FOR decades, Edwin Paling has harboured an immense irritation with his organisation, the RSNO. He has never spoken about it publicly until now, though around 20 years ago, during a tour of Japan, he dropped a heavy hint to this writer. In the course of an informal conversation on a plane, he said: "This orchestra is like a ship without a captain."

I was astounded. After all, the orchestra, at that precise point, was on an incredible high. For their principal conductor of the time, Neeme Jarvi, they were playing way beyond any perceptions of their capability. The technique and panache that Jarvi unlocked in the band was staggering. The concerts were amazing, breathtaking experiences.

More than one London orchestral musician commented that the SNO, as it then was, must be one of the luckiest bands on the planet. The recordings were earning plaudits, rosettes and highest recommendations. The orchestra was touring. They were an international commodity. They were a world force.

But their leader, Edwin Paling, was not a happy man. He was observing the gradual disintegration of strategy, structure and artistic policy in the orchestra, a process that began with the retirement of Sir Alexander Gibson in 1984 and continued, insidiously but relentlessly, through the chief conductorships of Neeme Jarvi, Bryden Thomson, Walter Weller, and Alexander Lazarev until the appointment of Stephane Deneve three years ago, from which point everything changed.

What was the problem? In a nutshell, Gibson had not only been principal conductor of the orchestra, he had also been its music director. He was the boss. After his departure, all of his successors, until Deneve, were principal conductors only.

"Alex involved himself in everything - everything - every single aspect of the organisation, not just conducting the orchestra. That was his job.

"Stephane Deneve does that too. But none of the other principal conductors did. They were not music directors.

"Jack (Thomson), Walter (Weller), Sasha (Lazarev) and Neeme, principally, if not exclusively, were interested in their own performances, and not too concerned with what went on elsewhere.

"With appointments to the orchestra, for example, although we would always inform them, and they might offer an opinion, they had no casting vote. But somebody's got to make the decision. If everyone's on an equal level, it's not possible. Democracy doesn't work, not like that."

Essentially, Paling's criticisms, which sound like an indictment of the organisation, boil down to this: successive principal conductors were interested only in their own concerts, in what was going on in their own backyard. Who might be called in to conduct the orchestra when they were not there was of no concern to them. Who might be appointed to vacant posts in the orchestra, even principal places or section leaders, was ultimately none of their business. Matters of artistic policy and the direction of orchestral development were of no interest to them. Everything became, in that sense, short term. Therefore, any long-range strategy or structure was scarcely tenable. There was no artistic head of the RSNO.

"As time went on it became apparent that Alex Gibson really had left a vacuum. There was nobody at the top, artistically, to be interested in all these aspects, from important appointments, to the direction of the orchestra, to who conducts it when the principal conductor's not here."

Paling leaves no doubt that during this period, which extended over 20 years, he felt compromised. With no music or artistic director at the helm, and the chief executives dealing themselves with artistic affairs (sometimes catastrophically, as became clear during the Christopher Bishop era), it meant effectively that Edwin Paling, as leader of the orchestra, was the senior artistic person in the organisation.

"It was very awkward and very frustrating." At this point in our conversation two decades of frustration boiled over. "For 20-odd years there has been a missing link. There was nowhere to turn. It has been very, very difficult.

"I said repeatedly to successive chief executives and members of the board that we needed a music director."

Paling remained insistent throughout the years. "A decision was finally made some years ago, when Lazarev was leaving, that we really did have to have a music director."

Since the appointment of Stephane Deneve as principal conductor and music director the organisation has changed. As has been reported in The Herald throughout Deneve's first two seasons, everything has changed: from the way the RSNO configures itself on stage to the way they play, to the presentation of concerts.

Deneve is everywhere and into everything. This season, he has been starting to move individual players around, ruffling feathers en route.

For Paling, it's all way overdue, but welcome none the less. "Stephane is absolutely in charge. This is really healthy for the organisation. He and Simon Woods the new chief executive are a great partnership. Everything is clear. Because Stephane is music director, the chief executive's job is more clearly defined than his predecessors. And my own job has changed in the last two years. If there is an artistic issue, my line manager is Stephane.

"If there is a contractual issue, or something not specifically artistic, it's Simon. It's much easier now, and my successor will find it, in that way, a more comfortable environment in which to work."