Not enough strings to Ireland’s classical bow

Our orchestras are experiencing a personnel crisis, with early exits from key posts creating a symphony of discord

The churning in Ireland's orchestras continues. The Ulster Orchestra has once again parted company early with a chief executive. Just over a year ago, Rosa Solinas took up the post and behaved like a new broom wanting to sweep away all that was old and established. As the outgoing head of music at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, she was in a position to have a unique grasp of the orchestra's situation. And that situation was anything but heart-warming.

Before she arrived, the interim chief executive had been Ed Smith, a celebrated orchestral Mr Fixit, whose brief also included the preparation of a report on how the orchestra could face into a future of declining public funding. His recommendation was stark: downsizing.

Solinas thought differently. She believed that the size of the orchestra could and should be maintained, and that a reorganisation of the administration was the way forward. She was so thorough in pursuing her policies that only a handful of the staff she inherited have survived the redundancy programme that she introduced.

Her changes included the abandonment of in-house box-office management, changes to the days and times of concerts, and the hiring of a new principal conductor. The latter is the much-lauded Rafael Payare, a product of Venezuela’s vaunted El Sistema which has been making international headlines for its successes in social reform through music, and a former member of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra. On top of that, the orchestra promised “an ambitious new programme of community engagement, including plans to introduce the celebrated El Sistema programme of social musical education to Northern Ireland’s children in 2014-15”.


The implementation of these idealistic plans now falls to the orchestra's chairman, George Bain, who has taken on the role of executive chairman since Solinas's departure. Solinas never did disclose how she hoped to fund her Venezuelan-style social conscience at a time when money was getting tighter and tighter. Bain, a former president and vice-chancellor of Queen's University Belfast, will have his work cut out to find a solution at the same time as recruiting a successor to Solinas.

Management vacuum at NSO
Solinas's predecessor, Declan McGovern, also left his post early. And he didn't even survive a full year when he landed the job of general manager of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin. The management vacuum at the NSO – and RTÉ's performing groups as a whole – is now beginning to show. Have a look at the latest calendar of events from the National Concert Hall, covering April to June, and you'll find very little about what the NSO is doing in June. The planning process has been so disrupted by McGovern's early departure that the information was simply not available in time. That's a serious blow in terms of marketing and communication, given that the NCH's printed brochure is for many people the primary source of information about what's on in the hall. The gaps will also be an interesting test of the strength of print versus internet when it comes to ticket sales.

RTÉ has, however, attempted to remedy its staff shortfall by hiring in outside help. The position of executive director of RTÉ’s orchestras, quartet and choirs has been vacant since July, the managership of the NSO since late December. And one of the orchestra’s former managers, Brian O’Rourke, is back in RTÉ, serving as assistant to the interim executive director, Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, who’s also interim general manager of the NSO.

The shorthandedness at the national broadcaster has meant that no plans have yet been announced for the recently appointed RTÉ ConTempo String Quartet. In fact, the station is so behind itself on this issue that the relevant pages on the RTÉ website still refer to the station's former chamber music ensemble, the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet. And the quartet's own website,, also still claims them as "resident quartet to Radió Telefís Éireann" and even provides a link to the RTÉ website.
Swedish trumpet
The good news is that the travails and shortfalls of orchestral management don't always get reflected in the actual music-making.

Take last Friday’s NSO programme, for instance. Sweden’s Håkan Hardenberger can be relied on to make the business of playing the trumpet seem as easy and as natural as breathing. In fact, he even likes to make the trumpet sound conversational rather than rawly, militarily assertive.

He showed his remarkable sensitivity and virtuosity in one of the repertoire's classics, Haydn's Concerto in E flat , and in one of its secrets, the 1966 concerto by the little-known French composer Robert Planel (1908-94), easy on the ear for listeners, anything but easy for performers.

Hardenberger, who's now in his early 50s, has taken to conducting as well as playing. He didn't pay much attention to the orchestra in the Haydn, where the orchestral contribution was rather routine. But his handling of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony was engagingly easy-going, concentrating on the music's colour and charm rather than its brilliance, and he was fully in tune with the sensuality of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin .

Callino String Quartet
It's been some time since I've heard the Callino String Quartet in concert, and TCD's Exam Hall on Thursday marked the first time I've managed to hear them since a number of changes in line-up led to the current formation, with Tom Hankey as second violinist.

The occasion was a concert linked to Trinity College Library's current In Tune exhibition (which runs until April 1st), and the repertoire was all chosen to highlight Trinity connections. Gerald Barry, Ina Boyle and Brian Boydell are all represented in the library's collections, and Boydell and Barry both have teaching connections, too. Shostakovich received an honorary doctorate from TCD in 1972, when Boydell was still professor of music there.

Barry's First Sorrow is unusual if not unique in ending with the players singing to their own accompaniment a Barryesque take on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star — familiar words, unfamiliar music. I've only ever heard this other-worldly passage sung by female voices, and was wondering what the addition of a male violinist might add to or detract from it. The answer on Thursday was nothing. Only the women sang.

Boyle's star burned brightest when she was young. When she died in 1967 at the age of 78 she was a forgotten figure, and it's only very recently that her music has begun to be heard again. The influence of her mentor, Ralph Vaughan Williams, on her 1934 Quartet in E minor is pretty obvious, but there is enough of substance in the work to make one want to hear it again.

The second half of the concert – Boydell's Adagio and Scherzo and Shostakovich's Third Quartet – was less satisfactory. There were rough edges to the playing which compromised balance and intonation, and suggested that the current Callino line-up has some way to go before settling down satisfactorily.