The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam may be the finest of the three great orchestras of Europe. But the orchestra, which opens its current American tour tomorrow at the Kennedy Center, has never enjoyed the celebrity -- at least among most American music lovers -- of the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic.
"Must be the name," says Riccardo Chailly, 41, the Concertgebouw's good-humored music director. "Any American can handle Vienna or Berlin -- but 'Concertgebouw!' Even Americans who love our orchestra have trouble spelling it, let alone pronouncing it."
But the 107-year-old orchestra has a warm sonority equal to that of Vienna's, virtuosity equal to Berlin's (and superior to Vienna's), and an exceptionally versatile musicianship that surpasses both.
It is actually the Concertgebouw's ability to submerge itself -- without the loss of its own identity -- in the personalities of the pieces it plays that accounts for its relatively low profile, Chailly says.
"This is an orchestra with a tradition of openness more than 100 years old," the conductor says. "It's that flexibility that makes it unique."
Nevertheless, when Chailly replaced Bernard Haitink in 1988 as only the fifth chief conductor (and as only the first who wasn't Dutch) in the Concertgebouw's history, some of the orchestra's fabled flexibility and openness had been lost.
The major figure in the orchestra's history had been the legendary Willem Mengelberg, who led the orchestra between 1895-1945 and established its reputation for meticulous preparation of new works. Under Mengelberg, the Concertgebouw pioneered some of the most demanding music of the 20th century. It was the favorite orchestra of Gustav Mahler, who conducted it eight times in his own work, and of Richard Strauss, who dedicated his "Ein Heldenleben" to the orchestra and called its performance of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" the "most beautiful I have ever experienced."
The Mengelberg-Concertgebouw tradition of the new continued through the years in its advocacy of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Hindemith, Bartok and Schoenberg.
But in the years after Mengelberg, the orchestra, while it maintained its standards, gradually grew more conservative. When Chailly was announced as Haitink's replacement in 1985, the then 31-year-old conductor had a reputation as a boy-wonder, who could and would conduct anything from Mozart to Messiaen and had a special interest in new music. It was clear to everyone -- most of all to Chailly -- that his mandate from the self-governing Concertgebouw was to bring it back into the 20th century.
"Restoring the orchestra's open attitude toward new music took a heroic and painstaking effort from the musicians and from the public," Chailly says. "Even composers like Schoenberg and Hindemith had been almost completely forgotten. Musical flexibility comes from mental flexibility; it can only come if each day, you put on the players' desks a new piece of music that asks them to invest their bravura into someone else's style."
In seven years, Chailly -- while maintaining the orchestra's high standards in Mahler and Bruckner -- has made the Concertgebouw familiar with 20th-century music from Italy (Petrassi and Nono), Russia (Schnittke and Gubaidulina) and the United States (Gershwin and John Adams), as well as with such all-but-forgotten epigones of post-Romanticism as Alphons Diepenbrock and Alexander von Zemlinsky.
"Now the orchestra plays the Five Pieces of Schoenberg like a Brahms symphony," Chailly says.
Despite his status as one of the world's most sought-after conductors, Chailly, who maintains homes in Amsterdam and in Milan with his wife and their two children, is no jet-setter. Last year he resigned his prestigious post as music director of the Teatro Communale in Bologna because of disagreements with the opera's management about artistic standards.
Now he restricts his operatic involvement to one new production each year at Milan's La Scala, and he confines guest-conducting appearances in the United States to just three orchestras -- the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
"Making an atmosphere for good music-making is like making a good family life -- it takes time and effort," Chailly says. "You must have the same musicians in front of you often enough so that you and your orchestra assimilate each other's style and create a unity of intentions."
What: Riccardo Chailly conducts the Concertgebouw in works of Berg, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Prokofiev
When: 8:30 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center, Washington
Call: (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324