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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 4

Changing of the Guard at the Concertgebouw

by Natasha Gauthier / December 1, 2002

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A Look back on the Chailly years, and ahead to Jansons' reign.

On a recent, stormy weekday night in Amsterdam, I found myself sitting in the hallowed Concertgebouw, waiting to hear Riccardo Chailly conduct the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The RCO was about to leave on a tour of Japan, and it appeared that le tout Amsterdam had come out to bid them farewell, in spite of the fierce weather and even fiercer program. No standard repertoire here: a first course of Takemitsu, Berio and Ligeti, followed by two major neo-classical Stravinsky works, Pulcinella and Jeu de Cartes.

It's the kind of cheerfully uncompromising program that Chailly delights in and has become famous for. In the 12 years since he became principal conductor, the RCO has vastly expanded its repertoire, firmly leaving behind a reputation for being somewhat precious and tradition-bound. Although Chailly has demonstrated aplomb and insight with the orchestra's bread-and-butter composers--Bruckner, Mahler and Brahms--when he finally leaves his post to go to the Dresden Staatskappelle in 2004, his association with Amsterdam will be best remembered for his enthusiastic championing of modern and contemporary music.

Chailly's passion--and the bold direction in which he's led the RCO over the last decade--has resulted in performances that have both wowed critics and won over the European public. The Chailly/RCO Shostakovich "Jazz" and "Dance" Albums on Decca London have sold more than 250,000 copies. Their third disc in the series of Shostakovich's incidental music, The Film Album, has been called "unmissable" by BBC Music Magazine.

That the RCO has gained a new, muscular fluency in twentieth-century idioms was in evidence at that November concert. In Ligeti's Lontano, Chailly achieved exquisite control over minute degrees of colour and dynamics. The two Stravinsky works, meanwhile, were freed from the fetters of mere pastiche and elevated to a much higher level than they usually enjoy.

Apart from the enjoyment I derived from the music, I couldn't help feeling a little smug at how appreciative the audience was. Even the three blonde little boys in the next row were nodding in time to Pulcinella. Whereas North American orchestras are often disappointed by attendance figures for their "twentieth-Century Evenings", the Concertgebouw had a nearly full house. Indeed, my Dutch companions seemed dismayed that there were any empty seats at all. A quick visit to the RCO Web site shows that further Chailly concerts of modern music--including one comprised almost entirely of Boulez' Notations--are sold out.

(The easygoing, impossibly hip A'dammers seem especially appreciative of non-mainstream repertoire. On the other side of town, crowds were lining up for the Netherlands Opera's hilarious, outrageous production of Shostakovitch's The Nose, complete with motorcycles, gang rape scenes and one gloriously naked Head of State.)

It will be interesting to see the shift that will come when Latvian maestro Mariss Jansons--most recently of the Oslo Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony--takes over the Concertgebouw helm in 2004. Whereas Chailly's style is all Mediterranean charm and supple grace, Jansons is known for his electric, fever-pitch intensity (perhaps he's a little too intense for his own good: three years ago in Oslo, he was felled from the podium by a near-fatal heart attack).

The 60-year-old conductor has also just signed on to become chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, a job he takes over in September 2003. Observers suggest that leading two orchestras in such relative proximity, while easier on the maestro's health, will inevitably pose some artistic challenges. One thing is certain: Chailly has made the way a little easier by crafting a more flexible, versatile Concertgebouw orchestra--and has cultivated an audience that is more than eager for any future adventures.

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