Room at the top: another departure from RTÉ’s performing groups

Several key vacancies persist at the top of RTÉ’s performing groups, and one man is currently covering three roles

It was so quick and quiet that you might not have noticed it, but there’s been a major departure from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Two days before Christmas, RTÉ announced that general manager Declan McGovern was leaving. The general manager is the person with overall responsibility for the artistic, organisational and financial management of the orchestra.

The RTÉ announcement did not give a reason for the departure, but quoted McGovern as saying he was “looking forward to embarking on a number of new projects in 2014 and I wish the orchestra continued success on its journey in the years ahead”.

McGovern is moving on before the first orchestral season for which he had responsibility is even halfway through.

His departure adds to the extraordinary turnover within RTÉ's performing groups in recent years. The job of executive director has been vacant since Séamus Crimmins's retirement last summer. McGovern's predecessor, Christine Lee, resigned unexpectedly in May 2012, after less than three years in the job. Oscar Wilde's quip that "to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune . . . to lose both looks like carelessness" hardly covers it.


The NSO's outgoing principal guest conductor (Hannu Lintu) and associate artist (pianist Finghin Collins) were not replaced when they completed their terms last May. The orchestra's principal conductor, Alan Buribayev, is contracted up to May 2015, so unless a successor has already been chosen, the recruitment process is going to be severely hampered by the absence of a general manager and executive director.

The angel in all of this, at least from RTÉ management’s point of view, is Aodán Ó Dubhghaill. His full-time job is as head of RTÉ Lyric FM. But since Crimmins’s departure in July he has also been interim executive director of RTÉ’s performing groups. And since December 23rd he has been interim general manager of the RTÉ NSO. What more could any organisation ask of someone than to do three jobs rather than one?

The artistic succession in the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and RTÉ's string quartet was more smoothly managed late last year. John Wilson makes his debut as principal conductor of the RTÉ CO in a Hollywood Rhapsody programme on Thursday, January 30th. And at the beginning of the month, Galway's ensemble in residence, the ConTempo Quartet, officially succeeded the Vanbrugh Quartet as RTÉ's string quartet in residence.

Sadly, though, there has been no announcement yet of any concerts or other events in ConTempo's RTÉ residency, and no word on Wilson's RTÉ CO work beyond March. His first Dublin appearance of the year will be with the NSO, in an all-English programme (Vaughan Williams's Wasps Overture and London Symphony, plus Walton's Cello Concerto with Guy Johnston) on January 17th.

The NSO season resumes on Friday, with the Dublin debut of US conductor Jayce Ogren in John Adams (The Chairman Dances), Gershwin (the Piano Concerto with Michael McHale) and Sibelius (Second Symphony). The NSO also begins its annual Horizons series – which focuses on Irish composers – next Tuesday with a programme chosen by Rhona Clarke: her own Where the Clouds Go and Shift, with Gerald Barry's La Jalousie Taciturne and Pascal Dusapin's Go. Later concerts in the series, which is conducted by Gavin Maloney, feature Marian Ingoldsby (January 21st), Brian Irvine (28th), and Seán Clancy (February 4th).

Brand new Chamber Choir Ireland
It's more than 20 years since RTÉ's disbanding of the RTÉ Chamber Choir led to the founding of the National Chamber Choir as an independently managed replacement. It looked like an impossible undertaking, especially when initial approaches to the Arts Council for funding received little traction. But it survived through major ups and downs until its demise last month. That demise, happily, is only nominal. The choir has decided to change its name, rebranding itself as Chamber Choir Ireland.

The change, it seems, was prompted by the fact that the country was not identified in the name, and might create possible confusion when the choir was working abroad.

I have to say it never struck me as a problem. If you google National Chamber Choir, the top link is to Ireland’s National Chamber Choir, just as, if you google National Symphony Orchestra, the top link is to the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington. I would have thought that being the top Google hit would generate a sense of security in the name.

The disappearance of the word “national” strikes me to be a major loss. Most countries make significant distinctions between institutions that are national and those that are not. It’s usually a matter of status and funding.

National galleries and national theatres like being called national for a reason. It sets them apart, and declares for them a unique role and responsibility. The National Chamber Choir became genuinely national in ways the RTÉ Chamber Choir never was, and in ways the RTÉ NSO manages only through initiatives generated by external partners.

The name change seems to reflect a peculiarly anglophone concern. If your home musical organisations are called, for example, Sinfóníuhljómsveit Íslands, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI or Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, you’ll almost certainly find them performing under other names when they’re abroad.

Being the National Chamber Choir at home, and the National Chamber Choir of Ireland when abroad, is a minor adjustment by international norms.

And, of course, there’s still the hurdle of making sure that the rebranding will take hold. RTÉ created the NSO out of the RTÉ SO in 1990. It later rebranded it the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland (NSOI), which never stuck, and it’s now the RTÉ NSO. But, colloquially, it’s always been just the NSO. You can get around the choir’s new name by just calling it the Chamber Choir which, I suspect, is what people have done with the RTÉ Chamber Choir and the National Chamber Choir. We’ll see.

Next up from the choir is a mouth- watering programme under Paul Hillier of Tudor church music (including Byrd's Mass for Four Voices, and Tallis's Lamentations of Jeremiah), which will be heard in Waterford, Letterkenny and Dublin on March 6th and 8th, and April 18th respectively. There's also a concert and workshop in Limerick on May 30th and 31st, as part of the Limerick Sings festival, supported by Limerick City of Culture.