Lights, action, orchestra…
|Michael Cullen spoke to Rosita Wolfe about marketing the National Concert Hall and why a revamp of the inside of the Earlsfort Terrace venue is going ahead|
In the early days of the National Concert Hall, director Fred O'Donovan was interviewed by a young PR exec researching the music market in Ireland. The intrepid interviewer expected O'Donovan, a boisterous northside Dub and friend of CJ Haughey, to provide him with a litany of anecdotes about classical-loving legal eagles and bow-tied patricians.
“You'd be surprised who buys tickets!” O'Donovan boomed. “Just the other day I was coming into the hall and I got chatting to a bin man. He's a big opera fan and I assure you that man knows every scene, every word from Puccini's La Boheme.” The O'Donovan story may stretch the demographic of the average concert hall patron but it does make the point that the spirit of anyone who embraces music can be taken to a higher plateau.
Rosita Wolfe, head of marketing, NCH, was in boarding school in September 1981 when President Paddy Hillery performed the gala opening, followed by an inaugural concert of Seoirse Bodley's Ceol and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Since then, the NCH has hosted every major orchestra, recitals by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras, jazz greats like the Buena Vista Social Club and many of Ireland's finest musical performers.
From the summer proms to Snowman shows at Christmas, Yehudi Menuhin to Tony Bennett, the NCH has seen them all. Violin classics by Anne-Sophie Mutter may be the house special but one should not be lured by stereotype – the NCH offers music lovers a smorgasbord of the finest fare. From folk like Donal Lunny and Moving Hearts to violinist Nigel Kennedy and Japan's Kodo Drummers, the beat goes on.
From nights of the best in film scores – from John Barry and Burt Bacharach – to big bands like the James Last Orchestra, or the music of Glenn Miller, the NCH cater for many tastes. Yet, while wishing to be many things to many people, its remit is to entertain, educate and engage by staging exceptional music in a fitting environment.
Each year, the NCH stages over 500 events, most of which are organised by the entertainment promoters hiring out the hall. The main auditorium has a capacity of 1,200 and the John Field Room is a smaller recital space off the main foyer with 250 seats. The Carolan Room house up to 100 people at corporate hospitality and sponsored events.
But now the big emphasis on the NCH development plans. Tenders are out and three companies have been shortlisted, with a winner being announced later this year.
The three-year plan is that from 2010 two new concert halls will be built and the existing hall will be refurbished. There will a big 2,050-seater hall, a smaller 500-seater chamber music hall and a 1,000-seater hall. The funding has been assured by the Minister for Arts Sport & Tourism, Martin Cullen TD, so building work should get underway next year.
FA-FA-FA FABULOUS PERFORMER
Former Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne performing at the National Concert Hall. Forthcoming acts include Colm Wilkinson with ‘Broadway & Beyond’, Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Sharon Shannon and Paul Brady in the ESB Beo Celtic Music Festival.
“Finance is committed to the project,” Wolfe said, “and it's a PPP, public private partnership, so it's a long-term pay off. We're confident it's going ahead and we've no reason to think otherwise.” The NCH has had close links with RTE and in the early days senior staff like Fred O'Donovan and PR executive Laurie Cearr, joined on secondment.
The RTE National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) is the resident orchestra and they play most Friday nights. During June, July and August they have a series of Tuesday lunchtimes coming up. Wolfe says the NSO has been an asset to the concert hall, a great brand to be partnered with and one that boasts an enviable reputation internationally.
Wolfe makes no bones about the fact that classical music is at the core of what the NCH is about, from orchestras home and away to visiting promoters putting on classical music. But intertwined in all of that, there is everything from Duke Special and The Chieftains to Liam Clancy and Paul Brady, both of whom play the NCH this summer.
Right across the board, there are opera galas, musicals, children's shows, which are very much family-focused. The message Wolfe and her team have tried to put out there to audiences in recent years is that the NCH is far more than playing to the cultural cognoscenti. In today's entertainment marketplace, elitism has no part to play.
“Pushing the diversity of our programming will continue as we open two new concert halls on the site – it will have to,” Wolfe said. “Our audiences have changed, they're getting younger, more family-orientated. There's more interest in classical music than ever with car ads and films are using classical tracks.
