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Festivals, escaping Dublin and Jurassic Park: How the National Symphony Orchestra is finding a new audience

Some big changes are on the way for the NSO – it’s new general manager has the job of making sure that goes well, and getting more bums on seats.

Image: Barry Cronin

FESTIVALS, JURASSIC PARK and getting out of Dublin – all ways the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) has been boosting audience numbers over the past year.

When Anthony Long took over as general manager of the RTÉ NSO in 2017, he had a challenge – bring in new audience members and improve the orchestra’s public profile.

The NSO celebrated 70 years in existence this year, holding an anniversary concert in February. Its roots are in a small ensemble set up in 1926, which became the Station Orchestra. In 1948 it was given government approval to expand to 62 members.

2018 has been an interesting year for the NSO, as RTÉ announced its intention to undertake a review of its two orchestras, the NSO and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (RTÉ CO). In February the resulting independent review recommended that RTÉ NSO should be established as a national cultural institution in its own right (or as part of the National Concert Hall) and funded by Government.

Meanwhile, RTE’s annual report showed that the NSO had a 53% increase in its audience in 2017. Anthony Long puts that down to film music concerts as well as in increase in the number of people coming to the National Concert Hall (NCH). 

Long took a leaf out of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra’s book (with whom he previously worked from 2003 – 2017) and decided to introduce concerts where the NSO performs the live film scores at screenings of movies like Harry Potter, The Legend of Zelda and ET. The most recent one, Jurassic Park, sold out weeks before it opened. 

This summer, the NSO played at the Longitude Festival in Marley Park performing in RTÉ 2fm’s The Story of Hip Hop. In its latest programme it steered away from using austere black-and-white photographs of the musicians, and instead used less serious ones.

“You need to look at the audience, the relevance of the orchestra not only to the audience but to the country as a whole and try to tackle those things,” says Long of his focus for the NSO.

So is the NSO no longer for the grey-haired set?

Niall O'Loughlin, Katie Tertell (centre), Violetta Muth RTÉ NSO Cello Section Source: Barry Cronin

Finding a new audience

It’s through events like Longitude and the live film soundtracks that the NSO hopes to fill the gaps in its audience. With millennials at Longitude and families at the film events, the aim is to show that the NSO is applicable to all. 

“If you look at the demographic of people coming to our concerts here they tend to come from not entirely but mainly south [Dublin] city and they tend to be of a particular age bracket in the majority,” admits Long.

So there are a lot of people out there who for some reason we know are interested but don’t come. So it’s finding those people and showing they are welcome to come in, try it – it doesn’t cost a fortune – and see if they like it.

“We absolutely do not believe in the slightest bit that the 10,000 [Longitude] audience that was there are all going to turn up to a Brahms symphony next week,” says Long.

“But they now know that they have a NSO that does more than just play Brahms’ symphonies.”

“We’ve always been a broad versatile orchestra, the versatility bit has never really been trumpeted,” he adds. “[We want to] bring the orchestra outside of Dublin more often, it needs to be in the regions much more often than it currently is.”

Funding cutbacks

Bernard Reilly RTÉ NSO Percussion Source: Barry Cronin

Since 2008, the NSO has been among the many cultural institutions in Ireland which have seen their government funding decrease. In addition, it appears that audience numbers across Europe have been declining for symphonic music – though the fact the NSO increased its audience members means it is possible to reverse this.

“Over the last 20 years or so the audience for symphonic classical music in Ireland has been gradually decreasing, which would be in line with a lot of other EU countries,” says Long.

When planning this year’s programme, the main season between September and May will for the most part remain classical, punctuated by seasonal concerts such as film music events.

Long likens the classical audience to the football audience, with specific times of the year where people are more likely to go to events. About 7% of its audience are now students aged under 25, so in order to tempt them there are standby tickets available for each event. 

Long says some believe that if you get students in, while they might drop off in their 30s or 40s due to family commitments, they will come back to classical music when they’re older. 

“I’m not sure that that’s true but I do think if you present the right thing at the right time, people will come, whether it’s a Mahler symphony or whether it’s Jurassic Park,” he says.

There’s the nostalgia factor – get families in to see a live soundtrack being played, and show the whole audience what the NSO is capable of.

But they also want what a symphony orchestra is known for.

“In a lot of cases when people see contemporary music on the programme, it seems to turn them off completely, which is strange,” says Long.

“Irish audiences seem to want their standard classical repertoire, so what you have to do is you have to give the audience what it wants first and foremost. Without an audience there’s no point.”


RTÉ NSO players from Second Violins Section Source: Barry Cronin

There can sometimes be an assumption that classical music is only for the high-brow cultural connoisseurs.

“I think you can look at any sport or any artform and you will get a sense of entitlement in all of them,” counters Long.

“Within all art forms you get a sense of entitlement and it is to break down that sort of barrier that people feel they can’t cross over.”

The etiquette at classical concerts, for example, can sometimes be an issue. Long says that recently there has been conversation around when people clap during concerts, as it’s not supposed to happen between symphonies. But in jazz, people clap after a good solo.

For Long, it’s a matter of someone wants to cheer, once it’s not in the middle of a piece, then why not?

“It’s breaking down the etiquette and saying this is for everybody,” he says.


RTÉ review

The independent review commissioned by RTÉ found that there is “strong support among Irish audiences for the existence of RTÉ’s orchestras, and for public funding to ensure their provision”. It also found that widespread support for the retention of both orchestras also exists across the orchestral music sector and within Government.

But it also found that between 2007 and 2016, RTÉ’s orchestras “have been relatively protected (income has declined by 11% in that period), but now have significant vacancies and have been obliged to reduce commitments to touring and educational roles”.

“Morale has suffered as a result,” said the report. Though it acknowledged the financial pressure for RTÉ, the review recommended that neither of RTÉ’s two orchestras should be closed, but instead should both be brought up to full strength.

It also said that the RTÉ NSO should be established as a National Cultural Institution in its own right (or as part of the National Concert Hall) and funded by Government.

This is “still at a very embryonic stage”, says Long. He appears hopeful that this will be a good thing for the orchestra.

“You know, the great thing about that announcement is the undertaking that the symphony orchestra will be looked after, within the reports the idea is to bring the NSO back to a full strength of 89 plus players, so that’s all to be welcomed,” he says.

“And if it removes the uncertainty around the NSO’s future, that is totally to be welcomed, I think it presents a huge opportunity.”

I think we now have to move forward and now make sure that we have one chance to get it right – if we get it wrong everybody will remember it.

“RTÉ, despite a lot of criticism in the press, it has supported Ireland’s two full-time professional orchestras for the last 70 years and that can’t be forgotten,” he adds.

There are 80 full-time musician posts in the NSO and 45 full-time musicians in the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. For Long, these full-time roles mean that people who study with the Royal Irish Academy of Music or the Cork School of Music have somewhere to go in Ireland after they graduate. 

It might be a challenging year in some respects for the NSO, but being in the headlines has also meant that people were reminded of the work it does.

“An interesting point that was made to me was possibly all of these things did work,” says Long of the changes he instituted.

“But what might have also helped and contributed was the uncertainty around the future of the orchestra, that people went ‘hang on a second – I’d better go along here and show that I support this.”

The next step: to make sure those people turn into long-term supporters.

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