The NSO’s future is now secure, but why no outside expertise?

Will RTÉ, which has been killing off the orchestra, now be allowed to fill key positions?

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, which is without a principal conductor and recently lost its leader, Helena Wood

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, which is without a principal conductor and recently lost its leader, Helena Wood

 

The Government has spoken about the future of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Last week the Cabinet “authorised the initiation of discussions on the implementation of the recommendations of the report on RTÉ Orchestras Ensuring a Sustainable Future by Helen Boaden and Mediatique”. And the Government “agreed in principle that the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra should come within the remit of the National Concert Hall and should not be established as a separate State body”.

The decision has to be welcomed. It secures a future for the NSO and will turn around the situation that has left the orchestra with a core of permanent players that has shrunk to a level not seen since the 1950s.

However, the exact future is anything but clear. The NSO is without a principal conductor and recently lost its leader, Helena Wood. Will RTÉ, the organisation that has been killing off the orchestra, now be allowed to fill those key positions?

And what exactly is “the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra” that the Government’s decision is about? Is it just the players? Or does it also include the RTÉ management that has served the orchestra so poorly, as documented in the Boaden review?

The initial discussions about the implementation of the report will be carried out under an oversight group from the departments of culture and communications and a working group involving RTÉ and the NCH. Ominously, last week’s announcement made no mention of outside expertise.

What the announcement will certainly do is copperfasten 2018 as a year of major change in the world of music and opera in Ireland. On top of the changes involving RTÉ’s orchestras, there was the announcement of the refurbishment and development of the NCH’s Earlsfort Terrace Site. The decision about where the NSO will hold its concerts while the building work is under way will obviously be key to the orchestra’s short-term sustainability.

Eugene Downes’s music-rich reign at Kilkenny Arts Festival comes to an end this year, and his successor has been announced as Olga Barry, who is festival producer in Kilkenny and whose CV includes stints at Crash Ensemble and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

Wexford Festival Opera is searching for an artistic director to succeed David Agler, who has held the post since 2005, while Irish National Opera emerged though the merger of Opera Theatre Company and Wide Open Opera at the beginning of the year. The changes at the top of music and opera will reach far and wide.

Calm in Cork

The West Cork Chamber Music Festival is a haven of stability by comparison. Festival director Francis Humphrys has been in situ since 1996 and has spawned further festivals for the town of Bantry, the West Cork Literary Festival, which opens on Friday; and Masters of Tradition, which opens on Wednesday, August 22nd.

Humphrys this year offered a strand of music by women, reaching back as far as Hildegard of Bingen, and coming right up to the present in Deirdre Gribbin’s new Kindersang, a co-commission with the Wigmore Hall and Goethe-Institut, with contributions from PRS Open Call. 

The piece, for soprano (Caroline Melzer) and violin (Nurit Stark), sets poems by Lotte Kramer reflecting on her experience as a child rescued from Nazi Germany and brought to England. Gribbins’s settings are both meditative and dramatic, the violin a companion and commentator to the voice, and often a magnifier of the words’ emotional thrust, as in its vertigo-inducing slides in The Red Cross Telegram

In Deportation the voice soars and dives in nightmarish terror, recalling and surveying the darkest corners and shadows of the past. A more gripping performance than that by Melzer and Stark of this piece, which is clearly intended to go from heart to heart, would be hard to imagine. 

There was also the Irish premiere of the most recent chamber work by octogenarian Sofia Gubaidulina. Her So sei es (So Be It) of 2013 is a memorial to her friend and fellow composer Viktor Suslin (1942-2012) – together with Vyacheslav Artyomov, they founded the Astraea improvisation ensemble in the Soviet Union in 1975. 

So sei es, for violin (Stark), double bass (Niek de Groot), piano (Cédric Pescia) and percussion (Luigi Gaggero) is mostly spare, desolate, spaced out, the material sometimes moving between instruments as if one is just the resonance or echo of the other. Especially memorable in this mournful, sometimes highly agitated music was the way Stark somehow managed to sound supercharged even when the tone she was producing was at its most ethereal. 

Sense of focus

Lesser-known female composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries also featured. If I had to choose between the Sextet for piano and wind by Louise Farrenc (1804-75) and the Piano Trio by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), I would opt for the substance of the Clarke over the well-crafted colour of the Farrenc. The performers in the Clarke (Andreas Reiner, violin, Ella van Poucke, cello, and Nathalia Milstein, piano) also brought the greater sense of focus to their playing. 

Highlights of the festival’s later days included the stirring, impassioned richness of mezzo-soprano Lyudmila Shkirtil with the sometimes clamorous pianist Yuri Serov in Petersburg, a striking song cycle to works by Blok by rarely heard Russian composer Georgy Sviridov (1915-98), a mesmerisingly layered account of the first book of Debussy Preludes by Philippe Cassard, and an incisively sharp communication of the miniatures of György Kurtág’s Scenes from a Novel (Melzer, Stark, de Groot, Gaggero). 

Alina Ibragimova surveyed Brahms’s violin sonatas with pianist Cédric Tiberghien (they were especially fine in the first two) and there was real magic in her miraculously delicate leadership of a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Irish violinist Mairéad Hickey also stood out in intriguingly understated performances of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat (with Christopher Marwood, cello, and Barry Douglas, piano), and Brahms’s Sextet in G (Andreas Reiner, Simone van der Giessen, Dana Zemtsov, Andreas Brantelid and Ella van Poucke). 

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