The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the very best orchestras in the world. But what makes the orchestra so special? Time and time again, critics have lauded its unique sound, which clearly stands out among thousands of others. Although sound is difficult to describe in words, the RCO’s string section has been called ‘velvety’, the sound of the brass ‘golden’, the timbre of the woodwinds ‘distinctly personal’ and the percussion have an international reputation.
While the exceptional acoustics of the Concertgebouw, designed by the architect A.L. van Gendt, also play an important role in this respect, no other orchestra sounds like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Main Hall. The influence exerted on the orchestra by its chief conductors, of whom there have been only six in the last 125 years, is also important. As is that of the musicians themselves. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is made up of 120 players hailing from over twenty countries. Despite its size, the orchestra actually functions more like a chamber orchestra in terms of the sensitivity with which its members listen to, and work in tandem with, one another. Indeed, this requires both a high individual calibre and a great sense of mutual trust and confidence.
The six chief conductors
Mariss Jansons was welcomed as the orchestra’s sixth chief conductor in September 2004. Serving before him in that capacity were Willem Kes (chief conductor from 1888 to 1895), Willem Mengelberg (1895–1945), Eduard van Beinum (1945–1959), Bernard Haitink (1963–1988) and Riccardo Chailly (1988–2004). Willem Mengelberg laid the foundation for the orchestra’s acclaimed Mahler tradition. Eduard van Beinum introduced Bruckner’s symphonies and French music. The Christmas Matinee concerts conducted by Bernard Haitink and televised in many European countries earned him wide acclaim. Haitink was appointed honorary conductor in 1999. Conductor emeritus since 2004, Riccardo Chailly provided a great impetus to the programming of contemporary music and opera. Under the direction of Mariss Jansons, the orchestra has consistently focused on composers such as Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss and Brahms, as well as important twentieth-century composers like Shostakovich and Messiaen, to whom large-scale thematic projects have been devoted.
Partnerships with composers
During Willem Mengelberg’s fifty-year tenure, leading composers conducted the orchestra on more than one occasion. Through the years, the orchestra has continued its collaboration with composers such as George Benjamin, Oliver Knussen, Tan Dun and Thomas Adès, who over the last few years have followed in the footsteps of other conducting composers like Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Bruno Maderna, Witold Lutoslawski , Otto Ketting, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner Henze and John Adams.
Programming is based on two essential elements: tradition and renewal. The orchestra has long been praised for its performances of the music of Mahler and Bruckner. It also upholds a number of special long-established concert traditions, such as the Passion and Christmas Matinee performances. In addition, the special AAA project series (Alive, Adventurous, Alluring) features music programmed around various changing themes. The orchestra also collaborates with world-renowned guest conductors and specialists. For instance, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who is largely responsible for the orchestra’s reputation when it comes to eighteenth-century repertoire, was appointed honorary guest conductor in October 2000.
Facts and figures
The Concertgebouw Orchestra was founded in 1888. On the occasion of its 100th anniversary in 1988, the orchestra officially received the appellation ‘Royal’. It celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2013. In addition to some eighty concerts performed at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra gives forty concerts at leading concert halls throughout the world each year. The orchestra participates in residencies in Paris (Salle Pleyel), Brussels (BOZAR), London (Barbican Centre) and Frankfurt (Alte Oper).
In the first half of this season, RCO Amsterdam RCO Amsterdam completed its world tour of six continents in a single year – the only orchestra ever to do so. The orchestra reaches some 250,000 concert-goers a year. Thanks to regular radio and television broadcasts in collaboration with its media partner, the Dutch broadcasting network AVRO, that exposure is further increased.
The orchestra has made over 1,100 LP, CD and DVD recordings to date, many of which have won international distinctions. In 2004 , the orchestra launched its own in-house label, RCO Live, and in 2013 RCO Universe was launched, an innovative online application with enhanced concert recordings for iPhone and iPad.