Nice job, shame about the place


THE AIR of cheerful, committed comraderie in the Royal Irish Academy of Music owes everything to music and the enthusiastic nurturing of director John O'Conor. It certainly doesn't owe a thing to the building which houses it.

Number 36 Westland Row, Dublin, is more than 200 years old, decayed, damply labyrinthine and deplorably short of the instruments and funding needed for it to function properly.

"I took this job two years ago intending to make artistic decisions. I seem to have done nothing but look for money." Money to change what he calls the "shit brown" colour of the walls, plaster the holes, get rid of the damp, provide decent rehearsal rooms. Money to buy instruments.

In the wholly inadequate Dagg Hall he stops by a Steinway. "We were able to buy this two years ago. God knows when we'll be able to buy another. For every teaching hour I need £1,000. If I don't get money I can't afford to take in students."

O'Conor does not exaggerate and nor does he mince words. His passion for the RIAM, for its students and for the future of music in Ireland is unequivocal. So is his determination to do something about all three.

For the future of music in Ireland, he believes "we need a National Conservatoire, an Irish Academy for the Performing Arts. We're the only country in western Europe, apart perhaps from Lichtenstein, which doesn't have one.

"We have young energy and talent and the chance to set up something extraordinarily rich and valuable."

On the Academy's role, he points out that "our BA in music performance has been ratified by DCU and last year we started a Masters' in music performance. We've now got our first American student doing a B.Mus and have about: 15 enquiries from around the world. All this while some of our pianos are 30 years old and played out..."

About the curriculum for the new performance based Leaving Certificate he has hopes, and fears. "It's obviously more user friendly, but I wonder how it will deal with students of different abilities. If one sings a pop song and another plays a piano concerto how is the marking system going to work?"

On a broader level he's "appalled at how few schools are doing music. I know of schools getting rid of music teachers: and that music teaching is mostly concentrated in feepaying schools. The arts are still undervalued in Irish education."

John O'Conor's conviction that the country needs a conservatoire is not new. It dates from his return to Ireland in 1976 after five years of study and acclaim in Vienna. He feels that in the years since, the music scene has changed and made the need even greater.

He stresses points made in the PIANO report on provisions for orchestras and ensembles, published earlier this year.

"The feeling is that the IAPA should serve all the performing arts and be an academy for the whole of Ireland, working in unison with the Northern Ireland Arts Council."

His vision would take concrete reality in the UCD premises in Earlsfort Terrace.

"Together with the Concert Hall it could become a centre for the arts which would be a source of national pride. All it needs is a politician with the courage to say it's going to happen.

His smile widens. "I know that if I push hard enough someone will eventually have enough power and inspiration to go for it."

On a more sober note, he laments again the ambiguity of the marking system for Leaving Certificate music. His younger son, Keith, will sit his Leaving Cert this year and O'Conor is not sure he will get an A in music.

"If he was doing honours maths he could be sure, once he knew his subject, that he would get the marks. With music there's no way of knowing. It's important that the Department of Education understand what is going on and be anxious to help. What the new curriculum needs is enlightenment and encouragement for parents and teachers. But on a broader level, he is positive about the future of music in Ireland. "When I came back to Ireland in 1976 the attitude was one of pity. O'Conor didn't make it, he had to come home", they said.

"Writers could be successful and live here, but it wasn't the thing for a musician to make it and live at home. All of that's changed. For me, now, the whole point of my being director of the Academy is that I can help make it easier for young people on the way up.

"I hate the idea of music being elitist, something for the privileged few. The reality is that most top musicians come from working and middle class backgrounds."