GERARD HOWLIN: Lack of investment will sound death knell for future of orchestra

RTÉ Concert Orchestra

Listening, especially listening live, to a symphony orchestra moving through waves of music at full sail is to be borne by sound to another world, writes Gerard Howlin.

To have the experience once is thereafter to have a repertoire of feeling unobtainable from any other sensation. The symphony orchestra is the expression of a unity and cohesion unique in art.

Music of course, at least on that scale, is about money. Thence the publication on Monday by RTÉ of RTÉ Orchestras: Ensuring a sustainable future.

Its key recommendation is that “the National Symphony Orchestra should be a national cultural institution, in its own right or within the National Concert Hall”. It also said that RTÉ Concert Orchestra should stay with the broadcaster. This matters because of us. To be able to access art is essential for citizenship.

Big Tom McBride was mourned last week because his music articulated feelings that people want to emote. ‘Four Country Roads’ and other songs said things people felt but left unsaid.

That is the power of music. It says to and for us what many do not have the language to voice. Symphony is simply a summation, with instruments on an extraordinarily sophisticated scale, of that power.

We have a National Concert Hall set up independently as a national cultural institution and a National Symphony Orchestra within RTÉ for which has legislative responsibility for it. What we don’t have — the overuse of the word national in the title of both aside — is a national platform to enable audiences around the country experience a symphony orchestra.

There is nothing for Glenamaddy here now but clearly Glenamaddy loves music. This needs to change.

The National Concert Hall, despite its best intentions, is catering to a caricature of a middle-class, middle-aged and older, south Dublin audience. I come from the north side so I just escape one part of that skit.

The NCH is currently a home, albeit an inadequate one for RTÉ’s National Symphony Orchestra. It has its own programme which is limited by funds and capacity and it is a hall for hire, the better to wash its face.

National Symphony Orchestra
National Symphony Orchestra

RTÉ’s symphony orchestra is now on a European B list, at best.

It debatable whether what’s hired in, adds much to a national cultural institution. But needs must.

It has struggled for decades. Arguably the last significant change for the orchestra was in 1981 when the National Concert Hall opened. That was a huge move-on in the Ireland of the time, but it is times past now.

The Hall is past its sell-by date as music infrastructure and the orchestras including the symphony orchestra have languished if not unloved, then certainly underfunded in RTÉ.

Twenty-two years ago then arts minister, Michael D Higgins, commissioned the Piano Report. It recommended that “The NSO should be established by law under an independent Board answerable directly to the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht”.

Monday’s report from Helen Boaden and Mediatique is learnings from Piano for slow learners.

Then the symphony orchestra was loath to leave an RTÉ so flush with funds, it was culturally, in comparative terms a gold rush town. But it was fool’s gold. Not only did the boom not last, the underlying broadcasting model is bust.

Booms may return but RTÉ will not benefit in-scale as it did in the past. There is no sign of movement on the licence fee, and any eventual increase will be incremental.

Orchestras are ancillary in RTÉ. The main recurring investment besides money is a lack of ambition. There may be a sense of obligation, but there is no sense of mission. Compare this with the mission the broadcaster clearly has on news and current affairs or TV entertainment.

For years now the orchestra’s top line achievement has been to survive. All the while, a symphony orchestra prefixed with the title of ‘national’ has contracted to Dublin, south Dublin especially and the aged most of all. I include myself among the latter.

If there is a lot to regret, there is now hope. Firstly there is the fact of the report.

Secondly, there is an apparently warm welcome from culture minister Josepha Madigan and communications minster Denis Naughten. He, of course, would be delighted to pass on the bill to Madigan, from an RTÉ he is struggling to financially refloat. Her welcome is key though.

Minister for Culture, Heritage & GaeltachtJosepha Madigan.
Minister for Culture, Heritage & Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan.

The latest report says that €4m a year is required to make this move-on a reality artistically. That means more players. It means touring to the people who pay for its very existence, something which hasn’t happened for years.

In tandem, there are funds of €78m and plans announced under Project Ireland 2040 to redevelop the National Concert Hall campus. Scheduled for completion by 2022 this would give that national cultural institution the physical capacity to ground its national prefix in a better reality. Capital funding is the easy bit. Current funding what matters most in the arts.

It requires an ambitious educational programme and a real mission for audience development.

By 2025, we want an enhanced National Symphony Orchestra, playing on a par with the Halle in Manchester, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra or the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

In terms of scale, these are fair comparisons. The metropolitan area of Manchester has 2.5 million people, Liverpool 2.2 million, and Birmingham 3.6 million. This is can-do stuff for us but it requires mission change.

Part of that mission change has to be a real commitment by the Government of recurring current funding for the arts. The Arts Council, under chairwoman Sheila Pratschke, has made a step change for opera in Ireland, in establishing Irish National Opera.

It’s early days in what is still year one. But its calendar in 2018 includes Wexford, Kilkenny, Navan, Sligo, Tralee, Galway, Dun Laoghaire, Limerick, Cork, Letterkenny, and London.

That’s what a national company feels like. The people who pay, get to see. It’s the ambition that attracts the best players, the principal conductors, and the invitations from abroad that flow into Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham.

If the symphony orchestra moves on, it’s important that the concert orchestra is not left behind in RTÉ even more bereft. Smaller, more flexible and with a past among the old radio light orchestras.

The concert orchestra — its title is outdated — has lost a once strong relationship with daytime broadcasting. It has been cut adrift and made to eke out a precarious identity for itself.

There is an onus on RTÉ, and on Communications minister Denis Naughten to ensure that change translates into clear ambition for the smaller orchestra. How will it interact with rapidly changing broadcasting, in future? That needs to be clearly answered.

This is the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the two orchestras. They were set up for the audience, which is all of us. To experience live music, at its very best, on that scale is a powerful unforgettable thing.


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