Going Dutch: How to wreck a once-great orchestra

Going Dutch: How to wreck a once-great orchestra


norman lebrecht

October 29, 2020

This week’s admission that the Concertgebouw will not see a new chief conductor for at least three years is just the latest in a catalogue of arrogance and incompetence that goes all the way back to the 1980s when a bumptious manager forced Bernard Haitink to leave.

Haitink had an international career, but the Dutch have an aversion to tall tulips so Haitink had to go, and in a blaze of bile.

His successor Riccardo Chailly went to the trouble of mastering the Dutch language, only to realise that he would never understand how they think in Holland, so he took himself off abruptly to Leipzig.

Chailly was followed by Maris Jansons, a lovely man and marvellous musician who decided after a while that, if he had to ration his small repertoire between Amsterdam and his other orchestra in Munich, he preferred the Bavarian orchestra to the Dutch. And without delay.

The next chief was Daniele Gatti, who was ousted over American media allegations of sexual misconduct. The manager who fired him was himself soon relieved of his position.

For the past two years, the Concertgebouworkest has lacked artistic direction, and for the next three years it will have none.

It appears they nurtured vain hopes that Andris Nelsons might be tempted, but he is nailed down to Boston and Leipzig until the late 20s so the Dutch were clearly fooling themselves. Right now, they are lost without leadership. Even the management is interim. And all they can be getting along with right now is delivering another snub to Haitink, just because he still walks tall.

This orchestra likes to be counted among the world’s best. On current form, it’s a long way from the champions league.



  • Brian says:

    This recent Concertgebouworkest bashing (or is it Concertgebouw bashing? The names are used interchangeably on this blog) is becoming quite tedious and is completely unfounded. The orchestra has always been, and will always remain, one of the finest in the world.

    • Firing Back says:

      ‘..and will always remain, one of the finest in the world.’

      What an empty and pointless little comment.

      You simply do not know that.

      Unless you have a fully-functioning crystal ball.

      • Joop says:

        They’ll most probably will, if they can keep hiring the best musicians. Since the hall is a very important factor to this high level, since it forces the musicians to play in a certain way, chamber music like.

  • Pianoman says:

    Welcome to my world! The Dutch music world has the strangest mentality, destroying anything that shows a different (higher) level than the accepted norm. Also quite possibly the weakest music education in Europe!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Alas, it is true.

      The country is good at a number of things – social integration, preventing civil war between locals and immigrants, building of bridges, viaducts, aquaducts, water works to keep the sea out, road planning, and budget cutting of the medical sector. But culture is not on the table.

    • Joop says:

      The Concertgebouw Orchestra is not on a higher level than the accepted norm? This cliche image of the Dutch not accepting Dutch high(er) level artists is also a bit tiring, and I think it’s simply nonsense.
      But indeed, sadly the general music eduaction in the Netherlands is very weak.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Great talents, in whatever cultural field, have to make their career abroad to be accepted in their home country, in case they would like such welcome. It is possible, for instance, that highly-gifted painters are successful abroad, their work on show in museums, selling their canvasses to foreign collectors, but in Holland entirely ignored or looked down upon with contempt (brilliant realist painter [redacted] is a famous case in point). In music, famous Lied singer [redacted] made his career in Germany, when in Holland nobody wanted to engage him. Now famous conductor [redacted] got a lot of resistance in Holland but when he made an impressive career abroad, he was suddenly seen as a typical product of Dutch talent. Etc. etc….

        The main problem is ‘small thinking’, in relation to the size of the country, and a provincial mentality carefully cultivated. The awareness of a wider context is studiously avoided, like people in a small village who refuse to engage with people ‘from the city’.

        There are indications that it is also a biological problem: the lack of physical space influences the development of the brain, which in the Netherlands seems to be conspicuously smaller than average for the human species. People from abroad settling in Holland, begin to suffer from brain shrinking after ca. 2,5 years; on the other hand people leaving the country experience a sudden development of the frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes. Foreigners or locals who go into ‘innere Emigration’, usually get comparable brain growth – stimulated by anything that liberates from the collective manias.

        • Ludo says:

          Too bad your views on brain (under) development mostly negate the thrust of your arguments on Dutch talents. I would hope you were being facetious.

  • A.L. says:

    Indeed, Haitink stands tall, too tall in fact for today’s debased, bargain basement, bottom feeding music biz. What little is left, that is. And no, the pandemic is not entirely to blame. It only fast tracked the rot.

  • Rogerio says:

    Only one thing to do.
    Build a new Concert Hall.

