What is the Future for the National Symphony Orchestra?
Monday 24th of January 2022 was an important day in the history of Irish music in that it marked the end of the 74-year association of the National Symphony Orchestra with the state broadcaster RTÉ. The orchestra’s transfer to the National Concert Hall was the last step in a process that began in November 2017 when RTÉ commissioned the media consultancy firm Mediatique to undertake an independent review of the broadcaster’s orchestral activities. Overseen by former director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden, the report, published in April of 2018, recommended that the NSO be transferred to the NCH and funded directly by the government. Last week’s transfer was the culmination of a near four-year process to implement Boaden’s principal recommendation.
Founded in 1948 as the Raidió Éireann Symphony Orchestra, its creation was the result of a gradual building up of the station’s musical capacities that had begun with just a septet (string sextet and piano) when Ireland’s first radio service was established in 1926. The orchestra endured a colourful history in its early years (documented here in a wonderful doctoral dissertation by Joe Kehoe) and gradually built up its strength from an initial 62 players to a figure of 89 by the early 1990s. Its ascension to the title of the ‘National Symphony Orchestra’ in 1990 was, according to Kehoe in the Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland, ‘a belated official acknowledgement of what had long been apparent: that the orchestra had, even if only by default, become an indispensable national asset.’
Despite the piecemeal development, the 1990s and 2000s constituted something of a golden period for the orchestra. Its collaboration with the Naxos label resulted in complete recordings of the symphonies of Carl Nielsen and Malcolm Arnold along with a series of orchestral recordings of Irish composers such as Gerald Barry, Raymond Deane and Seóirse Bodley amongst others. Under Gerhard Markson, who took over as principal conductor in 2001, the orchestra notched up several notable achievements with performances of complete cycles of the Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies alongside important works by Irish composers such as Gerald Barry’s opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.
Since the economic crash of 2008–9, however, the orchestra bore a disproportionate share of RTÉ’s ongoing financial difficulties and endured several years without a principal conductor and multiple vacancies that continue to remain unfilled. The list of ‘current’ players on the RTÉ website totals 72 but several of the names have long since retired indicating, rather alarmingly, that the orchestra’s current strength is closer to its inception figure of 62 in 1948 than its peak strength in the early 1990s. Not surprisingly, the reliance on freelancers to fill the gap has had a demoralising effect on the remaining full-time players who often do not know who they will be playing alongside from one week to the next.
Despite Director-General of RTÉ Dee Forbes’ contention that the day was one of ‘mixed emotions’, the real truth, I believe, is that RTÉ could not be happier that the NSO has been released from its care as it was increasingly viewed by the station as simply a financial burden. While it is true that a large part of the issues at RTÉ were due to the station’s financial predicament, the Boaden report was strongly critical of the management’s approach to the orchestra which exacerbated the problems. Operational difficulties, a lack of communication and an absence of artistic vision had resulted in what the report termed ‘the development of a highly charged, inward and mistrustful culture in the orchestras’ which greatly hindered any prospects of cultivating a creatively productive atmosphere. According to one of the players I spoke with, this attitude continued during the transfer process:
As an orchestra, we were kept in the dark all the way through the process. Even when official requests were put in, they were met with deaf ears. It was quite unsettling for the players because we had no idea of the timeline.
With the transfer having now taken place, the question on everybody’s mind is whether the orchestra will receive better treatment in their new abode than they did at RTÉ. There are a number of reasons to be quietly optimistic.
Restoring the orchestra
The first is that the current government seems to have recognised the important role that the orchestra plays in Ireland’s cultural life. Minister for Culture Catherine Martin – who studied music at Maynooth University – is acutely aware of the orchestra’s condition. During a Dáil debate last week, the Minister cited the current vacancy issue as one of the reasons for amending the National Concert Hall Act 2015 in order to strengthen the institution’s management powers over the orchestra.
At present, the playing complement is below that required to perform the full repertoire of classical programming, leading to a reliance on casual performers supplementing the members of the orchestra for many performances. This lent urgency to the task of enabling the NCH to commence the process of restoring the orchestra to full strength and their being empowered to deliver on the artistic vision outlined in the Boaden report.
This commitment has also been backed financially with the government agreeing to provide €8m in the budget to facilitate the transfer to the NCH. According to the department’s website, this figure is based on the findings of a due diligence report that estimated the annual running costs of the orchestra to be in this region. If this figure can be maintained it will be very good news indeed as the Boaden report had originally suggested a figure of just €4m in direct funding from the government to supplement fees from broadcasting rights that would continue to be paid by RTÉ.
There are also reasons to believe that, as an institution, the NCH will serve as a better home for the NSO. Over the past number of years, the NCH has managed to transform its image in the eyes of the public from an institution that had a slight whiff of snootiness about it to one that now appears much more in touch with the eclectic tastes of the ‘discerning’ music lover. Programming was identified as a key plank of the NCH’s Strategy 2015–20 document which sought to ‘develop and diversify programming and audiences while building on existing programming strengths’. Also interesting to see will be what role the NSO will play in the NCH’s future development plan which will see the government commit a figure of €78 million in phased investment towards extensive refurbishments to the Earlsfort Terrace complex including the enlargement of the main hall to 1,350 seats, a 500-seat recital hall and a dedicated rehearsal studio for the NSO.
