On Wednesday (19th January) Catherine Martin TD, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, announced that the government has set aside an eight million euro budget for the transfer of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and Choirs from RTÉ, to the National Concert Hall. The transfer, which came into effect on the 24th of January 2022, aims to “secure a more sustainable future for Ireland’s premier orchestra as part of the national venue for the performance, appreciation and enjoyment of music”, as outlined in the official announcement. The National Concert Hall describes this move as its “masterplan”, hoping to establish itself as a centre of world music for generations to come.
I hadn’t realised this was taking place when I first thought to write this article, though it seems a fitting coincidence that a move of such significant financial and symbolic political commitment should occur as I had started to question the ability of ‘the orchestra’ to survive our rapidly changing cultural landscape. Public calls for governments across the world to protect the arts in the wake of the pandemic have perhaps been answered in Ireland with this project. However, the orchestra has come to be associated with an age that has passed, and going to watch one perform, stereotypically, is a pastime of the older generations.
“Whilst nowadays, music seems almost inextricably linked to the concept of movement, classical music, though never lacking in variety of speed and volume, demonstrates the ability of sound to provide solace.”
I’ve been only twice to see an orchestra perform. The first was part of an optional Russian history class at school, where my teacher took two of us to Southampton to watch its orchestra perform the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Until then my encounters with classical music had largely been relegated to film scores and other various ‘background’ realms, such as in an elevator or a held telephone call. The performance in Southampton taught me two key things about the orchestra; the power of listening to music in silence and the ability of sound to communicate and reflect both historic and social circumstances. The effect of sitting within live music is incomparable to any recorded sound, it is meditative and deeply awakening. Whilst nowadays, music seems almost inextricably linked to the concept of movement, classical music, though never lacking in variety of speed and volume, demonstrates the ability of sound to provide solace. In this sense, it is entirely comparable to silence; it provides an equal sense of refuge. The sound that pours from an orchestra moves over its audience and makes clear that the music from a small, portable, speaker is clunky and sad, in its obvious detachment from the human touch.
I thought perhaps I shouldn’t write this article, having never played an instrument beyond a few years of piano lessons as a child, all competence having completely evaporated since then. That being said, I appreciate music, and like to think I am unbiased in my relationship to genre. I offer perhaps a typical relationship to the orchestra, occupying a place both within the majority of adults who do not play an instrument, and also, in the generation of young people for which concert halls and french horns have played a smaller role in our lives than gig venues and microphones.
“Whilst the orchestra is in most ways associated with adult life, it is children that make up the majority of instrument players across the world.”
Whilst the orchestra is in most ways associated with adult life, it is children that make up the majority of instrument players across the world. Statistics show that over the last twenty years, the number of children playing an instrument has grown, even though their ability to stick with it and continue to play into their adult life has faltered. Various reasons explain this: the expense of getting lessons and the loss of interest. Our modern world, with its vast and rapidly increasing technological capabilities, poses a threat to forms of slow culture such as ballet, opera, and orchestral performances. Sitcoms, TikTok feeds, YouTube vlogs, and so on, maintain our need for immediate interaction and correspond to our shortened attention spans. In 1996, Leon Botstein wrote an essay entitled ‘The Future of the Orchestra’, where he stated that “the progress we have made in recorded sound and, most of all, its accuracy, longevity, and accessibility in terms of the lightness and small size of the CD has further cast a cloud over the orchestra’s future.” The CD now seems an archaic mode of music listening; whilst I grew up on the form, nowadays I’m guilty of knowing by heart only fifteen seconds of a song made popular by TikTok. Whilst the music community of pre-recorded sound consisted of coming together to watch people play an instrument by hand in person, much of our modern day music community comes from knowing the same complicated dance routine to one verse of a mechanically crafted pop song. The exchange factor of music remains, and always will, yet it has become complicated and distanced from its base identity, as the product of a connection between person and sound.
It is misguided though to compare popular music with orchestral performances of classical music; the two have always existed and stood distinct in their accessibility and effect. Shifting the focus to modern classical music helps to describe a potential projection for the future of orchestral life. Admittedly, I could hardly name a contemporary composer, bar those few household names who write for films and television. The work of composers such as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Nicholas Brittell have helped immensely to connect the public to classical music, however subconsciously, and, when done well, the scores of films and television shows have always seemed to me another, incredibly present, character in the work. Classical pieces in the context of film scores make such sound relatable, connecting it to visual emotion and movement, as evidenced in the immense recognizability of the iconic themes of films such as Jaws, Harry Potter, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It is in some sense a disappointing route by which the general public’s engagement with classical music can be sustained, feeding into our reliance on immediately accessible culture and more obvious narratives than those of ballet or opera. However, the film industry plays a key role in keeping orchestras afloat, providing continually employment to perform the impressive scores. The second and last time I went to the orchestra was in Dublin last November. I went with two friends to see ‘The Music of Zimmer vs. Williams’ performed by the Dublin Concert Orchestra. It made me so happy and I went home feeling incredibly elated, a sensation definitely facilitated by the glamorous spectacle of arriving at the National Concert Hall alongside dressed up couples in their middle years and upwards. I almost cried as the sound of Williams’ enchanting Harry Potter score slowly emerged from the stage, a cultimantive symptom of both my everlasting obsession with the film franchise and the unavoidably emotive effect produced by the skillfully combined sound of musical instruments.
“Most articles on orchestral music will point out its intensely male history, with women excluded from some of the world’s most renowned professional orchestras until the late twentieth century.”
Most articles on orchestral music will point out its intensely male history, with women excluded from some of the world’s most renowned professional orchestras until the late twentieth century. This, alongside factors such as the aforementioned expense of buying and learning a musical instrument, has led to a quite closed demographic in the classical industry. Just five of the top hundred international conductors were women in 2018. Fortunately, Initiatives such as the National Concert Hall’s Female Conductor Programme aim to tackle this.
Jean Paul Richter once stated, “music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.” Life isn’t always gloomy, yet music is an everlasting beacon. It is both company and solitude, nostalgic and timeless, universal and personal. The sense that live classical music might fade from our cultural landscape is not a symptom of our age, but of modernity as a broad, ceaseless concept. As Michael Dervan wrote in The Irish Times in 2020, ‘live music facing an uncertain future – nothing new there.” The announcement of the plan for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra is one of many hopeful signs that Ireland, a nation famous for its vibrant musical culture, is bent on protecting orchestral music from the various threats of modern life. The orchestra, an embodiment of slow culture and practical skill, will, I hope, continue to inspire emotion and hope in our lives for generations to come. Dublin’s National Concert Hall provides over one thousand events a year and I urge you, go!