Monday 14 October 2019

The National Symphony Orchestra: Composing a vision for the future

Since RTÉ can't afford the NSO, legislation to support its future must be realistic and visionary, writes former RTÉ concerts manager Richard Pine

Paying the piper: The National Symphony Orchestra joined singers at the ‘A Nation’s Voice’ event as part of the 1916 commemorations
Paying the piper: The National Symphony Orchestra joined singers at the ‘A Nation’s Voice’ event as part of the 1916 commemorations

The recent report on the RTÉ orchestras, by former BBC executive Helen Boaden, commissioned by RTÉ, told us nothing we didn't already know: that the organisation can no longer afford to maintain the National Symphony Orchestra, and that the NSO would be best established by legislation as a separate national cultural institution.

RTÉ at present has a statutory obligation to support "orchestras" in the plural. Demonstrably, it is no longer able to do so. The days when RTÉ, as the "national broadcaster", could see itself responsible initially for one orchestra (1926-47) and then for two (since 1948) is long gone. RTÉ is no longer in a monopoly position. In fact it is no longer the "national broadcaster" except in so far as it pursues more of the public service ethos than its competitors.

The report did not address (why should it?) the crucial question: if the buck is to be passed, to whom? How is an independent body, established by legislation, to do the same job as RTÉ has been doing, or better? If funding is the crux today, how can that be avoided in future?

It is unrealistic to suggest that the new NSO's income from the exchequer can be guaranteed: the Minister for Finance will give it the minimum necessary to sustain life and, when times are good, he or she will gain votes by flaithiúlach gestures - a gala concert here, an international tour there.

The question is: how much is the minimum necessary? Is it the money currently spent by RTÉ to maintain a reduced orchestra of 73 players (as at present), with a minimal cadre of managers and promotions staff, or an orchestra equivalent in size and budget to NSOs in comparable countries?

If you cannot pay the piper, not only are you not entitled to call the tune, but you are so preoccupied with money problems that you have no idea what you want him to play. A national symphony orchestra, playing the standard repertoire week after week, without exploring new ways of interpreting that repertoire, or new work, or encouraging Irish composers, or providing an educational service, is not worth the name.

In the 1970s the joint initiative by RTÉ and the Music Association of Ireland provided what was, at the time, probably the world's finest Festival of Twentieth-Century Music. That kind of vision, uninhibited by economic or administrative considerations, and operating across the whole spectrum of "classical" music, should now be enshrined in, and enabled by, legislation.

Warning shots need to be fired

The legislation should be part of a restructuring of the arrangements for State support of cultural life. But two warning shots need to be fired at this time. The first is the suggestion that the new NSO should be organically linked to the National Concert Hall (which is its current home). But the NCH is about to enter a rebuilding phase that will see it dark for possibly the next two years. To leave the NSO in limbo for that time would be tantamount to kicking for touch and could end up with negative results.

Even more serious is the suggestion that the legislation should reflect the new government policy of "Creative Ireland". Any perusal of the "Creative Ireland" document will confirm that it is a spin-doctor's dream: it has more windy words than the average gale warning and is totally void of any commitment to concrete action.

To submit a vibrant body of cultural activity with a track record of seventy years to this would send it into a no-man's-land of intellectual and artistic inertia.

What is needed, if the buck is to be passed from RTÉ to government, is legislation that is alert to both the responsibilities and opportunities of such a body, and provides, by the most intelligent means, for latitude in the responsible interpretation of the Act.

Above all, it requires an intelligent deployment of human resources who are more highly trained than almost all other skilled workers.

It calls for due vigilance, breadth and intensity of vision, freedom to examine all avenues, and adaptability. In short, it requires precision plus élan.

The framers of the legislation should look at the many factors, and the ambitions and cautions of the key players, influencing the evolution of the Arts Act 1951, because in the sphere of music the legislation will carry all the "dreams and responsibilities" that are reflected in that Act and the way it has since been interpreted by subsequent Arts Councils.

This is how it could be:

"An Act to establish a national symphony orchestra and to provide for its management, artistic policy and promotion, and to facilitate its effective operation including performances, recruitment procedures, financial commitments, commercial activities, community relations at national and regional levels, international relations and all other matters pertaining to its functions, as laid down in this Act and in any subsequent ministerial orders or executive regulations."

When framing the enabling legislation, policy-makers would do well to look at the governance and funding sources of the Ulster Orchestra which, despite serious financial difficulties, maintains regional touring and community outreach among its core functions.

In fact, the Boaden report persistently referred to the NSO as the only such orchestra "in Ireland". This is demonstrably untrue, since Boaden clearly meant "the republic" and did not take into account Ireland's other symphony orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra, which, significantly, was reconstituted after BBC Northern Ireland decided, in 1981, that it could no longer support its own orchestra.

A strategic relationship with the Ulster Orchestra should be a key consideration of the NSO's new management.

If the new NSO is to be truly national and international - comparable not only to symphony orchestras working in other broadcasting environments but to the leading orchestras in countries of similar size as Ireland - it will need specific provision for the cost. But it cannot do so until it is of sufficient standard, and its members have sufficient morale, to make it capable of impressing discerning audiences in London, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. If nothing else, we owe today's survivors in the NSO to restore their morale, their self-confidence and something they have not had for a long time - a vision of the future that can actually be achieved.

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