What is Really Happening at the National Concert Hall?
Last month in the Irish Times, columnist Una Mullally heaped praise on the management of the National Concert Hall for casting off its stuffy highbrow image, embracing a more eclectic range of music – The Gloaming, Laurie Anderson, James Vincent McMorrow – and leading a shake-up of ‘our previously rigid cultural venues’. Never mind the fact that the NCH has actually been doing this for many years, nobody needed any prompting to figure out which type of music is responsible for stifling diversity and occupying the stage at the expense of other more deserving genres:
As a teenager, I sang in choirs at the National Concert Hall on multiple occasions, yet for most of my adult life, the NCH felt stuffy and boring, with audiences served up slabs of music everyone had heard a million times before yet still managed to feel elitist about attending because it was in the National Concert Hall, darling. In recent years, that has changed. The best concerts I’ve seen in the NCH over the past few years have little to do with the ‘classics’.
Mullally doesn’t give any details as to what constitutes a ‘slab’ of music, but most people who go to concerts tend not to think of classical music in such crude terms. There’s obviously nothing wrong with the NCH opening up its doors to a wide range of music. After all, why should the NCH, or any venue for that matter, restrict its programming to a single genre? However, at the heart of Mullally’s article is a rather simplistic analysis that fails to comprehend what is really going on at the NCH. She seems to believe that by embracing non-classical genres the NCH is taking a brave financial and artistic risk, departing from the safe ‘crowd-pleasing classics’ and embarking on a ground-breaking curatorial experiment.
Anyone who regularly attends classical concerts at the NCH knows that nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that, these days, concerts of classical music are frequently a loss maker – particularly if they involve a symphony orchestra. In the fifteen years that I’ve been attending the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s Friday night concerts and more, I’ve noticed audience sizes diminishing to the point where the only occasions when the venue is packed for a classical concert is during the International Celebrity Concert Series or when one of that tiny band of genuinely ‘crowd-pleasing classics’ – Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov’s third – are performed. When less familiar repertoire is played the turnout greatly diminishes and when genuinely challenging works are programmed the attendance plummets. A recent concert I attended – an NSO performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie – was half-full at best while concerts of contemporary ‘classical’ music, such as the recent ‘Composer Lab’ concert of new orchestral works by young Irish composers, can often be very lonely experiences indeed with vast distances separating intrepid punters dotted around the hall.
While artists like James Vincent McMorrow will continue to flourish with or without the NCH’s support, the same cannot be said for classical music. If the NCH closed its doors to popular music tomorrow it would barely register a dent in the capital’s music scene; if it did the same to classical music the result would be catastrophic. Symphony orchestras and other classical ensembles need dedicated spaces for a whole host of reasons (acoustics, stage size, equipment) and more crucially they need audiences. And so we come to what is surely the real reason behind the NCH’s change in programming. Due to the failure of the major cultural bodies in Ireland to imaginatively promote classical music to younger people and engage in proper audience development initiatives, the NCH is hosting an increasing number of non-classical gigs – where they can bank on a full house – to make up for the financial deficit incurred by dwindling numbers attending classical concerts. The most recent set of accounts would appear to corroborate this theory, showing a deficit of €293,430 for 2015, on top of less alarming losses of €4,433 for 2014 and €13,389 in 2013. Far from being some visionary new policy, it more resembles a frantic attempt to shore up the coffers.
I couldn’t agree more with Mullally when she writes that determining ‘what venues in receipt of State funding “should be doing” [based] solely on a commercial return and bums on seats is the type of thing that sees edgy art suffer and the middle-of-the-road congested.’ One of the main purposes of state funding to the arts is to promote forms of culture, which, due to their challenging nature, could not survive in a purely commercial environment. Unfortunately, Mullally has diagnosed the problem in reverse. Classical music needs state support for many reasons: it is expensive to host, not because its performers are particularly well paid (many hold down two or three jobs to make ends meet), but because of the scale of the orchestral forces involved and the rehearsal time required. In addition, far from being reliable ‘crowd-pleasers’, many works – especially modernist or contemporary pieces – are about as ‘edgy’ in musical terms as it can get and frequently subvert listeners’ expectations.
The NCH should of course welcome different types of artists as part of its aim to ‘develop and diversify programming and audiences while building on existing programming strengths’ – one of the primary goals as stated in their ‘Strategy Statement 2015–2020’. If booking in a few big names throughout the year happens to result in a better financial situation then nobody should complain. However, the danger of getting seduced by flourishing sales at the box office is that the appetite for hosting challenging classical and contemporary music will diminish. Nobody can doubt that the NCH is operating in a tough environment where having to negotiate between declining ticket sales and a risk-averse public presents many problems, but this shouldn’t sway the management from continuing to promote a diverse classical repertoire.
Much more could have been done, for instance, to promote the New Music Dublin festival which turned its spotlight on Ireland’s most renowned composer Gerald Barry. There’s no reason why the sell-out audiences that flocked to London’s Barbican to hear the world premiere of Barry’s most recent opera Alice’s Adventures Underground couldn’t be replicated at the Irish premiere in the NCH nor should it have been impossible to attract a large crowd for Thomas Adès’s Totentanz which packed out the Royal Albert Hall at the Proms back in 2013. Such music requires imaginative promotion and dedication to make it attractive to new audiences who might be open to the idea that classical music is not the elitist monolithic ‘slab’ that Mullally seems to think it is.
Published on 20 June 2017
Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.