When I think of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra I often think of the man from Finglas. This particular man is an Irish Times reader who, when I wasn't a wet day working as this paper's music critic, sent me a copy of a letter he had sent to RTÉ. He wasn't renewing his subscription for the upcoming NSO season, and his letter explained exactly why.
He had no issue with the choices of conductors or soloists, nor with the music on offer. What he objected to was the way it had all been put together. He was perfectly happy with the music chosen, but he didn’t want to hear the particular programmes into which it had all been packaged.
He justified his case by taking everything on offer and repackaging the pieces into the programmes that he would like to hear. I found myself completely persuaded by his case. In every instance he seemed to have got it right. Think of him as a sort of musical Gordon Ramsay or Mary Portas: someone who could see well beneath the surface of the problem and, with a combination of common sense and expert vision, realise the potential of something that had become too tired and predictable.
Appointment of O'Kane
The man from Finglas didn't have to deal with the practicalities of the situation, of course, but I think of him whenever a new season is announced, and I'm thinking of him now, because he would have a new person to write to if the NSO's programming is still not to his taste. RTÉ has announced the appointment of John O'Kane as executive director of RTÉ's orchestras, quartet and choirs. The appointment has great potential to keep the man from Finglas, and any others like him, happier than they may have been for quite a while.
O'Kane has been a senior manager at the Arts Council for more than 10 years. Before that he was chief executive of Music Network. He began his career as a professional cellist, spent a stint as associate principal cellist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and also worked with both of RTÉ's orchestras and the Ulster Orchestra. This should mean he will have a broader understanding of player issues than any previous head of music at RTÉ.
More important, from the man from Finglas’s point of view, are O’Kane’s years with the new music ensemble Sequenza in his native Belfast, and his time with Music Network, during which he was effectively the artistic director of the ESB Vogler Spring Festival, which grew out of the Music Network-nurtured Vogler Quartet residency in Sligo.
These projects showed an artistic sense that is sound and adventurous. As the musical brain behind Sequenza, O'Kane advocated the work of Górecki (before the Dawn Upshaw recording of his Third Symphony rocketed him to fame); the Baltic composers Erkki-Sven Tüür and Peteris Vasks; and featured the work of Denmark's Hans Abrahamsen 24 years before Crash Ensemble cottoned on to him. His commitment to new music can be gauged from the New Music Dublin festival, which was an Arts Council initiative under his watch. And it was his programming in Co Sligo that put the Vogler Festival (now called Music in Drumcliffe) on the map.
He’s a discriminating and perceptive listener, and should be in a good position to bring musical perspectives to RTÉ that the broadcaster has been lacking. This has to be especially good news for the RTÉ ConTempo String Quartet. They were appointed last year, and are officially in their new role since January. But they have yet to announce a programme of activities, and they have not yet even displaced the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet on the RTÉ website. It’s as if corporate RTÉ hasn’t yet woken up to their arrival.
Not everything in O’Kane’s history is rosy. During his tenure at Music Network, the ESB ended its major sponsorship, which brought the organisation’s deficit in 2002 to €115,000. O’Kane was not the person to have to clear the deficit, because in 2003 he moved to the Arts Council. There, his enthusiastic support of the plan to create a new national opera company in Wexford (the so-called Shannon Plan), and the council’s failure to support the ministerially approved Dublin alternative, stand as particular black marks.
One of his earliest tasks will be to appoint a manager to the NSO, where RTÉ Lyric FM’s Aodán Ó Dubhghaill has been holding the fort since December. A lot of his future success is going to depend on finding the right person for that key role.
A bit of a mess in Ulster
O'Kane faces a much easier situation in Dublin than the one facing the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast. Chief executive Rosa Solinas departed prematurely earlier this month, and the consequences of her plan of offering all administrative staff voluntary redundancy late last year are now becoming clearer.
The orchestra's website lists its current vacancies: an external relations assistant; a marketing and communications executive; an education and outreach manager (for an orchestra that single-handedly announced its intention to bring Venezuela's El Sistema to Northern Ireland); a concerts and planning co-ordinator; an assistant platform attendant; a planning and projects assistant; and an orchestral manager (see ulsterorchestra.com/jobs/ administrative-vacancies).
The immediate questions are: what was the big idea in making so many changes all at once, and who is minding the store? The second one is the easier of the two. For the moment, the chairman, George Bain, has become executive chairman, until the next board meeting in June.
The orchestra would normally expect to be announcing its 2014-2015 subscription series before the end of May. But then, the Ulster Orchestra didn’t actually do a subscription series for the current season. Solinas closed the in-house box office (tickets are now sold online and through the Belfast Welcome Centre), and forced long-term supporters, whose privileges included preferred seats for the whole season, to scramble for their favourite spots on a concert-by-concert basis.
The abandonment of subscriptions has, predictably, seen a drop in attendances. Not a pretty or heartening picture at a time when arts funding is as tight as it is.