Some new year resolutions the NCH and RTÉ should consider

The NCH needs to give greater prominence to the music in its promotion and RTÉ needs to be braver about new music

The new year is always a time for a special kind of reflection. We think about the events and achievements of the past 12 months and look forward to a different future. We embrace the idea of change, make idealistic resolutions, find ways to be optimistic about betterment. I have no idea who in positions of artistic power has made new year musical resolutions. But I do have a few notions about how things might be changed for the better, and they’re prescriptive in a general way rather than nit-pickingly detailed.

The first concerns the issues embodied in Marshall McLuhan’s great phrase from the 1960s, “The medium is the message”. And, no, I’m not trying to make any great statement about music and its putative messages. I’m thinking of a simpler matter; the fact that we often seem to be faced with a McLuhan-style merger between concerts and music. Or, more specifically, that the thinking of our musical planners sometimes seems more focused on the event than on its content.

Unasked for advice

Back in the 1990s I was invited to lunch by Judith Woodworth, then the director of the National Concert Hall, along with one of the hall's board members, Pat Heneghan.

I saw the lunch as a kind of brain-picking exercise. I had written critically about the NCH’s policy and achievements. The 1993 headline “What ails the NCH?” gives a flavour of what was involved. The hall’s management decided to beard the lion, be clear and explicit about their plans and aspirations and deal first-hand with the issues I had already raised.


I made a simple resolution in advance of the lunch. I decided not to raise any issues unless I was asked. I would respond rather than lead. And if I was asked, I would try to express my concerns as a single issue.

I managed to keep to my plan, and, when the inevitable question came, I explained that the big problem I had was that music itself – composers and their works – were way down the agenda in the NCH’s own promotional activities.

Woodworth’s response was interesting and unexpected. She started to tell me about all of the hall’s concerns and achievements in the promotion of Irish music and Irish composers. I hadn’t mentioned the word “Irish”, I pointed out.

The hall ran celebrity concerts, in which the celebrities were the selling point, not the music. The hall regularly ran newspaper advertisements in which not a single piece of music would be identified. I can still remember the example I gave her, a programme of piano quartets by Beethoven, Schumann and Fauré, given in March 1994 by Philippe Cassard and friends. The newspaper advertisement mentioned only the composers' names, in spite of the fact that all three had written more than one piano quartet. To me, this was the equivalent of the Abbey or Gate advertising a play by Beckett, Synge or Shakespeare without giving its title.

Things have improved since then. But the composer and the individual work still remain down the agenda in Earlsfort Terrace. The most recent NCH newspaper advertisements that I’ve seen fail to identify a single work in listings that cover most of January’s events.

What concerns me is that, while the concert is the medium, it’s not actually the message. And beyond that, the specifics matter, too. The audiences for Beethoven’s First and Ninth Symphonies (or Dvorak’s or Bruckner’s) are different, and, in all three cases, much bigger for the Ninths than the Firsts.

Yes, I’m sure there are people with such an appetite for music that they will take it all in good faith. And I’m equally sure that there are people who will happily take a group of composers’ names as an indication that a particular concert is likely to be to their taste. The same might well be true if theatres only advertised the names of playwrights and not of plays. But who would want to take that risk?

New music

The bigger point is that the advertising reflects the thinking. And the NCH is not unique in this way. So betterment number one for 2015 would be to see the NCH set a lead in the way it thinks about music, specifically about composers and their works.

It was the current chief executive of the National Concert Hall, Simon Taylor, who was running the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra when, in 1999, the orchestra started a series of Explorer concerts focusing on new music. That later transformed into what are now the Horizons concerts, which deal with a double issue, the place of Irish music and the place of non-Irish contemporary music in the orchestra's schedule. The NSO chooses composers to curate the concerts, and asks them to include music that has influenced them.

The snag with the Horizons concerts was obvious from the outset: the NSO is effectively outsourcing the planning of a major strand of contemporary music. When the national broadcaster ran the RTÉ Living Music Festival (2002-2008) it also outsourced the artistic direction, and the New Music Dublin Festival, in which it is a major partner, follows the same lines. You can view a video on YouTube from the director of this year’s festival, David Lang, in which he talks about the process, that is, what he decided to do when he was asked to curate the festival, which takes place on March 6th and 7th.

To me this speaks badly of RTÉ’s commitment to and understanding of new music. It’s effectively an admission that there is insufficient in-house expertise to deal with the programming of the music of our own time.

Is there, I wonder, another national broadcaster in Europe where such a situation prevails? The European norm is for broadcasters with orchestras – that is, non-commercial music promoters – to lead the field in the area of new music, to take risks that other kinds of musical promoters are precluded from.

For too long, RTÉ has had the air of an organisation dealing with new music out of a sense of duty rather than genuine interest. Betterment number two would be for RTÉ to find a way to bring contemporary music – not just from Ireland but from around the world – closer to the heart of its live music output.