Sunday 22 October 2017

The world-class orchestra whose 'best instrument is its auditorium'

George Hamilton

From the Rijksmuseum through Dam Square and past the wonderful 19th Century Central Station, the city of Amsterdam isn't short of magnificent buildings. To the list of attractions you can certainly add the Concertgebouw.

Hiding behind its utilitarian title, the "Concert Building" is a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture. It houses an auditorium that the great Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink described as the best instrument of the orchestra that plays there.

That orchestra, which takes its name from its home, celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Haitink was its principal conductor from 1963 to 1988, one of only six musicians to have held the position. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam is one of the greatest of the world's ensembles. Its story is inextricably linked to the building.

There was no proper concert hall, and no orchestra, when a group of music lovers took the initiative. Self-respecting cities abroad catered for concertgoers, the local press noted. Amsterdam was being left behind.

They set about raising funds and found a site just across from where the Rijksmuseum was being constructed at the time.

Within five years they had their hall, but it would be another two before they had a band to play in it. Formed specifically for the new venue, the orchestra set standards that had been unknown in the city before.

Within a decade, Richard Strauss would be describing it as really magnificent, full of youthful freshness and enthusiasm. Its reputation attracted the top composers of the day. Mahler, Debussy and Stravinsky were among the many famous musicians to collaborate with the Concertgebouw. The music of Mahler and Bruckner would become staples in its repertoire.

The orchestra's prestige was enhanced over the years by a prolific recording schedule that made its name familiar throughout the world of music. But a burgeoning catalogue that by now has reached well over 1,000 releases proved no protection against the chill wind of economic reality.

In the early 1980s, the Dutch government proposed a cut in its subsidy that would cost the jobs of 23 players. Haitink threatened to resign. They blinked. He won.

On its centenary in 1988, the Queen of the Netherlands gave it the title Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Haitink stepped down – they'd later make him Honorary Conductor – and Riccardo Chailly took over. He's since been succeeded by the Latvian Mariss Jansons, who remains the current Chief Conductor.

In the course of this jubilee year, the orchestra will play in six continents, something no other orchestra has ever done, and its proud boast is that it annually reaches a quarter of a million concertgoers.

To say that it's going from strength to strength would be putting it mildly.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric FM from 10am each Saturday.

ghamilton@independent.ie

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