A Saint in Three Acts
Museum Music

This is a Concert Hall

DSC08834 One thing I didn't get the chance to post about during my recent travels that warrants a mention was the concert I saw two weeks ago at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. The Concertgebouw, built in 1886 by Adolf Leonard van Gendt, is widely considered to be one of the two-or-three best concert halls in the world, praised for its clean sightlines and pristine acoustics. Gendt based his shoebox design on the great concert halls of his day, particularly the Neue Gewandhaus in Leipzig (destroyed in WWII) and the Muskiverein in Vienna. The one other time I've been to Amsterdam, I only saw the Concertgebouw from a distance, so when I learned that the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra was scheduled to play a concert in the Grote Zaal ("Main Hall") the night before the opening of Saint Francois, I jumped at the chance to get inside. DSC08796

I just missed the curtain for Antonin Dvořák's driving symphonic poem The Noon Witch, which opened the program. When an usher opened the door to let me in during the ovation, the sensation nearly knocked me on my ass. The white-and-gold auditorium, which seats just over 2,000, was packed to the gills, including the choir stalls. The orchestra sat on an unusually high stage, behind a thick red rope hung on cast-iron pylons. Above it all was a massive wooden pipe organ, topped with Byzantine turrets. And the sound! It seemed to be coming from all directions, loud and clear as a bell.


Around the perimeter of the hall were the names of some 50 composers, both familiar (Bach, Beethoven, Mahler) and not (Pijper? Verhulst?), with room for several more. A single balcony, which ringed the hall on three sides, was only three rows deep. There was a lot of unused space.

In an odd design flaw, the stage door is actually next to the organ, at the top of a long and fairly steep staircase. (Anyone who's been to Amsterdam knows they like their staircases steep.) I got a kick out of watching conductor Yakov Kreizberg - an American protege of Leonard Bernstein's - run up and down the stairs for curtain calls, wondering if he was ever tempted to slide down the long brass banister to save time.


The remainder of the program consisted of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (played by orchestra principal Leon Bosch) and Tchiakovsky's Pathetique Symphony: pretty meat-and-potatoes stuff, but good for cleaning the ears out. Kreizberg bears more than a passing resemblance to Bernstein with his fluttering baton and leaps off the podium, which makes sense given that Bernstein conducted here many times with the house band, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (which, incidentally, is putting on a major Messiaen tribute this season.) The crowd offered their approval at the end with a big standing O.

For anyone planning to visit the Concertgebouw anytime soon, take heed: I was scolded fairly harshly for snapping pictures inside the Grote Zaal, though it's unclear whether they thought me a concert hall design spy or just another dumb American tourist. This is what I suffer for you, dear readers. Enjoy.DSC08830