The early decades of the Concertgebouw Orchestra make for a compelling story of legendary chief conductors and a superior concert hall.1 In the late 1880s, a new music temple with unique acoustics was built on the southern edge of Amsterdam. It was founded and funded by six wealthy citizens—a lawyer, an equity trader, a banker, a cotton trader, a wine merchant and an attorney—who thought the time was ripe for the city to boast an ambitious, high-performing orchestra and a concert hall to match it. To this effect, they invested part of their private fortunes, earned in the Dutch East Indies and on the Amsterdam stock exchange, and founded the Concertgebouw Ltd. They governed both building and orchestra, acting as the employer of its musicians and staff (until 1952).
The Concertgebouw opened its doors in the Spring of 1888. Six months later, the Concertgebouw Orchestra staged its first performance. Violinist, conductor and composer Willem Kes was the first permanent chief conductor and artistic leader of the orchestra. He introduced a broad repertoire, including contemporary orchestral music, to the Amsterdam audience and instilled a culture of disciplined musicianship within the orchestra. Under Kes’s 7-year reign, the concertgoing public was socialized into the kind of concert etiquette that prevailed in other major centres of classical music around Europe, banning waiters, smoking and chatting during performances that had been customary around Amsterdam prior to the opening of the Concertgebouw.2
In 1895, Kes was succeeded by Willem Mengelberg—at just 24 years of age. In his extraordinary half-a-century reign as chief conductor and leader of the orchestra, Mengelberg turned the Orchestra into a top-tier musical institution. Craving for perfection, Mengelberg transformed peripheral and pedestrian Amsterdam into an internationally respected centre of classical music on par with traditional strongholds such as Berlin and Vienna. His music, portions of which have been recorded, stood out by compelling interpretations rooted in the architecture of the compositions. Especially striking were Mengelberg’s engaging style of conducting, the blending of the instruments, the extraordinary rhythmic precision, and his strongly developed sense for detail and transparent orchestral sound (Zwart 1999).
The authoritarian Mengelberg turned the orchestra into a highly disciplined and cohesive unit, thanks to a rigorous selection of orchestra musicians and uncompromising performance expectations. Endless rehearsals lifted the orchestra to an ever-higher level. Film footage shows how he conducted: with radiant energy, demonstrating a clear and demonstrative baton technique (Bowen and Holden 2005: 127).
Mengelberg struck a judicious balance between devoting much attention to monumental and iconic works of classical music such as Bach’s Matthäus-Passion and the avant-garde of contemporary composers, such as Mahler, Richard Strauss and Schönberg. Mengelberg’s commitment to performing both iconic and emerging composers gave the orchestra its distinctive character and shaped its size and staffing. Mengelberg invited conducting composers to Amsterdam, such as Debussy, Grieg and Schönberg. Furthermore, he brought works of Dutch composers such as Diepenbrock and Dopper to the Amsterdam audience. The musicians’ curiosity and commitment in performing lesser-known pieces and composers contributed to the orchestra’s much-lauded chameleonic character.
His close ties with living composers helped shape the orchestra’s distinctive character as both guardian and modernizer of classical music. His friendship with leading contemporary international composers such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss proved an artistic asset. Both regularly came to Amsterdam to conduct their own works, as Mengelberg vigorously championed their music. Mahler considered the Netherlands his second cultural homeland after his native Austria. The acoustics of the Concertgebouw building were ideal for this late Romantic repertoire. A grateful Strauss dedicated his symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben to Mengelberg and the Orchestra.
Quality control in selection and retention of musicians was and remains a cornerstone of the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s quality and reputation. The audition process originally set up by Mengelberg and evolving further under his successors boils down to a big knockout competition—with the musician coming in and playing behind a screen to ensure the influence of considerations concerning gender, ethnicity, age and appearance. Only one per cent of the candidates end up in the Orchestra. The process is nerve-wracking for the musicians being auditioned. Auditioning successfully requires a complete fusion of musician, music and instrument. The difference between good and outstanding is small but critical and the jury is extremely selective. A vacancy remains unfilled until someone is found who has the desired level. Until then, the orchestra will fall back on substitutes. Once in the seat, the musician must display a sufficiently strong personality, yet prove flexible and able to adapt in what is a demanding job involving ceaseless study, rehearsal, performances, travel, recordings, meetings with sponsors and the need to ‘get along’ in a community of precocious talents. The musicians must sacrifice economic comfort for artistic integrity: they earn on average 35% less than their colleagues in other top orchestras.
Part of the Orchestra’s reputation for the vigilance and adaptability of its musicians stemmed from an unexpected quarter: the peculiar acoustics of the Concertgebouw. On the concert stage, musicians were not seated particularly near to each other and could not hear each other very well (and this is still the case today). Therefore, they were compelled to listen very intently during play. This bred a level of concentration and alertness that was second nature and became a source of the young orchestra’s growing reputation (Ferwerda 2013: 127).
The creation of the orchestra had occurred under a lucky star. The economic growth at the end of the nineteenth century was a major contributing factor. Yet financing the two-pronged endeavour—the building and the orchestra from scratch—entirely with private money proved challenging. From the 1910s onwards, first municipal and then national government funding was required. In return for the subsidies, government funders demanded subscription concerts as well as ‘people’s concerts’ for music lovers who were less well-off. Both types of concerts required the orchestra to diversify its programming and further broaden its repertoire to cater to the tastes of a broader public.