  • Manu says:

    And the new management team chosen is without experience, no artistic criteria and too weak to external pressures and listening only to actual tendencies without marking an own profile. Very disapointing. Gatti was the man for them as concerts of highest level with him. proofed

    • Marko Kassenaar says:

      Yeah, managing the Elbphilharmonie and having the Vienna Symphony on your cv is “weak”. Just like working with a business manager who is in the 11th year of his tenure at the RCO. What on earth is wrong with you, guys?

    • Bulgakov says:

      Ummm…The new management team doesn’t start until early 2021. It’s rather premature to deliver any sort of verdict on them.

  • Axl says:

    “On current form, it’s a long way from the champions league.” – I’m not agree with that phrase. If Concertgebouw hires yhe best possible musicians also in future – they will be in champions league. Conductors and members in office will come and go but musicians are the true reason why it’s one of the world’s TOP3 orchestras.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    It is a sad fact replicated in many other fields that no matter how much talent you might have lower down, if the top management is not up to scratch and is engaged in mutual back-scratching to shore up its position, everybody will suffer and your reputation will be diminished. Just look at FIFA or the Labour Party and consider the harm previous leadership did, and then the RCO troubles fall into a similar category.

  • Johann Sebastian Kritiker says:

    O my god, an orchestra without a musical director! What a disaster! It will take a few years and the Concertgebouworkest will sound like the Wiener Philharmoniker or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Can somebody please take this overpaid nineteen century job?

  • The Concertgebouw is,and has been for many years,a good Orchestra,but nothing to shout from the rooftops about.It is in essence, simply another ‘good’ Orchestra.

  • GCMP says:

    When Barenboim left the Chicago Symphony, management had trouble deciding who to ask to replace him . . . supposedly the music director job was offered eventually to Haitink, who refused on the grounds he would be too old. But he did agree to be Principal conductor and what a great thing that was. Let’s hope if the Concertgebouw can’t get a permanent musical director they could get a principal conductor like that to restore order.

  • Kees says:

    Haha what the heck are you talking about? Maybe time to get some fresh air and get out of your lockdown?

  • Firing Back says:

    ‘…a catalogue of arrogance and incompetence…’, by the management.
    Shame on them.

    That can so perfectly apply to the management teams of most of our ‘top’ UK orchestras, too.

    Thankfully, COVID lockdowns and financial repercussions will drain the nasty little swamp.

  • Brian says:

    Have you heard the Concertgebouw Orchestra live, recently? I bet that’s a no, so how you can even know they’re not among the world’s best anymore is a mystery to me. It says a lot that you think the orchestra is in a crises simply because they don’t have a chief conductor for the coming years. As Axl states above it’s first and most of all the musicians that form and define the orchestra. They are by far the most important. And this orchestra really consists of the greatest musicians, who have btw a very positive, warm, open and anything but arrogant attitude (ask the guest conductors). They work with wonderful conductors with whom they – yes also now, without chief condutor -, perform on the absolutely highest level.
    This bashing of the Concertgebouw Orchestra is indeed tedious, and actually very superficous.

    • MezzoLover says:

      I agree the RCO boast some of the best orchestral musicians in their ranks – whether that alone makes them one of the great orchestras in the world is open to debate IMO, although they definitely still sound wonderful in their current form.

      I also suspect they may actually PREFER not having a chief conductor after the Gatti fiasco. A New York Times critic, in reviewing their Carnegie Hall concert with Daniel Harding in February 2019, made this interesting observation:

      “Mr. Harding conducted elegantly, with intelligence and purpose…Even so, I couldn’t help noticing that the musicians’ eyes were often elsewhere. String players often glance at each other, or keep their eyes focused on the concertmaster’s bow. Part of what makes this orchestra play so well is that its members approach the music like chamber musicians. which means that much of the time they don’t look at the conductor at all.”


      • John Borstlap says:

        There is a story about a KCO rehearsel when the players only noticed after 2 hours that the conductor had not arrived at all. I can’t remember which conductor it was.

      • Pedro says:

        That was because Harding is not a good conductor.

      • Marko Kassenaar says:

        The musicians are used to rely on each other. Let’s not forget they had just played that same program in Amsterdam with another conductor (FX Roth), it is their signature piece.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Sometimes the conductor conducts a piece that is different from the piece that the orchestra is actually playing. Fortunately, nobody ever notices – neither audiences, nor critics, nor conductor, nor players.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I was at the Concertgebouw in 2015 for Gergiev and Leonidas Kovakis. I’d seen them before in Vienna. Superb orchestra, wonderful venue overall – but I was stuck behind a pole and couldn’t see much from the side, close to the front.

