryesque concerto was commissioned.
The title reflects the fact that the work’s material comes from the composer’s 2005 opera on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play and film of the same name. The new concerto is a strange conceit, mostly burying the soloist under a weight of orchestral writing that was originally conceived to partner penetrating women’s voices.
Barry has done this kind of thing before. His subversive A Piano Concerto of 1977 has the soloist miming a difficult keyboard part while the simpler writing for the orchestral pianist dominates. McDonald was heroic in the face of the impossible odds. In the second half, Martín and his players gloried in the kaleidoscopic colouring and luxuriance of Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet The Firebird.
New brooms can change the workplace atmosphere in a surprisingly short space of time. It would be nice to think that the NSO is heading into a period of the kind of security and stability, musical and managerial, that it hasn’t had for far too long.