RTÉ Orchestra Report Illustrates Scale of Problems

RTÉ Orchestra Report Illustrates Scale of Problems

External review recommends that National Symphony Orchestra be established as cultural institution separate from RTÉ.

Following the commissioning of a ‘review of its provision of orchestral music’ last November, RTÉ has now published the report (23 April), titled RTÉ Orchestras: Ensuring a Sustainable Future. The review – prompted by RTÉ’s financial difficulties – focusses on the broadcaster’s two full-time orchestras – the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

The principal recommendation is that the National Symphony Orchestra be removed from RTÉ and established as a separate cultural institution. The Concert Orchestra would stay within the public service broadcaster.

There is an additional recommendation that the RTÉ NSO could become ‘part of the National Concert Hall’, though this is not explored in detail. The RTÉ NSO’s season mainly consists of weekly concerts at the NCH. The Irish Baroque Orchestra is also based at the NCH.

The Government has already responded to the report. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten TD and the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan released a joint statement (23 April) saying that they welcome the recommendation that the RTÉ NSO be made a national cultural institution in its own right. The Ministers have requested their Departments engage with RTÉ to bring forward proposals as a priority.

While this may signal a new beginning for the NSO, the report reveals the scale of neglect of the two orchestras within RTÉ in recent years, and also how removed the NSO has become from its national remit.

Written by Helen Boaden, formerly of the BBC, and the consultancy Mediatique in London, the report notes that the RTÉ NSO currently has 68 full-time players, with 11 vacancies, far below its historical level of 90. The RTÉ CO has 5 vacancies, and a current complement of 40 players, compared to a historical level of 45. Neither has a full-time principal conductor. There are also a number of management and administrative vacancies. With regard to the NSO, the report remarks that ‘its current number of full-time musicians… makes it one of the smallest [symphony orchestras] in Europe.’

The report also emphasises how disadvantaged the orchestras have become by a lack of artistic vision. ‘With the RTÉ NSO in the middle of its second season without [a principal conductor], it continues to be the only European PSB radio orchestra lacking [one].’ The report quotes a consultation with an experienced orchestra manager in Europe who says ‘name me a successful orchestra not led by a clear artistic vision.’ 

The report further remarks on the notable decline in the number of performances by the orchestras – the NSO went from 85 to 55 between 2010 and 2016 and the CO went from 95 to 69 between 2013 and 2016 – and in particular the reduction in the number of regional performances by the NSO.

The RTÉ NSO concert schedule for 2016 comprised 55 concerts in the entire year. Of these, 52 took place within Dublin.

This is partly caused by a ‘ten-hour day’ condition in the musicians’ contracts, which means they must

… travel, rehearse, perform and travel back within ten hours. Time is calculated from the time of departure from base to time of return to base. In practice, the ten-hour day effectively precludes the orchestras visiting much of Ireland. 

The educational outreach of both orchestras has also declined significantly since 2007 – ‘both the number of events and total attendances have more than halved for the two orchestras combined.’

Lyric FM
The decline in the national presence of the orchestras has not been assisted by RTÉ’s broadcasting. Although 71% of RTÉ Lyric FM’s total broadcast hours is orchestral music, the two RTÉ orchestras are responsible for only 4%. The report states that ‘RTÉ broadcasts relatively little from the RTÉ orchestras on Lyric FM and even less on television.’

Key to the orchestras’ problems is a lack of creative direction. The report remarks that ‘Despite recent periods of creative ambition and clarity, RTÉ musicians complain that currently there is no sense of direction for either orchestra.’ The authors write: ‘We agree that it is hard to discern a strong and distinctive artistic vision for the orchestras.’

This absence of vision at the top has filtered down to the players:

Another consequence… [is] the development of a highly charged, inward and mistrustful culture in the orchestras which many people described to us and which in itself does not foster creative ambition.

The musicians also believe that the reduction in performances has affected the quality of concerts. The report states:

From our conversations with orchestra players and staff, there is a clear view that a reduction in the number of public performances has had a detrimental impact on public value and orchestral competence.

The authors of the report conclude:

The orchestras have been left in an unsustainable position of stagnation, lacking the resources and strategic planning needed to effectively fulfil a public service role.

RTÉ response
Commenting on the report, Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, Head of RTÉ Orchestras, said:

This has been an important and valuable process … As I’ve stated previously, RTÉ’s orchestras have a singular place in Irish musical heritage and have nurtured, through performance and education, generations of world class musicians. 

The report confirms this view while also recognising RTÉ’s overall funding position as it plans for the future. These recommendations offer a solution which protects and supports both orchestras, while also recognising the balance between RTE’s financial constraints and our public service role in promoting music, arts and culture. RTÉ will now give the recommendations full consideration.

Download the full report below.

Published on 24 April 2018

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