Sex sells - it always has. In recent years, celebrity has become its competitor. Oprah chooses our books, George selects our coffee and Gwyneth balances our cigarettes and tofu. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, enjoying celebrity status as one of the world's finest, recently returned from a high profile global tour. It is once again in the orchestral spotlight due to its search for a new musical director as Mariss Jansons will step down due to ill health. Can this venerable 125 year old orchestra engage its own celebrity to retain its lofty status?

Mariss Jansons © Marco Borggreve
Mariss Jansons
© Marco Borggreve

The press release announcing the RCO 2014-2015 season succinctly states exactly which tightrope walk such a distinguished orchestra attempts each new season: proud that it is ‘preserving a legacy’ it is decidedly, and at the same time ‘forging a path for the future’. It is known that orchestras all over the world are struggling: with diminished finances, ageing publics, and disinterest in the music of today. As RCO director Jan Raes himself once famously stated (while director elsewhere), “there will be fewer orchestras in the future”. That is certainly true, at least in the western world. Yet as ensembles in North America and Europe face possible extinction, China is swiftly catching up, building halls, training musicians and programming orchestral concerts as if the hunger will never be stilled. There, little to no criticism on the predominantly conservative programming is voiced. Classic symphonic repertoire still reigns supreme, spiced from time to time with contemporary celebrities close to the Chinese heart, most notably composer, conductor Tan Dun.

Yet which path is best for a future that can live up to a celebrated legacy? For the coming season the RCO presents several new formats alongside very celebrated faces: some shorter concerts which commence at a sexy 9 pm; presenters from broadcast media; the celebrity magnet of an artist-in-residence – the thrilling and charismatic Leonidas Kavakos. In short, the programming focuses on generating augmentative (and younger) audiences.

Is this anything new? Just as consistently as sex sells, orchestras have always sought new and larger publics. The Boston Pops was established by the Boston Symphony in 1881 to lure new audiences into their hall. I never realized that a seat could possibly be empty in 1881! Willem Mengelberg, the RCO’s legendary conductor, was rebuffed by his own orchestral Board of Directors, according to his biographer Frits Zwart, for repeating some pieces too often and not introducing enough ‘new repertoire’. Ironically, these early 20th century directors were afraid that a lack of new works would negatively affect the orchestra’s ticket sales.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © Simon van Boxtel
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Simon van Boxtel

Ticket sales and new repertoire are tightly entwined on both sides of the Atlantic, if for completely different reasons. Many American orchestras are green with envy when they consider the financial security of federal and local financing that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra can assume. A certain percentage of the bills are paid before ticket sales even commence. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, has 26 full time employees dedicated to ‘development’ – in other words, pulling money in from patrons. In comparison, RCO employs less than 10 full time in their marketing department, responsible not only for individual patrons but press releases, ticket sales, press support and everything either on paper or in the media, social and traditional. In Amsterdam, subsidy committees complain of too much Mozart. From American patrons, the pressure is different: ‘my wife just adores Mozart, oh and by the way, her brother is a super pianist!’.

Which pressure is preferable?

Dealing with the possible double-whammy of stagnant ticket sales (if the repertoire is too daring) and subsidy cuts (for too much Mozart), in 2014-2015 the RCO focuses on  sexy celebrity to attract new audiences, at the same time retaining in reverence the legacies it is most famous for: Beethoven, Mahler,  and classic Russian repertoire.

A new series is entitled Essentials, ‘for those who have had little or no opportunity to come and hear the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’. The three concerts are short and feature the repertoire ‘every music lover should know’. According to the RCO that is Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 and Richard Strauss' Eine Alpensinfonie. All three concerts also feature a ‘solo concert by young talent, a surprise!’ That is most likely where the Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms will come in, but in the first instance, said symphonic choices are by no means conservative or bland, certainly while in search of new, younger publics.

New compositions feature two Dutch composers that are ‘in residence’ too: Richard Rijnvos and Michel van der Aa. Van der Aa’s  new Violin Concerto is being written for the celebrated violinist Janine Jansen; a clever combination of the well-known and the new. Chinese celebrity Tan Dun will also make two appearances, conducting his own (relatively new) public favourites.

The AAA series, once the ghetto for contemporary repertoire (back when it was AA) have evolved into multidisciplinary theme driven events, all with a very specific festival formula and in cooperation with the city’s theatre, film and debating institutions. Here again, there is lots of room for artistic stars from media’s more favoured arts.

The RCO brochure further stresses the pre-concert talks and late night rendez-vous with performers all of which creates a festival feel to regular subscription concert series and individual concert events. Come for dinner, stay for a drink, enjoy an interview, join the family!

New publics as opposed to a significant number of new works – this is clearly the present priority. Mengelberg’s board might not understand; Jan Raes is convinced, and convincing. The choices made are clear and the presentation creativity is inspiring; it is not programming business as usual in Amsterdam. Or is it? Has the legacy always been decisive steps forward? Lest we forget how many new works Mengelberg introduced, at the end of the 20th century, some of Maestro’s programmes were repeated, exactly 100 years later. It was an eye opener. Rarely were these the now assumed overture-concerto-symphony concerts: Solo piano interludes! Lieder! Concerts without intermission with just one work, most often by a contemporary composer as yet far from a celebrity: Gustav Mahler!

So what can we expect from the next RCO music director? A must is the ability to understand and support the present director’s formats; programming responsibility has shifted from the stage (back) to the boardroom. One can as yet only imagine what he or she will bring as an investment for the future to preserve this celebrity legacy in Amsterdam.