Musical masters painting in perfect unison

I am a barbarian who knows next to nothing about classical music. Amsterdam boasts one of the world’s greatest orchestras, but I have never seen it perform. I couldn’t tell Beethoven from Mozart or Brahms from Bartok. I didn’t even know that the Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; RCO) and Het Concertgebouw (Amsterdam’s Concert Hall) were two separate entities.

“You could compare them to KLM and Schiphol,” I was told.

“Yeah, but only if KLM was called Schiphol Airlines,” I thought to myself.

In short, I am supremely unqualified to write this blog. But that has never stopped me in the past. Fortunately, I know enough about music to have a deep respect for classical musicians and the immense skill, care and dedication they display. But the music itself is too formal or intricate for my liking. Or perhaps it’s just that I prefer listening to Radiohead, Johnny Cash and Cat Power.

Similarly, I’m not a huge fan of Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Frans Hals or Vermeer, partly because the content of their paintings doesn’t really appeal to my imagination. And yet I always marvel at the precision with which they depict their chosen subject, the exquisite rendition of light and colour, the superb attention to detail.

In many ways, an orchestra is even more impressive, because you need to get a large group of masters painting in perfect unison, all the players contributing their own shade of light and dark to the music, and you need them to paint the same picture, with the same precision and passion, over and over again, wherever they may be performing.

The great advantage of an orchestra is that, unlike the paintings of the Dutch masters, it travels well. This year the RCO will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a world tour that will see the orchestra visiting Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and 20 other cities around the world. When I asked the PR department whether the orchestra, like rock stars before their concerts, had a rider specifying the needs and wishes of the musicians – blue M&Ms, pink champagne, cigars, shoe polish, a bow-tie press – I was presented with a 335-page book of essays charting the history of the orchestra, as well as a superbly designed photo book, from which I selected the wonderful images illustrating this blog.

As I sat skimming through the essays, looking for tasty titbits of inside information to share with you, it suddenly dawned on me that nothing I could write or show you would ever do justice to the quality of the orchestra or its music. It has to be heard to be believed. Preferably live.

Tickets for RCO’s world tour are selling like hotcakes. The Cape Town concert is already sold out, for example. But there is also some good news, because the orchestra will be performing open-air concerts in São Paulo on 23 June and in Amsterdam on 24 August, where the programme includes Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’, conducted by the acclaimed Antonio Pappano.

If you do manage to attend the latter concert on the Prinsengracht, look out for a large, bald man bobbing around in a tiny boat, playing air violin. That’ll be me.

(Click here for a full overview of RCO’s concert dates worldwide.)