Musicians and Conductors Speak Out on RTÉ Orchestral Review

RTÉ Concert Orchestra

Musicians and Conductors Speak Out on RTÉ Orchestral Review

Growing concern from music community over implications for musical life if orchestras diminished –  we speak to conductors Fergus Sheil and Sinéad Hayes, composer and pianist Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and violinist Elizabeth Cooney, all of whom have performed with the RTÉ orchestras.

The news that RTÉ has announced a ‘review of orchestral services’ (9 November) has caused considerable concern among artists and audiences. The state broadcaster currently has responsibility for the only two full-time orchestras in the country, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. 

Artists and audiences fear that the review could lead to a diminution of orchestral provision that will have deep implications for Irish musical life.

SIPTU issued a statement on 9 November saying orchestra members have been informed that there will be a reduction in numbers.

On 2nd November, the Interim General Manager of the RTÉ CO, Gareth Hudson, informed its members that by June 2018, RTÉ will lose a total of 31 full-time positions in the RTÉ NSO and RTÉ COSuch a development would be contrary to the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 2009, which outlines ‘the objects of RTÉ’, and includes among them, ‘to establish and maintain orchestras, choirs and other cultural performing groups’.

This obligation was reiterated by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Denis Naughten, in August this year. A development of that kind would also be completely at variance with the thrust of a recent commitment by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to double arts funding over the next seven years.

The different sides of the RTÉ NSO and RTÉ CO
There is concern that the differences between the two orchestras are not appreciated.

The RTÉ NSO has traditionally focussed on performances of core classical and contemporary music repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twenty-first century, featuring international and Irish soloists and conductors, plus new commissions by contemporary composers. Its season focusses around Friday night concerts at the National Concert Hall – broadcast live on RTÉ Lyric FM, plus touring and educational outreach work. 

The RTÉ CO performs a wide variety of work, from classical to film and television music to popular music, works from musicals, new commissions, arrangements of work for traditional music, jazz and pop artists, collaborations with DJs and more. It performs in a wide range of locations from the NCH to Electric Picnic to the Galway International Arts Festival

The RTÉ announcement states that ‘The independent review will look at the best way of providing high quality and sustainable orchestral services to the Irish public, and will cover both the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.’

Financial straits
RTÉ’s announcement suggests that it is ‘financial circumstances’ at the broadcaster that have prompted the review, but the RTÉ NSO’s audiences have also declined in recent years. At the same time, the RTÉ CO has achieved a new level of national popularity through a range of collaborations and popular performances.

According to RTÉ’s 2016 annual report, the RTÉ CO performed to audiences of 111,512 with 76 performances in 2016, up from 65,300 for 79 performances in 2015, whereas the NSO performed to 53,449 people with 68 performances, down from 73,926 for 83 performances in 2015.

Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, Head of RTÉ Orchestras – commenting as part of the statement – 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.

The review will be carried out by Helen Boaden, former Director of BBC Radio, Director of BBC News and Controller of Radio 4, with the support of consultancy Mediatique.


‘Absolutely essential… It’s all part of a big ecosystem’ – Fergus Sheil
Fergus Sheil, Artistic Director of the newly-formed Irish National Opera, and author of the 2010 Arts Council report on orchestral provision, Missing a Beat, spoke to The Journal of Music:

This review is initiated by RTÉ in response to their own operational and financial challenges. Yet I think that the solution that the whole country needs requires a bigger response.

Sheil, who has conducted the RTÉ NSO, RTÉ CO, Ulster Orchestra, Irish Chamber Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and many other groups, said RTÉ has been the full-time provider of orchestras and ‘…other bodies such as the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Arts Council, Local Government and other cultural institutions have not felt the need to become involved.’

I think it’s now time for a national response that harnesses a much broader range of bodies that can support the current and future flourishing of Irish orchestras.

He emphasises that the state orchestras are essential to the wider musical ecosystem in Ireland.

Professional orchestras are like trees in a forest. They are absolutely essential for a broader range of life to take root – in the forest it’s other plants and animals, in music it is the impact that major orchestras have on the student, education and amateur sectors as well as the broader public engagement with orchestral music. It’s all part of a big ecosystem. If you take the orchestras away, the effect will be widespread and long-lasting and will effect a much broader section of society than would be first imagined. We are at a moment where Irish arts are seen as ever more critical to our national image at home and internationally. Now is not the moment for regression, but creativity, imagination and investment.

‘This diversity must be celebrated’ – Sinéad Hayes
Conductor Sinéad Hayes, who is based in Berlin but has conducted the RTÉ NSO, RTÉ CO and Crash Ensemble, and is in her fourth season as conductor of Northern Ireland’s Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble, emphasises the importance of a long-term perspective on orchestras. 

It takes years to build a cohesive, responsive orchestra, where individual players’ instincts become aligned with each other to the point that corners are turned and musical alchemy happens as if by magic. In my experience, as an audience member and conductor of the two orchestras, they bring extraordinary levels of finesse and musicianship to their performances, while maintaining completely different group characters. This diversity must be celebrated, cherished and protected, and both orchestras should be expanded as separate entities.

‘One of the greatest sonic manifestations’ – Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin
Composer Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, whose work has regularly been featured by the RTÉ CO, and who performed with the RTÉ NSO for the first time in September, believes that there needs to be a clear understanding of the difference between the two groups.

Any review of orchestral provision within RTE needs to recognise the essentially different, if complimentary, pathways followed by a Concert Orchestra on the one hand and a full Symphony Orchestra on the other. It is wrong in my opinion to think of them as part of a cultural hierarchy – but rather as two potentially vibrant bodies capable of interacting in radical and innovative ways in order to cover the widest range of orchestral voices in both historical and contemporary contexts. 

Professor Ó Súilleabháin, who recently retired from the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, but who played a key role in seeing the Irish Chamber Orchestra locate to Limerick, believes that this review should be seen as an opportunity to strengthen provision.

A cultural rethink is always a good thing provided there is not any foreclosure on the potential of the orchestral tradition in a dynamic global context. Ireland could have a unique role in the reinvention and revitalisation of one of the greatest sonic manifestations of human expression ever achieved.

‘Imaginative promotion’ – Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith, a lecturer in musicology at DIT who recently published a major article in
The Journal of Music on the RTÉ NSO and its performance of contemporary music, suggests that investment in marketing and promotion is key:

Aside from proper funding and the non-filling of vacancies, the factor which has been crucially absent – particularly in recent years – is the kind of imaginative promotion that could impact upon the wider public consciousness and secure for both orchestras a cherished place in Irish cultural life which they have never really enjoyed. 

‘Apex of Irish musical life’ – Elizabeth Cooney
Violinist Elizabeth Cooney, now based in London, has performed with the Aurora Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Musica Vitae Chamber Orchestra of Sweden, Slovenian Philharmonic and Ulster Orchestra as well as the RTÉ NSO and RTÉ CO, and recalls the impact of both on her musical development.

Having grown up in Cork playing the violin, I was so inspired to watch and listen to the RTÉ CO and RTE NSO at any opportunity that arose and those early memories make such an impact for budding young musicians and audiences alike.

The RTÉ CO and RTÉ NSO represent a standard of excellence at the apex of Irish musical life … I would implore An Taoiseach, Ministers and RTÉ to work together in finding a long term-vision involving a new template that would support both orchestras in a way that is progressive and economically viable.

The Irish Association of Youth Orchestras has published a page detailing a range of actions that concerned audiences and artists can take – see

For more on both RTÉ orchestras, visit 

Published on 22 November 2017

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