When, in 1988, the musicians of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra voted to ask Italian Riccardo Chailly to become the first non-Dutch conductor in the Netherlands orchestra's then-100-year history, they thought they knew what they were getting. The Concertgebouw (named for the famed concert hall it occupies) had long been one of Europe's more respected ensembles, but it had also become a bit staid. Chailly, the musicians thought, would shake things up a little.
"But what I brought was much more than they expected," Chailly says with a laugh from Amsterdam, where he has just finished running the orchestra through a selection from Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera. It's the first time, he adds, that the Concertgebouw has ever done Weill. Prior to Chailly's arrival, the orchestra had also never played the compositions of modern German composer Paul Hindemith, or ventured into the 12-tone music of the second Vienna school. Since he took over, such works have become second nature, fleshing out a repertoire that's still heavy with composers such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. "I was chosen to bring a bit of the 20th century," says Chailly, "and I brought it in kind of a drastic way. So drastic that in the beginning, it was a tornado here. People were getting very nervous and wondering about the orchestra's future."
The Dutch audience, which viewed the Concertgebouw as a national treasure, was suspicious as well. Chailly argues, though, that he was simply being more true to Concertgebouw tradition than his critics. Under Willem Mengelberg, who directed the orchestra for half a century, the Concertgebouw was known for bringing in living composers and performing current works. It was only after Mengelberg's tenure that the musical choices began to ossify. Today, Chailly is widely acknowledged to have breathed new life into the Concertgebouw, turning an admired and respected orchestra into one that's also avidly enjoyed.
Houstonians will have a chance to check out what Chailly has wrought when, for the first time in 35 years, the Concertgebouw comes to town. Though he's happy with the program he's prepared for Houston -- Debussy's La Mer, Ravel's Daphnis et Chlo, Suite No. 2, and Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps -- Chailly's a little disappointed he won't be able to play a rarely heard Shostakovich piece written for jazz orchestra. "The big finale features a Hawaiian guitar," he marvels. "Can you imagine it?" That piece will have to wait until he gets to Carnegie Hall in a few weeks. But Chailly does say he has a similarly odd Shostakovich work up his sleeve for a possible Houston encore. "It depends on how enthusiastic the audience is," he notes. "But then, I've heard that Texas audiences can be enthusiastic." -- Mitchell J. Shields
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, February 20, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. Tickets are $10 to $57. For info, call 227-2787.
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