On April 11, 1888, after years of preparation, the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s concert hall, was officially opened. At last, Amsterdam had its own true temple of music, and it quickly proved to be one of the world’s finest concert halls. Half a year later, on November 3, 1888, the Concertgebouw Orchestra (= RCO), established especially for this concert hall, gave its first concert. Under the direction of Willem Kes and Willem Mengelberg, in only a few short decades the orchestra had developed into one of Europe’s leading ensembles. In 1897, Richard Strauss spoke of an orchestra that was 'wirklich prachtvoll, voll Jugendfrische und Begeisterung', and from the very beginning of the 20th century, dozens of composers and conductors came to Amsterdam to work with this now-famous orchestra. Since the celebration of their first hundred years in 1988, the orchestra has borne the honour of the title of Royal Orchestra. Around the globe, and with a character all its own, it is universally recognized as one of the world’s leading symphony orchestras.
Following in the footsteps of an illustrious group of predecessors - Willem Kes (1888-1895), Willem Mengelberg (1895-1945), Eduard van Beinum (1945-1959) and Bernard Haitink (1963-1988) - Riccardo Chailly took over as chief conductor in 1988. Under his leadership, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (= RCO, KCO) has enjoyed tremendous success both in the Netherlands and abroad. The expansion of the orchestra’s repertoire is still continuing. With a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in November, 1998, Chailly celebrated the tenth anniversary of his bond with the orchestra.
In January of 1999, in honour of his own 25 years as chief conductor, Bernard Haitink was appointed the orchestra’s honorary conductor. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who since 1975 has also known a special relationship with the orchestra, with outstanding interpretations of the classical and early romantic repertoire, was appointed honorary guest conductor in October, 2000.
The 115 top musicians who make up the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra are each and every one not only a virtuoso on his or her own instrument, but together they ensure the continuation of the specific performance character that gives this orchestra its own unique sound and flexibility. With its ‘velvet’ strings, the ‘golden’ brass sound and the exceptional timbre of the woodwinds, sometimes described as ‘typically Dutch’, the RCO has won itself a special place amongst the small select group of top, world-renown orchestras. The nearly one thousand recordings that the RCO has to its credit have also helped contribute to this well-earned reputation.
Of the nearly 120 concerts performed each year, about 30 take place on the world’s most important podia outside the Netherlands. Not only in Europe, in London, Paris, Vienna, Madrid, Salzburg, Luzern and Brussels, and in both North and South America, but also in the Far East, including China and Japan, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra enjoys an enthusiastic following. The foundation for all this global activity is always the season subscription concerts in Amsterdam’s own Concertgebouw, where the orchestra has had the support of its loyal public for over a century.
In the fifty years that Willem Mengelberg held the reins, the Concertgebouw Orchestra developed relationships with a wide range of composers, including Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Ravel, Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Schreker and Milhaud, all of whom conducted the orchestra on more than one occasion. Others, such as Béla Bartók, Sergei Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, were soloists in performances of their own works. After World War II, this relationship with the composers of the day, extremely important for an orchestra, continued with composers such as Peter Schat, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, and Bruno Maderna, who also conducted. Carrying on this tradition, the orchestra regularly commissions new works by prominent and diverse contemporary conductors.
The orchestra has also established an exceptional reputation for its interpretations of late romantic works, including those of G. Mahler, Bruckner and Richard Strauss. The G. Mahler tradition, rooted in the many performances that G. Mahler himself conducted here, had its first highlight in the 1920 Mahler Festival. Although G. Mahler’s work has always made up a considerable portion of the Concertgebouw Orchestra repertoire, it was Bernard Haintink, with complete recordings of the G. Mahler symphonies and the Christmas Matinees, that again gave new impetus to the G. Mahler tradition. Since then, with new interpretations of his own, Riccardo Chailly has continued the example, with most of the Riccardo Chailly performances of the G. Mahler symphonies now available on CD. The Mahler Festival in May of 1995 also included both the Wiener Philharmoniker and Berliner Philharmoniker and was lauded world-wide.
Nor can Anton Bruckner be dismissed from the traditional Concertgebouw Orchestra repertoire. This is largely thanks to Eduard van Beinum, who after World War II brought both Bruckner and French music to the attention of the orchestra. With performances conducted by Riccardo Chailly, the Concertgebouw Orchestra has made an important contribution to a renewed insight into Bruckner’s music.
Riccardo Chailly made his debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1985, and was elected that year as their next chief conductor to succeed Bernard Haitink. As the first non-Dutchman to hold the post, Chailly served as chief conductor from 1988 to 2004. Under his leadership the orchestra has significantly expanded its repertoire. As one of the few conductors of our time to do so, Riccardo Chailly was able to continue to develop the romantic repertoire while also giving new incentive to the performance of 20th century and contemporary works, as well as opera. His recordings with the orchestra include a complete G. Mahler and Johannes Brahms symphony cycle, several of the Bruckner symphonies. Besides he was a strong advocate of modern music and recorded shorter works of Dmitri Shostakovich, the complete Kammermusiken of Paul Hindemith, and the orchestral works of Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse. Many of these recordings have been crowned with the most prestigious awards and honours. Riccardo Chailly’s leadership has also resulted in the highlights of the concert performances of operas at recent Christmas Matinees as well as the RCO productions together with the Netherlands Opera. After his departure in 2004, Riccardo Chailly was named Conductor Emeritus of the KCO.
The Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons made his KCO debut in 1988 and was elected chief conductor on October 22, 2002. His tenure officially began on September 1, 2004, with an initial contract of 3 years. Premières during Mariss Jansons's tenure have included Hans Werner Henze's Sebastian im Traum, a KCO co-commission. As of 2009, Mariss Jansons continues as chief conductor of the orchestra.