Musical heaven or middle-class haven?
When the National Concert Hall opened in September 1981 it removed one of the stigmas that had attached to Dublin. The city could no longer be described as "the only European capital without a concert hall". The current site in Earlsfort Terrace was originally earmarked as a 900-seater studio to improve the working conditions of what was then the RTE Symphony Orchestra, which had long been consigned to the acoustically execrable environs of the St Francis Xavier Hall and the Gaiety Theatre. Anyone who has heard a symphony concert played from the stages of either of these venues can only be grateful for the improvements wrought by the move to Earlsfort Terrace.
It was this sense of gratitude which governed responses to the hall when it opened, and its presence created an entirely new focus and profile for music and music-making. In the short term, this led to a widespread impression that concerts had increased in number. This wasn't actually the case, but the perception certainly helped cement the image of the hall in the public mind as a good thing. There are, of course, people who beg to differ. Ask the individuals for whom it was designed as a workplace and you'll pick up the strongest strand of dissent. It wouldn't be far off the mark to say that there's a feeling among the members of the National Symphony Orchestra that the hall may qualify as a "sick" building. Politely put, the backstage facilities are inadequate.
The stage itself is so inadequate to its primary purpose - facilitating symphony concerts - that the first two rows of the stalls are lost to a platform extension, needed simply to make space for the full orchestra to fit on the stage. Then there's the over-bright acoustics: 20 years on, there still hasn't been any serious attempt to rectify the problem, which weakens the tone of an orchestra's cello section and regularly makes the double basses sound woolly. And the noise of cooling fans from the downstairs sound control booth regularly intrudes into the enjoyment of quieter passages for people seated up to five or six rows away. In truth, however, the major issues surrounding the National Concert Hall lie elsewhere. The two most salient questions can be stated very simply. Is the actual fact of the National Concert Hall, its mere existence, really a good thing? And have the policies it has followed over the years been in the best interests of music in Ireland?
The inadequacies of the hall are not just to do with backstage facilities or acoustics. The NCH is the major national institution which links at the highest level into an international network of touring orchestras and soloists. It is the opening through which Irish audiences can most readily expect to make contact with the greatest music-making of the day. But its limited seating capacity militates against these sort of events breaking even.
The limitation on the box-office take will also be a serious barrier to the NSO in following the sort of development that the Ulster Orchestra has undertaken since the opening of the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. Work out the difference between 2,200 seats at £14 sterling to £23 sterling and 1,200 seats at £10 to £14, and you'll appreciate the extra freedom the Ulster Orchestra has in raising the quality of the conductors and soloists it works with.
The single most serious question this raises is why there has been no campaign from within - as there has been, with notable success, at the National Theatre - about the inadequacies of the National Concert Hall for the Ireland of the 21st century?
Given the venue's boards' and executives' long-term acquiescence to its range of staggering shortcomings you can reasonably ask, has the mere fact of the NCH become a barrier to the development of musical life in Ireland? Its very existence seems somehow to preclude thinking about what it really is: a stopgap solution to provide a reasonable symphony orchestra studio in the 1970s, cheaply upgraded to bear a national title in the 1980s. This is hardly what most people would want as the only state-supported venue for classical music - indeed the only dedicated venue for classical music - in the Ireland of the new millennium.
Sadly, the various boards and chief executives that have served the hall over the years seem to have had little motivation to rock the boat with an Oliver-like request for more. Indeed, as a national cultural institution, the NCH is unique in seeing itself as a receiving venue rather than as a generator of new projects. I suspect it's a fact not widely appreciated, that the NCH doesn't have any input whatsoever into most of the activity which takes place there. It hires the venue, collects a fee, co-ordinates a printed calendar of events, and takes blocks of newspaper advertising. Those areas in which it is most active - celebrity concerts and orchestral visits - are all well and good. But the commissioning of new work has at best been sporadic, and most of the major activity it has engaged in where Irish performers have been involved, has been in response to outside initiatives.
To get the flavour of how the NCH identifies itself, all you have to do is look at the "About Us" page on its website. Here's a complete list of the names mentioned: New York Philharmonic, Moscow Festival Ballet, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov, Nigel Kennedy, National Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn, Stephane Grappelli, Micheal O Suilleabh ain, Anuna, Louis Stewart, Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach, Tony Bennett, Moldovan Opera Company, Vienna Boys' Choir. That's it.
John O'Conor, Barry Douglas, Gerald Barry, eat your hearts out.
While the hall may constitute some sort of middlebrow musical heaven, there has been a side-effect that's almost sinister. The identity of the NCH is of a safe haven for music and performances of the most unchallenging type. The hall has so carefully fashioned its image and environment that much of what's most interesting and ground-breaking in music just doesn't seem to belong there any more. Perhaps, in this regard, it's significant that probably the most exciting development at the NCH in recent years has been its education and outreach work, which, by definition, often takes place off-site, in primary and secondary schools in Dublin and around the country.
With a 20th anniversary looming, there's surely no better time for a detailed examination of the National Concert Hall, and how its building and management structures serve the real needs of music in Ireland today.