The case for two orchestras in Ireland

The future of the two RTÉ orchestras is all about keeping faith

The first time I witnessed ballistic was in 1981. Charles Haughey had just appointed Fred O'Donovan to the chairs of both the RTÉ Authority and the new National Concert Hall. O'Donovan was, in effect, Ireland's Entertainment Man. And I watched as he tore Gerard Victory, RTÉ's director of music, to little pieces.

Victory was arguing that RTÉ had a dual responsibility: to educate the public and to support Irish composers. So O’Donovan eviscerated him not once, but twice. “Responsibility? Educate? Don’t give me that guff. It’s fiddles and flutes. It’s Mozart and Tchaikovsky. It’s bums on seats. Get out!”

The advent of the National Concert Hall changed the relationship of the performing groups to both their public and their broadcasting function. It was a turning point in the fortunes of today’s National Symphony Orchestra and Concert Orchestra. Within a few months Victory’s resignation had inaugurated a period of uncertainty persisting up to the present day.

Helen Boaden, former head of BBC Radio, has been hired to resolve that uncertainty and tell RTÉ how to safeguard its two orchestras while recognising the financial constraints which have brought RTÉ into troubled waters.

But her terms of reference have a designer fault. Assuming that Boaden is sensitive to the nature and needs of two quite different types of orchestra – one (the NSO) devoted to the symphonic repertoire, the other (the Concert Orchestra) to a much wider range of music – she will also be familiar from her BBC institutional experience with the changing fortunes of a “national” broadcaster amid the realities of tomorrow’s media world.

Boaden isn't the first top-ranking BBC consultant to address these problems. In 1961 Radio Éireann (as it then was) asked George Willoughby, the BBC's concerts manager, to assess the status of the fledgling symphony orchestra. Willoughby advised that it should be repositioned as the "National Orchestra of Ireland". He also observed that if it was to achieve international status the strings sections should be increased from 44 to 60 players, giving a total orchestra of 88.

Then director-general Ed Roth accordingly advised the RTÉ Authority that the orchestra required "an increase in money and a specific and clear-cut direction". To disband the symphony orchestra "would create a cultural vacuum of serious proportions".

Fast forward to 1989, when someone finally took note of Willoughby. RTÉ announced it had “decided to reaffirm its commitment to orchestral activity by guaranteeing the future of the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra and establishing it as Ireland’s national symphony”. The new NSO would have 93 players. “This confirms RTÉ’s determination to fulfil a public service obligation not only over the airwaves but also in the concert hall and in the community. Building on the established strengths of the RTÉ Symphony means that the human and musical resources of a fine and mature ensemble, with its huge collective experience, can be harnessed to the realisation of this new initiative.”

I wrote those press releases, and I really meant it. Having grown up in the woodwork of RTÉ Music – 10 years as concerts manager – and today still associated with the NSO, I know that in its heart of hearts the organisation cherishes and admires the orchestras but the facts of life, spelled out many times by director-general Dee Forbes, argue against care and admiration. He who passionately audits the paperclips and asks “Why do you need two orchestras when one will do?” is king.

A study by the National Treasury Management Agency in 2014 made it clear that the orchestras regularly exceeded their targets and compared favourably with other European broadcasting orchestras. It concluded wryly that "it is not an area that efficiency increases can easily be achieved as one cannot play a concert at a faster rate than the previous year".

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says he's concerned about the orchestras: but for him to refer the matter to the Minister for the Arts displays an ignorance of where the NSO actually lives. The Minister has no responsibility whatever for the orchestras and Heather Humphreys – who has since moved on to Business, Enterprise, and Innovation – was happy to say so in the Dáil.

The Minister for Communications Denis Naughten is responsible for RTÉ and the orchestras. So there is also a mismatch between Government policy and the realities in which RTÉ finds itself.

Quite apart from the fact that most politicians don’t know their harp from their oboe, the Government’s commitment to doubling arts funding is also irrelevant, since the orchestras receive no public funding outside RTÉ.

Creative Ireland – the Government’s culture initiative – which the Taoiseach rules out as a funder for orchestras, contains as many windy words as a gale warning.

At present, the NSO is running on 73 players – that’s the pre-1989 level. For any symphony orchestra, let alone one hoping to hold up its international head, that is unsustainable. It offers no job opportunities for young Irish players, it is unattractive to top-level soloists and conductors, and it is counterproductive in terms of its appeal to the concert-going public.

RTÉ has said that Boaden's report will not necessarily result in job losses. There are at present 16 vacancies in the orchestras that will not be filled. In November, Gareth Hudson, the acting manager of the Concert Orchestra, stated that a further 15 redundancies could be anticipated. If Hudson's projection is correct, then Boaden's job becomes impossible, since it's inconceivable that RTÉ could run the NSO and the Concert Orchestra with a total of less than 100 players. Which is where the rumour of a "pool" of musicians, supplying the dual needs of the orchestras, comes in. To create a "pool" would be so incongruous in terms of "best practice" that RTÉ would become an international joke.

For 70 years RTÉ has provided a gracious home for music. But the media environment and the general expectation of entertainment have changed so radically that the relationship between an orchestra and a broadcaster has to evolve or die.

In 1994 when it looked as if the NSO might be taken away from RTÉ, William Dowdall (principal flute) stated: "Many members of the NSO could play in any orchestra in the world but have made a conscious decision to remain in this country with the ambition that some day we will be an orchestra of international reputation and stature. This ambition is eminently attainable. We have always operated in RTÉ based on the goodwill of RTÉ and we have no argument against RTÉ." That is still the position of the Musicians' Union which is affiliated to Siptu.

In the present circumstances, RTÉ, Helen Boaden and, ultimately, the Minister for Communications, find themselves in a “Sophie’s Choice” situation: choose one orchestra over the other. RTÉ cannot continue to claim the custodianship of the NSO and yet allow it to shrivel back to its pre-1989 size and condition.

The most realistic development would be to affirm the Concert Orchestra as one of the most versatile broadcasting orchestras anywhere in the world, to copperfasten its future within RTÉ and to establish the NSO on the basis it deserves as Ireland’s premier source of symphonic music.

But in addition to political will, the creation of a separate NSO governing body with statutory authority requires legislation, a management structure, guaranteed funding and an effective transitional period of at least two years.

Programming a symphony orchestra requires artistry but also business acumen, alertness to both fashion and tradition, and an intelligent interface between the administration and the artistic direction.

No management consultant could ever run an orchestra unless he or she had the empathy and the humanitarian passion that recognises and celebrates the fact that it is infinitely more complex and more challenging than a collection of 88 highly trained individuals.

If you decide to play Messiaen's Turangalîla you need to budget not only for the hire of an ondes Martenot but also someone to play it. Not cheap. But necessary, if one is to keep faith with Messiaen.

And keeping faith is what it’s all about. Keeping faith with the musicians who have dedicated their careers to this work; keeping faith with the repertoire; with new works both international and Irish; with the upcoming generations of new players from our academies and conservatoires; and keeping faith with our loyal Irish audiences.

Politicians find it difficult to keep faith. Musicians can do little else.

  • Richard Pine is the author of Music and Broadcasting in Ireland  (2005). He worked in RTE's music and public affairs divisions 1974-1999 and is now director of the Durrell Library of Corfu, where he lives

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