Vignettes from Amsterdam - A Beethoven Concert At The Concertgebouw

Ever since I heard the recording of Mahler’s 3rd symphony by The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailley at The Concertgebouw, I’ve wanted to experience a large symphonic work live there. Attending a performance at The Concertgebouw was therefore a big part of our recent Amsterdam visit.

Vignettes from Amsterdam - A Beethoven Concert At The Concertgebouw 1Vignettes from Amsterdam - A Beethoven Concert At The Concertgebouw 1

Vignettes from Amsterdam - A Beethoven Concert At The Concertgebouw 2Vignettes from Amsterdam - A Beethoven Concert At The Concertgebouw 2

My wife and I reached there in the noon and fished out their concert catalogue from hundreds of colourful brouchures placed in a rack near the ticket counter. While the catalogue was in Dutch, western classical music is a language almost as universal as science or mathematics and we had no difficulting figuring that a performance of Beethoven’s 2nd and 3rd symphonies by Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Bernard Haitink was scheduled that very evening. The price of the ticket [€ 46 for the most basic seat] almost gave me a pause. The fact that my wife isn’t a western classical aficionado and therefore finds it extremely hard to part with that kind of money for a live concert didn’t make it easier. Better sense prevailed and it was decided that I was to attend it alone.

I went to the ticket counter and enquired about the program. To my surprise, the lady at the counter told us that the Beethoven concert had already happend yesterday and tonight they only had a Lizt/Chopin recital. I frantically started turning through the pages of the catalogue to locate the schedule for that night but before I could get there, a young, bespectacled gentleman (who reminded me a lot of Bill Gates of 20 years ago) standing at the adjacent counter intervened and informed the lady that indeed the Beethoven concert was scheduled for tonight because he was playing in the orchestra! He was there to get tickets for the afternoon concert which we gladly let him pick from our counter.

At The Concertgebouw, people under 30 (‘young people’) get a discount on western classical concert tickets. The ticket counter lady asked me if I was under 30. Before I could answer, she looked up at my face for 5 seconds and shook her head dismissively - nah you are not’. I must investigate what gave it away - whether it is those grey strands of hair that have begun to appear in my sideburns or if it was my grizzled weekend look. Having thus secured what must have been the most expensive concert ticket of my life, I went back to the hotel and started waiting for my encounter with Beethoven.

A great thing about the concert ticket was that it entitled me to a free ride in a tram to and from The Concertgebouw and a complimentary drink once I reached there. I was as nervous as I am before catching a flight and reached The Concertgebouw some 30 minutes before the performance. A lot of people had already started queuing outside the entrance to the main concert hall. While most people were dressed in their best formal attire, I was in my jeans, sneakers and a jacket that even I consider a little on the dowdy side. I must’ve looked like a tramp who had found a ticket on the road and had sauntered in to stay warm. I might sound a little crazy but it was my personal tribute to the man whose music we were all there to experiene. Beethoven was notorious for his unkempt, slovenly appearnce and his biographies are littered with various anecdotes that allude to it.

My seat was right at the bottom of the elevated stage where the orchestra performs. From where I sat, I would have barely any view of the orchestra - may be half the violin section, a couple of bassists and the conductor. But then I was a here for the acoustics not for the views. In front of me was one of the doors from where half the members of the orchestra would come out and climb up the stage. I could hear random snatches of violins being tuned.

What followed is impossible to put down in words. Both the symphonies were beautifully performed and all that I had read about acoustics of The Concertgebouw was every bit true and then some more. All I can say is that those CDs will always sound like an inferior imitation of the real.

The average age of the audience must be 65 or more. This being a cold and rainy January, every one had some kind of minor flu. People would sit tight during the performance but each time the orchestra would pause for a short break between two movements a wave of coughing would break out throughout the hall. The orchestra would wait for it to subside somewhat and then begin - at which point the music will take over again. The orchestra (with the notable exception of conductor Haitink) was relatively young but clearly everyone had a solid mastery of their craft. And yes, our saviour at the ticket counter this afternoon was a violinist.

January 22, 2011