“We compete for people's time. When marketing the venue, the big thing is the artists and the appeal they have. We've a small budget and it's five per cent of turnover and we must make the most of it. We've reduced our prices. Ireland is doing well culturally but we could be doing better. In terms of revenue, sponsorship has been hardest hit.”
NCH corporate sponsors include platinum patrons Accenture, AIB, Deloitte, FR Kelly, KPMG, Pioneer Investments and the Sunday Business Post. Gold members include Allianz, Dublin Airport Authority, Frank Keane, Irish Distillers and Irish Life & Permanent. Programme advertisers include Audi and the Conrad hotel across the road.
NCH director Judith Woodworth recently launched The Irish Times Celebrity Concert Series and the Sunday Business Post International Orchestral Series, starting in September and running until next June. Highlights include mezzo soprano Frederica Von Stade performing Faure's ‘Claire de Lune' and Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang.
Lang Lang returns to the NCH in February. The New York Times described the Chinese superstar pianist as “the hottest artist on the classical music planet”. Dutch violinist Janine Jansen will make her NCH debut in March. The London Symphony Orchestra will perform twice, the second time under the baton of the fiery Russian Valery Gergiev.
To encourage youngsters to develop an interest in music, the NCH runs a Learn & Explore Programme. The idea is to bring music to people who may otherwise not have the chance to play an instrument, let along listen to live music. Masterclasses and concerts, rehearsals and talks are led by musicians and artists from Ireland and abroad.
The Irish Daily Star Sunday sponsored a meet the orchestra event and a fancy dress family concert. Ready, Steady, Play! was a series of parent-child workshops. Over the Easter break, US tap performer Walter ‘Sundance' Freeman put kids through their steps and taught them about feet movement with a series of tap dance and rhythm workshops.
The programme extends far beyond the NCH walls in Dublin. Samhlaiocht Easter Arts was staged last month at Siamsa Tire in Tralee, Co Kerry. Adventures in Music is made up of workshops run by local parents in Galway. Meitheal Summer School in Limerick and Encore International Summer School in Inishowen, Co Donegal, both in July.
Wolfe's sidekick, Sinead Hope, heads up PR at the NCH. In her role as fundraising and development manager she is organising a golf classic at Druid's Glen in Co Wicklow to be played on the last Friday in June. Christy O'Connor Jnr is fronting the event and funds will go towards expanding the Learn & Explore Programme for new talent.
GIFTED MUSIC MARKETER BUT NO DIVA
Rosita Wolfe started out by doing a marketing degree in DIT. She had considered doing a postgrad but an opportunity came up and DIT funded her to do a masters in commerce at UCD instead and her two mentors were Tony Meenaghan and Paul O'Sullivan.
The focus of her studies was sports marketing. When Wolfe had completed the course she thought about her next move. She joined Eircom, taking a research analyst post in the company's international division where she dealt with mergers and acquisitions.
Eircom had done their IPO, was flush with funds and began buying small firms. When they set up divisions in the North and in the UK, Wolfe concentrated on marketing. She left Eircom to join a small IT company and did consultancy work for a year.
It was seven years ago when her move to the National Concert Hall came about. Apart from dabbling at the piano, sports had been more her thing growing up. But job-wise, she loved the idea of marketing music and saw the NCH role on offer as “a good fit”.
Wolfe was a runner-up in the Marketer of the Year 2005. The judges said the strategy she put in place as head of marketing helped shift the concert hall's elitist image to a centre of musical entertainment and culture for society at large – and on a meagre budget.
The marketing budget for the hall is about €400,000 and covers advertising, collateral, web, corporate promotions and friends marketing. Direct mail is a core element. Ad deals are negotiated on the basis of contra agreements, tied in with sponsorship, tickets and branding. For specific concerts, Wolfe budgets on the basis of the profile of the artist and typically the higher the profile the lower the marketing budget to boot.
A native of Carrigaline, Wolfe was reared on a dairy farm. She boarded in Bandon Grammar School where, she says, the Cork accent was whipped out her. Her hobbies included hockey and athletics. While shy to admit it, she's an able photographer.
Concertgoers may spot her taking snaps during shows. She says that in these troubled times, a cultural night out is wonderful therapy. When feeling poorly, people go to the doctor. When someone has a broken heart, they go to the theatre or to a concert.
Choice lyrics, indeed.