Testing the theory: does Ireland really punch above its musical weight?

It is often said we outstrip expectations when it comes to producing talent. But is it true?

It's an oft-heard contention: given the small size of the country, we punch above our weight when it comes to producing musicians. People usually point to the Irish singers with significant international careers: Ann Murray, Patricia Bardon, Giselle Allen, Ailish Tynan, Tara Erraught and Claudia Boyle. They mention John O'Conor, Barry Douglas, Finghin Collins among pianists. And they sit back in the comfortable glow of having delivered a QED.

I heard it again recently in conversation at a concert and rose to the bait by asking if it was really true. It is not easy to gauge with precision. How do you assess the success of a musical career? By the fees commanded? The number of engagements? The prestige of the venues? Audience or critical adulation? Just think of the whole David Helfgott phenomenon – yes, he's still on the road – to get a sense of the messiness involved.

The simplest of measures, of course, is the basic business of getting engagements in the first place. I wouldn’t like to suggest that this be used as a measure of artistic quality – that if you’re not being hired you can’t be any good. But, for the purposes of a rough calculation, it is useful as a way of making a comparison with musicians from other small countries.

An albeit unscientific look at the schedules of three major international orchestras and one world-renowned venue – the Berlin and New York Philharmonics, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Wigmore Hall – is interesting. (The last two of these institutions are managed by Irish people: Kathryn McDowell is the managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra, and John Gilhooly is the director of the Wigmore Hall.)


The Irish presence in the schedules in New York and Berlin is zero, and the only Irish performer to feature as soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra is pianist Barry Douglas. Relatively small countries with representation in the schedules of the three orchestras include Albania, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, Latvia, Slovakia, Sweden, Norway, Ossetia, and Macedonia, with the Finns, Swedes and Norwegians making the most appearances.

Given the closesness of London, the picture is rather brighter at the Wigmore Hall, which had the busiest of the schedules examined, and where the Irish presence includes Finghin Collins, Barry Douglas, Emer McDonough, Ann Murray, Robin Tritschler, Ailish Tynan and Peter Whelan. Yet, in spite of their countries' greater remoteness, there are also eight Finns and seven Norwegians in the list.

The question is this: who are we comparing ourselves with when we pat ourselves on the back about our musical successes? Definitely not the Nordic countries or the Baltic states, or the smaller countries of middle or eastern Europe. The musical infrastructure in those parts, as in most European countries, is far better developed than it is in Ireland.

We don’t have a full-scale opera company that works on a year-round basis. We only have a single symphony orchestra. And, most damaging of all, our national music-education system remains a bottom-of-the-class affair, in spite of the excellent work done by individual teachers and institutions. The situation in our primary and secondary schools remains a disgrace. In that context, I suppose you might contend that we punch above our weight, but not in any other. If you have any statistical evidence to the contrary, please email it to the address below.

Challenges of youth
There was a time when RTÉ went out of its way to compensate for some of our national shortcomings. In the days of the RTÉ Musician of the Future Competition, access to the airwaves was extraordinarily open for young performers. In fact, there was a time when young performers were over-represented on RTÉ radio. The demise of that competition and the effective abandonment of studio recordings has made for a much tougher environment.

But for young conductors, the situation has always been difficult, save for the years when the NSO had a post for an assistant conductor. There were just two beneficiaries of this scheme, and its success can be judged by their success. David Brophy has gone on to become principal conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Gavin Maloney is now the mainstay of the contemporary music in the NSO's Horizons series. Neither has yet made a major international breakthrough.

The assistant conductorship was made for the likes of Conor Palliser, who last week conducted the RTÉCO in a programme of Sibelius (Finlandia), Grieg (Peer Gynt Suite No 1), Tchaikovsky (the Rococo Variations for cello and orchestra, with a rather strained William Butt) and Walton (Façade Suite No 2).

Palliser conducts like the young man he is. He looks for an orchestral sound that is clean and vivid. His phrasing is on the stiff end of matter-of-fact, and he's not afraid to indulge in extreme ideas that take his fancy, the ponderous opening of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King being the most obvious example.

What he’ll turn into is anybody’s guess at this stage. But you can be sure that getting the necessary professional experience is going to be an uphill struggle. Before young conductors get a chance to try and persuade a professional orchestra of the validity of their vision, they have to persuade orchestral manager to take a risk of exposing an orchestra to them in the first place. And that’s the bigger challenge.

The Adams family
David Adams rounded off the 40th annual organ series in St Michael's, Dún Laoghaire, on Sunday in fine style. His programme was a maze of connections, with references to organists who had played at St Michael's over the years, the people who have planned the programmes (including a Planxty Connolly of his own arrangement for the series' current director, David Connolly), a new work by his son Sebastian (whose Work for Organ includes a demanding pedal cadenza to show off the quality of his father's footwork), and lively arrangements by Fergus Johnston (Three Bulgarian Dances) and Andrew Johnstone (of Piazzolla's Muerte del Angel).

In his spoken introduction, Adams told a story about Sebastian as a toddler, playing energetic air organ on an upturned toy. When asked what he was doing, he said he was exhausted, because he'd been practising Gerald Barry's The Chair. This piece was once declared unplayable, but Adams snr mastered it to the composer's satisfaction. As he showed on Sunday, he still has the stamina to make the devilish machines of Barry's music run at full tilt.