Surprise exit: what is behind the departure of RTÉ old hand Crimmins?

The bowing-out of one of RTÉ’s most experienced musical hands is a bombshell

Most music lovers in Ireland take it for granted, as if it’s the natural order of things. RTÉ is the dominant force in the country’s orchestral life, and has held that position so long – almost as long as the station itself has existed – there seems no reason to question the situation.

As the employer of some 130 professional musicians, RTÉ has an impact way beyond the realm of orchestral music. And I'm not talking about chamber music, where RTÉ's appointment of a new quartet in residence in Cork is imminent, nor choral music, where the station maintains the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and RTÉ Cór na nÓg. Nor opera, where RTÉ's involvement is again centre-stage in Dublin, with the RTÉ NSO due to play for Wide Open Opera's upcoming premiere of Raymond Deane's The Alma Fetish and John Adams's Nixon in China, and with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra involved in Dvorak's Rusalka for Lyric Opera Productions. In the area of opera, who can forget the impact of the breach between RTÉ and the Wexford Festival that led to the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Belarus replacing the RTÉ NSO in the pit at Wexford in 2001?

No. What I mean is that RTÉ musicians teach in our major academies and in our music schools, large and small. They play for choral societies, in amateur musicals and at gigs in places I don’t know about. They give concerts of chamber music and they play the newest of new music.

It is that wide reach that made last Wednesday’s unexpected announcement of the retirement of Séamus Crimmins, executive director of RTÉ’s performing groups, such a bombshell. But Ireland has no independent symphony orchestra funded by either national government or major municipality. Nor has it an orchestra to serve a permanent opera company. In fact, the largest employer of musicians in this country after RTÉ is the Defence Forces, whose establishment runs to 123. Until the late 1990s, RTÉ was actually number two to the Defence Forces, whose musical strength once ran to 215.

“After an exceptionally fulfilling and demanding six years as director of RTÉ’s orchestras, quartet and choirs,” said Crimmins in his departing statement, “I think I have done all I can to consolidate the standing of the ensembles and, in particular, to lift artistic standards while facing down unprecedented financial challenges. RTÉ’s orchestras, quartet and choirs are at the heart of the organisation’s commitment to live music and public service; long may they thrive in a secure and supportive environment.”

“Supportive” is an interesting word. The support of the performing groups is part of RTÉ’s public-service remit, part of the obligation that comes with the licence fee. RTÉ’s annual reports document the use of the licence money in an unusual way, by identifying the amount from each €160 fee that goes to the various supported activities.

In the case of the performing groups that has dropped from its 2008 peak of €11.02 to €9.26 in 2011, the last year for which an annual report has been published. No one doubts that life in RTÉ is an uphill struggle now, and the situation for the performing groups, where fixed costs are hard to reduce without damaging the fabric of the orchestras, is particularly tight. The “supportive environment” is clearly under threat.

Crimmins has worked in RTÉ since the early 1980s, where he handled the launch of RTÉ Lyric FM in 1999 before taking a secondment to the Arts Council and returning to RTÉ to head up the performing groups. He'll be a tough act to follow, if only for the reason that the road ahead is going to be particularly hard going.

His own post-RTÉ fate is fascinating. He has been appointed the new music specialist at the Arts Council. There’s no doubting that his experience should enable him to fulfil the role with unique depth and breadth. He will remain a power in the land.

Fleming to Feeney
The musical week for me began and ended with opera that wasn't quite opera, though in truth that might not be quite fair to superstar soprano Renée Fleming, whose NCH debut on Wednesday was in many ways a perfect gig. Fleming is not just a singer with a beautiful and flexible voice that is full of surprises, she is also a hostess whose patter is so suave you might almost miss how sharp some her witticisms on the behaviour of sopranos and the deaths of opera heroines are.

Her singing of a selection of Handel arias (from Semele, Samson, and Alexander Balus) was finely wrought and extremely detailed, but excessively flowery, too much to do with Fleming, too little to do with Handel. But the evening climbed steadily from there, through Strauss and Debussy to a first half peak of Delibes's Filles de Cadix, and on through Canteloube, arias from the Bohèmes of both Puccini and Leoncavallo to the quietly rivetting climax of the Ave Maria from Verdi's Otello, with what you might call pre- encores by Cilea and Zandonai to ready everyone for the encores proper.

There was much more of the atmosphere of opera, and of the presence of an operatic character onstage, in Fleming's recital than there was in the concert performance of Julie Feeney's new opera in progress, Bird, which was heard at the close of the Galway Arts Festival on Sunday.

Feeney sees opera as a story told through song, though some of us might see that as more the area of a song cycle than of opera. But opera is a wide church, reaching back to Monteverdi and beyond at one end, and to any number of adventurous extremes in the 20th and 21st centuries, not to mention the aberration of that now-forgotten 19th-century Italian composer Pietro Raimondi, who wrote a pair of operas – one a comedy, the other a tragedy – that could be performed separately, and then together, with plots and music knitting into a new whole.

Feeney's Bird, to her own libretto, inspired by Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, brings together the singer's current persona and her past, blending her current voice with the kind she used to cultivate when she was a professional choral singer with the National Chamber Choir.

One style is based on personality and presence, the other on an ability to to curb individuality in order to serve a bigger community. At the end I found myself in the position that I suspect many of Feeney’s biggest fans probably found themselves in, too. Things palled when she wasn’t singing. There wasn’t enough of her to justify the 45-minute length. Where I was sitting, the resonant acoustic of St Nicholas Collegiate Church swallowed up so many of the words that I stopped trying to decipher them. And the players in the mixed ensemble seemed seriously under-used, apart from the electric guitarist. A work in progress with a lot of work to go.

An injection of youth
Both the Irish Youth Choir, appearing in tandem with the Ulster Youth Choir (they share a conductor in Greg Beardsell) and the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland (under Rafael Payare), were in action during the week. Youth groups vary hugely from year to year, and at the moment it's the singers who are at a peak, not the instrumentalists. Beardsell even managed the feat of taking Charles Wood's Hail, gladdening light, and making it glow with an impactful brilliance that neither of the works by living composers (Elaine Agnew's sombre Tears and Enda Bates's giddy Pauper's Lament) could quite rival. Quite an achievement.