Flying Dutchmen

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A trip to Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw

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Mariss Jansons

Oliver Condy visits the home of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as it announces plans for its 125th anniversary tour in 2013

Around the inside of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw are plaques to the great and the good of the classical music world. Bach and Mozart are there, of course; as are Debussy and Tchaikovsky. But so are Dutch composers Röntgen, Pijper and Zweers as well as the Belgian mid 19th-century Verhulst. Strange how fashion dictates who the greats are at any given time. Mind you, the Concertgebouw shares its love of Cherubini and Spohr with the Paris’s Opéra Garnier, which opened just 13 years earlier in 1875. And two massively important musical institutions surely can’t be wrong.

But it was Richard Strauss (also honoured on the Concertgebouw walls) we came to hear last night – an all-Strauss programme as it happened – launching the resident Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s 125th anniversary year in 2013. No austerity measures here: the RCO plans to embark on a huge world tour with 48 concerts in 30 cities, and will be, so they say, the first symphony orchestra to visit six continents in a single year. Speaking to the gathered media, the RCO’s Latvian principal conductor Mariss Jansons stressed the importance of international touring: ‘There are many answers to the question of whether we should tour’, he said, ‘And all of them are “yes!”’. Cultural exchange was, he added, at the heart of their plans, and with constant competition from countless other fine ensembles, many of whom do extensive tours themselves each year, it was important to get out there and show the world just what the Dutch can do.

It was fitting that the music of Richard Strauss should provide the fanfare to their announcement. The German composer conducted the orchestra in more than 40 performances and, in 1989, dedicated his Ein Heldenleben (A hero’s life) to Willem Mengelberg who had become the orchestra’s principal conductor three years earlier. Jansons chose three Strauss works for last night’s concert: the vast, episodic Nietzschean tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), the composer’s homage to the victims of the Dresden bombings, the dark but exquisite Metamorphosen, and the riotous and sentimental Rosenkavalier suite that exercised the orchestra’s technical muscle and wry sense of fun.

But an orchestra is nothing without its hall – and the Concertgebouw’s acoustics are justly celebrated, the sound not so much flying at the audience, but floating overhead, orchestral textures heard pin-sharp within both the very quietest of pianissimos and the most bombastic of fortissimos. The standing ovation at the end of the Rosenkavalier suite was inevitable, but one sensed it carried with it a gratitude and relief that this orchestra is firm on its feet in uncertain times.