  • Bratsche brat says:

    Not accusing but wondering, what’s the difference between Vienna going decades without a Music Director, and Concertgebouw now going some years without one? Maybe it’s an upgrade, ha!

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      The difference? Social media. (What an oxymoron that is!)

    • MezzoLover says:

      The main difference between the VPO and the RCO lies in their governance structure:

      The VPO players are entirely self-governing, administering and organizing their own concerts and dividing up the proceeds among themselves. The orchestra is run by a chairperson chosen by the members from among their own number and by an administrative committee elected in the same way.

      The RCO, on the other hand, applies the Board (“Bestuur”) model. The orchestra’s artistic policy and concert programming are determined by the Artistic Council (“Artistiek Beraad”), with regular consultation between the Board-appointed Managing Director, Chief Conductor and the Artistic Committee (consisting of a handful of orchestra members). By not having a Chief Conductor, the Managing Director – who is not an orchestra member and who may or may not identify with the interest and concerns of the musicians – gets an even bigger say in setting artistic direction for the RCO, a task for which the current MD is clearly not qualified.

      So no, this is not an upgrade by any definition.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Right on, Bratsche brat (I love your handle, BTW).
      IMO, it’s all about the musicians in the orchestra. If the finest musicians are obtained, the orchestra will be the finest. (Let the downvotes come, but prove me wrong, naysayers!)
      I think it would be great if the RCO would adapt the VPO’s model.

  • Brian says:

    I find the obsession with the ‘uber or not playing level of orchestras’ to be irritating. An orchestra composed of high level college students often gives more enjoyable performances than top level professional ones. At some point the differences in how ‘high level an orchestral musician is’ becomes too small, for me, to think it worth having furious debate over.

    If I have to listen to say the Israeli Philharmonic vs one of America’s big 5-6, I’ll take the Israeli philharmonic everyday because they play so musically.

    The only time I have heard one of the uber-top-level-major philharmonics play with full musicality, was the Berlin Phil when they did their American tour with Mahler’s 7th…

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Coincidentally, Brian, it was the Mahler 7 that Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra played in San Francisco, on the only occasion I heard Haitink in person.
      It was one of the greatest listening experiences of my life.

  • Papageno says:

    Or they can play conductorless like the Orpheus.

  • John Borstlap says:

    I think the orchestra is still great, but that the various managements have been incompetent. I feel sorry for the players.

  • Marko Kassenaar says:

    Mister Lebrecht’s post is, as per usual, unfounded and with a toxic bias. The management is not “interim”, it’s new. The triumvirate is just the same shape and form it has had for the past years, with Joel Ethan Fried as artistic director, Jan Raes as general director and David Bazen, who stays on as the business director. Why this constant vile? What does Mr. Lebrecht hold against this constantly phenomenal orchestra? Did they snub him once?
    And what is with the sour comments on Dutch mentality? “Excellence not tolerated”? Did you even HEAR the orchestra?

  • fflambeau says:

    Why would Nelsons leave Boston for Amsterdam: less money, smaller town, backward people, orchestra in a turmoil etc.?

  • richard graber says:

    It’s disappointing to not have a chief conductor for a couple of years but Haitink was there for 30 years. That’s plenty long, however poorly his departure may have been handled. They had a great association with Chailly and Jansons as well. The orchestras they went on to are not as high a level as the CO, however solid they are. Gatti’s situaton was unfortunate but not the CO’s fault. I don’t see this black and white thinking, they are a great orchestra.

  • Harrie says:

    Ask to the musicians in the USA or UK or most of other places how good their managements are during this pandemic. NO pay, NO concerts, NO perspective, NO respect etc. The Concertgebouworkest management has secured 100% salary so far during the pandemic and are financially so well organised that also the future is guaranteed. And go to listen and judge! Also, the orchestra just appointed two new great managers that start in spring so you clearly don’t know what you are talking about.

  • CelloGuy says:

    I think it is wonderful that this website exists. It is a great source for classical music news, and gives many people a chance to comment. (This is my first comment here, so in the future my comments will have more substance to them.)

  • Harpist says:

    I know of another top orchestra that didn’t have a chief conductor for ages and is doing quite well…Resides in Vienna.

  • Wise Guy says:

    Well, they sound amazing considering their difficulty in attracting the best players at times, due to the relatively low pay compared to German Orchestras. Readers and our dear esteemed host could consider the thought that an orchestra might still be able to be awesome due to its own internal tradition, even if there isn’t an official music director. I mean, they’re just conductors.