Why we need a new State-funded national orchestra

RTÉ’s role as ‘primary custodian’ of symphonic music must be challenged

People ask me questions all the time. Well, not literally. But, since my face is known, people I’ve never met do regularly come up to me at concerts with a wide range of musical queries. What did I think of the concert? What is the name of the encore that has just been played?

Some want to see what I make of the latest rumour circulating on the grapevine. Others just want to tell me about the fabulous concert or opera they heard recently in Vienna or Prague or London.

The strangest of these contacts stands out by the proverbial mile. I was asked if I could identify a piece that someone had heard on the radio in the 1940s. I offered to try, but the barriers were insuperable.

They could not remember how it went, and they were not able to sing or whistle any part of it for me. But somehow or other they were still in thrall to the effect it had had on them all those years ago.


I'm well familiar with that effect. Parts of Otto Klemperer's 1955 recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony imprinted themselves indelibly on me in my teens. An old Zimbler Sinfonietta recording of Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question did it to me in my 20s, as did Maro Ajemian's recording of Alan Hovhaness's piano concerto Lousadzak with Carlos Surinach conducting and William Masselos's 1960s recording of Charles Ives's First Piano Sonata. These are all now available on YouTube if you want to sample them for yourself.

A St Francis Xavier Hall performance of Saint-Saëns's Second Piano Concerto by Veronica McSwiney did it for one of my brothers. Fortunately for him, he remembered the music as well as the effect. When it came to the imprint from the 1940s I was relieved to find out that I was just the latest in a long list of people who had failed miserably to divine the identity of the elusive work.

The questioners of 2018 were mostly worked up about just a single issue, the future of the RTÉ orchestras. Is it true, people kept asking me, that RTÉ was going to disband the RTÉ Concert Orchestra? And if so, what will the effect actually be?

Truth or falsity

To be fair, you have to assume that no one actually knows. Those RTÉ executives who confidently predicted that there would be only one orchestra by June have backtracked on their claims. I doubt if this has anything to do with the truth or falsity of what they said but rather with the fact that their bosses disapproved of their revelation.

The formal process of the orchestral review commissioned by RTÉ is under way and is due for completion in February. The terms of reference for that review set out the scope of that undertaking.

The gloomy doubters might find themselves unexpectedly heartened by the details of these various headings.

The key context set out for the review is that “RTÉ’s financial challenges are well-known and it is currently undergoing a significant restructuring programme with a view to shrinking the organisation and evolving into a smaller, leaner public service media organisation.”

Beyond that, the point is made that “currently there are numerous vacancies in the orchestras (musicians and management) and a number people have applied for redundancy under RTÉ’s Voluntary Exit Programme (VEP 2017)”.

The review’s objective is “to put forward the optimal solution for the effective, efficient and sustainable delivery of high-quality orchestral services by RTÉ”.

RTÉ wants the review to include research (“review of existing reports, studies, international best practice and different business/operating models”) and consultation (“with internal and external stakeholders and EBU [European Broadcasting Union] peers”).

The review has been given five headings to examine. These are “audience needs and regional access”, “optimising quality and range”, “governance”, “operations and costs” and “revenue opportunities”.

Gloomy doubters

The gloomy doubters might find themselves unexpectedly heartened by the details of these various headings. The review will “consider how to attract new and broader audiences and ways to increase RTÉ orchestras’ regional activity and profile” and also “how the quality of performers and output can be developed to international standards such that conductors and soloists of the highest calibre can be attracted to Ireland” – a rare admission from RTÉ that its musical offerings are genuinely in need of improvement.

But the silence from the Ministers most directly concerned does not bode well

But don’t clink your glasses just yet. The final section is headed “Deliverables” and it seeks recommendations “regarding the best configuration of its orchestras and staff for RTÉ to deliver its objects, with due regard for the key issues outlined above”, and adds that “The recommendations must be practical, sustainable and bound by the scope and constraints outlined above.”

In other words all of those high ideals are secondary to “shrinking the organisation” in the face of RTÉ’s “financial challenges”. From RTÉ’s perspective, the issues could hardly be clearer. Even with just one orchestra, it will still retain its position as “the primary custodian of symphonic music in Ireland”, looking after national musical interests in the way Aer Lingus handled flights before the advent of Ryanair and Telecom Éireann did communications before its market was opened up to competition.

Symphonic provision

It’s RTÉ’s role as “primary custodian” that really needs to be challenged. RTÉ’s musical reorganisation may look after RTÉ’s needs. But in terms of national symphonic provision, it’s going to take Ireland back to the time of the second World War, before the two RTÉ orchestras were established.

The supportive words from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, and the probing Dáil questioning of Labour's Joan Burton are all heartening. But the silence from the Ministers most directly concerned – Denis Naughten in communications, Heather Humphreys and later Josepha Madigan in culture – not to mention the Arts Council, does not bode well, though they may be holding fire until the review is published.

If RTÉ does what the world expects it to to, what we will actually need is a new, genuinely national orchestra, directly funded by the State, just as most of our essential national cultural institutions are. It will be interesting to see if any of our politicians will be brave enough to start that particular ball rolling.  mdervan@irishtimes.com