The Concertgebouw Orchestra — Free!

After standing in “the cold line” outside the Concertgebouw for an hour, we were rewarded by a half-hour concert by one of the world’s great orchestras in a hall with acoustics which are close to perfect.  (Read about the logistics of the Concertgebouw’s Wednesday free concerts here.)

Musicians of All Ages  What felt so different that day was seeing the members of the Orchestra come in wearing ordinary clothes, as if each of them hadn’t been picked out of thousands of musicians after years of giving their lives to their instruments. A pregnant woman wearing a plain black sweater, her golden hair clipped behind her ears. A sporty young man in jeans and a crew sweater, as if on his way to the café for a beer with his friends. The more predictable people in their forties and fifties – but there were plenty of thirties, reflecting the fact that studying classical music is still cool for lots of young people.

The pianist (a man, not Maria Jao Pires whom we expected) arrived, wearing a brown sweater with elbow patches, and played scales. At 12:30 precisely by the clock on the back wall, the first violin raised his bow, and tuning was accomplished swiftly. Even conductor Herbert Blomstedt wore a sweater without a tie. Everything was in place to remind us that these were ordinary mortals. An announcer told us that the pianist was Martin Helmchen, whom we later learned was playing there for the first time, a remarkable chance for a younger person to break in.

Flawless and Complete Performance, Not a Rehearsal  Then, with the lift of the conductor’s baton, everything changed, and those singular individuals with their barrettes and trousers and boots became one. Mozart lived again, and whatever disappointment the audience may have felt at not hearing Pires lifted immediately. Unlike some other free concerts, which have been recitals for the evening’s performance, this one proceeded through the whole piece one perfect note at a time with no hesitation or interruption for correction. Helmchen, who also received strong reviews that evening, seemed utterly at home, not a note of music before him, utterly absorbed in the music and yet also attending to the conductor and the orchestra. At the end, we applauded and applauded, and the orchestra dissolved away as if it had been a dream.

Pictures aren’t allowed during the performances, but I did manage to catch one cellist before he left.

A cellist who couldn't stop playing

A cellist who couldn’t stop playing

As you enjoy the beauty, don’t forget that the Concertgebouw was forced to fire its Jewish musicians and play music by non-Jewish composers, and it was the site of an early Nazi speech that warned non-Jews to abandon their fellow citizens.  Read about it here.

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