Its public stature increased thanks to the touring of major concert halls in several European countries, starting in 1895, and thanks to its growing body of recordings—initially released on 78 rpm records. International tours and recordings reinforced each other in the orchestra’s quest for artistic prestige. In sum, within two decades after its founding, the orchestra could pride itself on a distinct identity, a highly rated competence and a fast-growing international reputation. The latter found expression in endorsements from members of the royal family, ministers, musicologists and composers from across Europe. The daily La Libre Belgique wrote in 1926 that ‘the Concertgebouw Orchestra, together with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, has mastery over the symphonic world’ (Bottenheim 1950: 81).
The Mahler festival, organized in 1919/1920 on the occasion of Mengelberg’s 25th anniversary as chief conductor, formed a first apotheosis of the orchestra’s ascent. It was not just an artistic highlight in the life of the building and the orchestra: with musicians from around Europe participating in the proceedings it became somewhat of a cultural peace conference, reuniting key players from Germany and France who had been on opposite sides of the Great War and had barely interacted since.
As the institution-building leader who had brought the orchestra up to world class, Mengelberg became a revered figure. As his fame spread, he made a series of high-profile guest appearances throughout eastern and western Europe and the United States, with an important side engagement as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra between 1922 and 1930 (Bowen and Holden 2005: 126). The second half of Mengelberg’s career took a darker turn, getting hamstrung by fiscal and financial malaise and eventually ruined by his pro-German attitude and behaviour during the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. The former folk hero fell from grace after the end of the war and was no longer allowed to conduct in the Netherlands. Until his death in 1951 he lived a reclusive life in Switzerland, feeling banished and misunderstood (Zwart 2019).
Tensions and Conflicts
Behind the façade of the ostensibly seamless upward trajectory of the orchestra, significant tensions occasionally flared up. Firstly, there was the uneasy duopoly—common in many arts organizations—between the Chief Conductor and the Business Director, each representing a particular set of values and priorities within the orchestra’s system. As early as 1902/1903 a power struggle took place between Mengelberg and business director (and previously a horn-playing member of the orchestra) Willem Hutschenruyter. This so-called ‘Concertgebouw conflict’ took place against the background of growing disgruntlement of the musicians about the great difference in salary between themselves and the conductor, who earned eight times as much as they did. It evolved around four issues: the position of the orchestra vis-à-vis the board of the Concertgebouw Ltd. that owned and operated both the building and the orchestra; the position of the orchestra vis-à-vis the chief conductor; the position of the business director within the orchestra-conductor force field; and, perhaps most important of all, Mengelberg’s dictatorial behaviour towards the musicians (Samama 1988: 20–21). All parties made their complaints known to the board. Emotions ran high. The board sided with the chief conductor; the business director left and the orchestra had to cop it.
Notwithstanding—or perhaps as a response to—Mengelberg’s long reign characterized by autocratic leadership, the orchestra’s musicians developed a remarkable democratic self-consciousness. In 1915, they founded the Association ‘Het Concertgebouworchest’ (sic) in order to promote their interests with the board of the Concertgebouw and the chief conductor. Meanwhile in the 1930s, history repeated itself when conductor Mengelberg came into conflict with another business director, his namesake and distant relative Rudolf Mengelberg. As far as the conductor was concerned, Rudolf Mengelberg was to have position nor title on a par with his own stature, but nevertheless was expected to solve all the orchestra’s organizational problems, including financial setbacks (Zwart 2016: 342). The director stood his ground and demanded to be given a suitable level of authority. This time, the conductor backed down and the board retained the director.
Secondly, almost from day one there were financial troubles. This should not come as a surprise; many cultural institutions suffer from them. American economists William Baumol and William G. Bowen made a connection between expenses of performing arts institutions (ballet, dance, music, theatre) and technological progress, which in most economic sectors boosts productivity. Orchestral labour productivity hardly rises. To perform a Mahler symphony, a certain number of musicians and a certain amount of time are needed. Playing faster with fewer musicians is not an option. Expenses in the labour-intensive orchestra world rise faster than in market-oriented sectors which have substantial possibilities to boost productivity. The consequence of this is a ‘cost disease’ which will inevitably cause budgetary problems, though orchestras such as André Rieu’s that confine themselves to highly popular niches within orchestral music may at times beat the odds (Koopman 2018: 231–233).
In Amsterdam, the orchestra’s private founders were faced with refinancing challenges and budget overruns. As maintenance costs of the building increased and wages of musicians and the chief conductor rose, it became more difficult to stay in the black, which was reflected in the patterns of patronage. In the decade following 1910, the traditional patronage proved insufficient to cover the costs. Public funding in the form of subsidies from the city and the state became a necessity, but with it came another set of actors whose views had to be taken into account in charting the course of the orchestra and rendering account of how the public’s money was being spent.
Thirdly, the relation between the chief conductor and the business director had become an endemic source of tension. From day one, the regents of the building had given the chief conductor a very wide berth. This model regularly caused tensions involving Mengelberg and his successors and their business director counterparts. Given the fact that the board had few levers at its disposal to diffuse these tensions, conflicts could easily spin out of control. The demarcation of tasks and responsibilities was blurred. The director was supposed to implement decisions of the board and focus on administrative tasks. In consultation with the board he had to find a balance between the artistic mission zealously pursued and defended by the chief conductor and the personal, financial and organizational possibilities of the institution.
A cultural institution like the Amsterdam Orchestra can thus be deconstructed in various organizational units (Orchestra, building, commerce). Each of these units is represented by what Selznick (1957) referred to as administrative elites. An institution can only move forward and stay true to its founding mission if these elites find a way to work together. Institutional leadership is effective if it becomes collective leadership. In the remainder of this chapter, we will see that institutional balance is both jeopardized and achieved by these administrative elites.