The bottom line here is that, unlike RTÉ, the NCH is an institution whose financial outlook, being directly supported by the government on top of ticket sales, is much more secure and whose prospects are looking up.
Among the members with whom I spoke, there was the general consensus that the move to the NCH marks something of a new beginning. The orchestra’s co-leader Elaine Clark said:
The NSO is really looking forward to exploring new musical ventures with the NCH, and developing a fresh, shared vision for the nation’s classical repertoire going forward.
Although these are positive sentiments indeed, ultimately everything will depend on how the orchestra is integrated into the NCH’s operations. While few could argue that the NCH’s diversification policy has not been a success, there is always the danger, as this journal pointed out back in 2017, that box office receipts from big names in the jazz, folk and traditional worlds could distract from the commitment to build on ‘existing programming strengths’, which in other words, means classical music. Therefore, given the current atmosphere of good will, it is imperative that the NCH and the orchestra’s management seize the initiative and start to build a firm foundation for the orchestra’s future security. Here are six ideas that could possibly play a part in any future strategy for the orchestra.
1. Develop a clear plan and publish it
Whether released as a separate document or incorporated into a larger plan for the entire institution, the NCH needs to set clear targets for the NSO detailing what it hopes to achieve within the short-, medium- and long-term with regards to audience figures, repertoire, amount of new work performed, and filling of vacant posts. This should be the first priority as the NCH is receiving into its care an orchestra whose ranks have been depleted and whose current members need to see signs that existing grievances are being remedied.
2. Give the orchestra its own identity
Perhaps the sole disadvantage of moving out of the national broadcaster’s remit was the loss of the RTÉ brand. While the broadcaster may not have treated the orchestra particularly well, there was nevertheless a certain prestige and quasi-‘official’ status attached to being associated with an organisation that everybody recognises. The orchestra now needs to build a new sense of identity and purpose. One simple step in this direction would be to give the orchestra its own website with ticket-booking facilities like other well known international orchestras that are resident within a particular concert hall. This would allow the orchestra to develop its own image independent of the NCH.
3. Audience development
The past decade at RTÉ has not witnessed the emergence of a comprehensive marketing strategy for the orchestra. Admittedly, classical music does present a marketing challenge and seeking out and retaining new audience members requires a more proactive marketing approach than has been employed hitherto. One thing that has always struck me is that, despite all the tickets I have bought over the years to see the NSO perform, I never once recall getting a follow-up email letting me know what is on the following week or detailing special offers and one-off events. This contrasts with my experience of buying tickets at places like the Abbey Theatre or the Gate, where, as soon as you buy a ticket, your name is added to a mailing list that keeps you informed of the theatre’s latest productions. Adopting a targeted marketing strategy such as this one would increase the orchestra’s prospects of retaining first-time punters.
4. Contemporary music
The issue of contemporary music for the orchestra is more than just about placating composers – it is a fundamental existential question. The value of the orchestra to the national cultural heritage is greatly magnified if it can be an institution that enthusiastically promotes new work rather than falling back on the stables of the classical repertoire. As this journal documented, the last ten years have witnessed a serious falling off in the amount of contemporary music performed despite the fact that Irish composers are winning commissions and prizes internationally at a rate never before seen. Both management and the players themselves need to bear some of the responsibility for this as several composers with whom I have spoken over the years have often complained of a lack of sympathy on the part of certain sections of the orchestra for new work.
5. Outreach and education
The NSO is way behind when it comes to outreach activities that are now a standard part of most professional orchestras’ remit. One of the biggest casualties during the lean years at RTÉ was touring, which completely ceased both nationally and internationally. Aside from the obvious benefit of reaching new audiences, touring also has a positive effect on orchestra morale and acts as an important team-building exercise. Thankfully, in terms of outreach and education initiatives the NCH has a much better record than RTÉ and it was heartening to see that one of the orchestra’s first engagements in its new home was its participation with the NCH Female Conductor Programme which seeks to encourage more women to step onto to the podium.
6. Maintaining a relationship with RTÉ
Although no longer a part of RTÉ, it is vital the NSO continues to function as the de-facto broadcast orchestra of large-scale symphonic music and this will necessitate the development of a more productive relationship with RTÉ going forward. The orchestra’s broadcasts on Lyric FM are a key part of the station’s programming and are regularly listened to by classical music enthusiasts, particularly in more remote areas of the country. The danger here is that senior management at RTÉ, who do not evidently appear to see the public value of orchestral music, may decide to reduce the amount of money available for the purchase of broadcast rights to the orchestra’s performances. This would be a tremendous shame and would deprive the orchestra of a key part of its income stream that would supplement the direct funding from government.
The history of the NSO from its humble beginnings has witnessed plenty of highs and lows but there now seems to be the opportunity to put the orchestra on a firm footing for the future. While the initial signs are encouraging it remains to be seen what concrete steps will be taken in the weeks and months ahead to translate this positive energy into tangible results. Whatever does happen, it is important that the orchestra’s management adopt a policy of open ears with regard to the players, the public, composers and other stakeholders. After all, it is the ‘National’ Symphony Orchestra and it belongs to all of us.
Published on 2 February 2022
Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.