DISCOVER Magazine #7

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Published in category: Heritage & Culture

Art must be urgent

When talking to Jan Raes, you can be anything but not captured by his enthusiastic stories about the Orchestra and its long history. Here sits a passionate man with a heart for music, culture and people. Even after a two-hour interview anecdotes keep on flowing from his mouth.

Jan Raes (1959) has been managing director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra since 2008. He studied at the University of Ghent and the Antwerp Conservatory, where he earned a Soloist degree in flute. After his musical career, which included solo performances, chamber music concerts and recordings, he held posts as artistic director of the Antwerp Conservatory, intendant of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, managing director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Gergiev Festival. In his spare time Jan Raes likes to play tennis and walk in the mountains. He is also co-author of the book ‘Iconic: What Businesses can learn from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, a Top Restaurant and a Rugby Team’. On 15 April 2014, the hereditary title of Baron was conferred on him.

Motto of Jan Raes, director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:

Permit chance to play its part

What can you tell us about the history of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra?
“When in the 19th century German composer Johannes Brahms visited the Netherlands as a guest conductor, he remarked that the food was quite good, but that the orchestras were quite weak. This was reason enough to build a new concert hall in Amsterdam, for which the funds were raised by citizens of Amsterdam. In 1888 it became the home of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Building and orchestra formed one entity. This lasted up to 1953, when orchestra and hall became two separate entities, in order for the hall to be put to more intensive use. During the orchestra ’s first concert on 3 November 1888 it played one of Brahms’ compositions.”

What made the orchestra so international right from the start?
“Willem Mengelberg, who became chief conductor in 1895, was befriended by many well-known composers, such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky. As early as 1895 the orchestra made its first tour abroad, to Brussels. In 1897 Edvard Grieg invited the orchestra to come to Norway. Today, we perform 120 concerts annually.”

“From the start the orchestra consisted of musicians from various national backgrounds. Today, the 120-musician strong orchestra counts 25 different nationalities among its ranks. Mahler and Strauss were so taken with the quality and particular sound of the orchestra they even dedicated some of their compositions to the orchestra and to Mengelberg. The orchestra was also known for playing many world premieres of music by international composers.”

What are the specific factors that make for the success of the orchestra even after so many years?
“Well, in the first place there is of course the Concertgebouw building itself with its unique acoustics. The shoebox style model of the Main Hall with its decorations and the organ make for a very diversified movement of sound, which is incomparable. Other concert halls that have this particular model and are famous for their acoustics are the Musikverein in Vienna and the Symphony Hall in Boston. Different successful models are the Philharmonic Hall in Berlin and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. At the moment some very good music halls are being constructed all over Asia.

In the second place the orchestra is composed of a selection of the best international musicians, who have been carefully selected.

“Third, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has a tradition of excellent chief conductors staying in position for many years. Mengelberg even stayed for fifty years. Up to now there have only been six chief conductors in the orchestra’s history. This has allowed for the orchestra to develop its specific and unique sound.”

“This year the seventh conductor will take up position, Italian maestro Daniele Gatti, who has an eye for both tradition and innovation. The chief conductors are selected by members of the orchestra, after having worked with them as guest conductors for several years. Gatti for example made his debut with the orchestra in 2004.”

“Furthermore, the orchestra has an acclaimed tradition of playing, amongst others, Mahler and Bruckner. The foundation for this tradition was laid by chief conductors Mengelberg and Eduard van Beinum in the early part of the 20th century. Audiences keep returning to enjoy these classics.”

What does it take to stay on the ball?
“You cannot rely on tradition alone. There is the need to keep on innovating and reaching young audiences and audiences abroad. The orchestra has always played contemporary music from contemporary composers and continues to do so. Today’s composers are also invited to conduct their pieces themselves, like for example George Benjamin and Tomas Adès. ”

“Three times in a season on a Saturday evening we have the Essentials programme, which offers one iconic piece of music, which is introduced by a presenter and followed by drinks afterwards.

“This entices a younger audience to cross the threshold and become involved with classical music. Already, our Entrée club, for people up to 30, counts 8,000 members. In 2013 we organised a world tour on six continents, visiting New York, Tokyo, China, Berlin, South America, Russia, South Africa and Australia.

This was a unique experience, the first orchestra ever to do so, and it brought many new friends to the orchestra.

What do ‘friends’ mean to the orchestra?
“The orchestra has many circles of friends, for example in the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Switzerland, who support various projects. A special circle of friends in the UK is the Dutch Masters Foundation. This is how I got acquainted with Rose Damen, who co-founded the London branch. It is a collaboration between the Mauritshuis, NDT (the world-renowned Dutch contemporary dance group, ed.), both based in The Hague, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. All three are connected to Damen. It is a passionate group of friends who organise various events throughout the year at beautiful locations. They always try to combine music, dance and visual art which leads to unexpected and magical combinations.”

One of our strongpoints is the exceptional quality of the orchestra, but it is also our urge to innovate, educate and initiate that keeps us at the forefront

The 120-musician strong orchestra counts 25 different nationalities

“This kind of interdisciplinarity is also something we try to achieve in Amsterdam, when we for example collaborate with museums. Another thing the Foundation does is support the Concertgebouw Orchestra Academy, which each year educates seven exceptionally talented young musicians. When on tour we meet many of these friends, and some of them even travel along with us.“

What are the plans for the near future?
“One of the big upcoming projects is ‘RCO meets Europe’. Over the course of two years the orchestra will play in all 28 countries of the European Union, starting in August 2016. The orchestra will play one concert in every country with young talent, ‘Side by Side’.”

“Polyphony originated in Europe, both on a musical and a social level. And the concept of touring through Europe has been in existence since Mozart’s days. The music of Mozart would not have been that rich if he had not travelled so extensively. This tour also serves as a call to the Netherlands and to the European Union to put culture higher on the agenda.

“Art, in all its various guises, is urgent and necessary. We have invited Syrian refugees to our concerts as a way to console them and give them hope for the future. For the same reasons we play chamber music in refugee centres throughout the country. Music does not have any boundaries or religious divisions and has the ability to humanise. In the end, we want to play as
good as we can.”

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