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HIGH NOTES: The RTÉ Concert Orchestra performs a wide variety of work across the country.
HIGH NOTES: The RTÉ Concert Orchestra performs a wide variety of work across the country.

The RTE orchestra groups are value for money

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THE recent announcement that RTÉ has begun a ‘review of orchestral services’ has led to concern that one of the broadcaster’s orchestras is to be scrapped.

It is already lamentable in European terms that Ireland has only the two national orchestras under the aegis of RTÉ (RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and RTÉ Concert Orchestra, funded by a percentage of the licence fee) and more recently the Irish Chamber Orchestra funded by the Arts Council. There are 30 professional orchestras in Finland, a country similar in population to Ireland!

Broadcaster Ivan Yates’s disparaging comment, particularly the line “It’s only for snobs anyway”, on his Newstalk radio programme outraged the music community, and began a flurry of debate on social media.

The Irish Association of Youth Orchestras (IAYO), based in Cork, came out with a strategic response, encouraging people to contact local politicians. The IAYO takes the position that the national provision of orchestras is not a matter for RTÉ alone to decide and that the responsibility is jointly held between the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, The Arts Council, RTÉ and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. It was especially worrying, then, that in response to a Dáil question from Joan Burton, it transpired that Minister for Arts Heather Humphries “was not aware that RTÉ are making a review in relation to orchestras as part of their overall review of operations”.

SIPTU, under which the Musicians’ Union of Ireland lies, reports that RTÉ told orchestra members that, by June 2018, it will have lost a total of 31 full-time positions in the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Given the highly-skilled nature of positions within an orchestra, this is devastating.

When RTÉ announced its review, Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, Head of RTÉ Orchestras, said: “Through my work with colleagues in the European Broadcasting Union, I can see that orchestras across Europe are suffering cuts to their funding, reflecting the threat to public service media globally. RTÉ’s overall funding position is well known and it is incumbent on RTÉ to consider and assess its role in the provision of orchestral music as it plans for the future. In this context, this review will look at what our current and future audiences want, how they will engage with us, and how RTÉ’s orchestral music will be heard in venues, on screens and on radio right across the country. Helen Boaden, former Director of BBC Radio, Director of BBC News and Controller of Radio 4 will carry out the review.”

Gerry Kelly of the Cork Pops Orchestra. Picture: Gavin Browne
Gerry Kelly of the Cork Pops Orchestra. Picture: Gavin Browne

The IAYO is rightly concerned that ‘the scope of the commissioned report only deals with orchestras within the context of RTÉ and its public service obligations, specifically excluding more general considerations of orchestral provision within Ireland’.

The need for two separate orchestras within RTÉ is often not understood — and clearly not by Mr Yates.

The RTÉ NSO performs mainly symphonic and contemporary music repertoire, featuring international and Irish soloists and conductors mainly on Friday night concerts at the National Concert Hall, which are broadcast live on RTÉ Lyric FM. Prior to the economic crash, it was involved in regional tours. This has been severely restricted in the recent past.

The smaller RTÉ Concert Orchestra performs a wide variety of work, from classical to film and television music, and concerts with traditional, jazz and pop artists, and more recently collaborations with DJ Jenny Greene and Cork singer Gemma Sugrue. It performs in a wide range of locations, from the NCH to Electric Picnic.

Both orchestras perform an extensive programme of concerts for schools in the NCH and various venues throughout the country, although the touring aspect has also been restricted in the recent past.

The orchestras continue to have a huge influence in the benchmarking of musical standards nationwide and are an integral part of the musical infrastructure in the country. Many of the orchestras’ fine musicians are involved in education. The standard of playing required for an audition for either orchestra sets the performance standard for third level performance in our music colleges.

Members of both orchestras tutor members of the National Youth Orchestras of Ireland and many of these students have gone on to perform professionally in orchestras worldwide, from the New York Philharmonic to the London Symphony Orchestra.

All our local orchestras in Cork have been influenced by these wonderful musicians and from time to time will hire some in, if their schedule permits. For example, the West Cork Chamber Music festival has benefitted hugely from the availability of RTÉ musicians.

Ivan Yates’s point that all orchestras are “a waste of money” and should be self-funding is clearly a nonsense. As the manager of the Cork Pops Orchestra, a self-funding organisation, I am acutely aware how a budget restricts the type of programme one can promote, and just because I can’t afford to promote a professional performance of a Mahler symphony, doesn’t mean the people of Ireland shouldn’t have the opportunity to hear one.

Having lectured for years at the CIT Cork School of Music, it was and is a matter of great pride for the school every time a graduate has been accepted into one of our RTÉ orchestras.

The national debate about the current situation is heartening and I think the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras’ position is the correct one.