On the afternoon of 14th May 1940, the German Luftwaffe extensively bombed Rotterdam. The resulting fires destroyed virtually the entire historic city centre. The Doelenzaal, Rotterdam’s then-new concert hall, only inaugurated in 1934, was also destroyed in the bombing. As a result, the Rotterdam Philharmonic lost not only its concert and rehearsal space, but also its entire music library.

Rotterdam in 1946, showing Coolsingel leading to Hofplein, the location of the original Doelenzaal.
© Stadsarchief Rotterdam | Public Domain

“All that was left was a small pile of sheet music. We were helped with music and instruments by the Residentie Orchestra (The Hague) and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam). The RPhO played for years in the Rivièra Hall, the main building of Blijdorp Zoo, because there was no other concert hall.”

I am talking to George Wiegel, the chief executive of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (RPhO). Beginning his career as a trombonist, he served for two decades as principal trombone of several Dutch orchestras, spending 11 years in Rotterdam. Wiegel has also been a professor at Rotterdam Conservatory, serving as its director 2002–08. Since 2015, he has been at the head of the orchestra of this vibrant and colourful port city.

Construction of the present home for the RPhO, the concert hall De Doelen, was begun on 9th July 1962, the first pile being driven the then chief conductor Eduard Flipse. The official opening in 1966 took place on 18th May, for decades the annual celebration of Rotterdam’s rebuilding. It was on this date that the City Council agreed to design a new city – four days after the devastating bombing of 1940.

RPhO conductor Eduard Flipse drives the first pile of De Doelen concert hall
© Netherlands Nationaal Archief | Public Domain

In the post-war period, Rotterdam opted to renew the devastated inner city rather than reconstruct it as it had been before. The city became a cradle for innovative architecture, including the Erasmus Bridge, the Cube Houses and a host of skyscrapers. De Doelen concert hall is a crowning achievement of the city’s reconstruction in the first two decades after the war.

Yet despite all the effort, Rotterdam’s centre remained unfinished for many years. Wiegel remembers that De Doelen was still surrounded by bare spaces during his time as a musician in the orchestra. From the upstairs dressing rooms, he could see a neighbouring deer park as recently as the 1980s. “It is only since that time that Rotterdam has become beautiful again and gained a heart. But still today, Rotterdammers have to explain to tourists why the city is lacking a historic centre. This will always be part of being a Rotterdammer.”

The Doelenzaal concert hall in c.1937
© Stadsarchief Rotterdam | Public Domain

From May 11th to 17th the RPhO will perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor in the Netherlands and in Germany, under the direction of their chief conductor Lahav Shani. The symphony, written between 1888 and 1894, was one of Mahler’s most popular and successful works during his lifetime, and is popularly known as the Resurrection Symphony. The concerts explicitly commemorate Rotterdam’s reconstruction.

At the funeral of his mentor Hans von Bülow in 1894, Mahler heard a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poem “Die Auferstehung” (The Resurrection), whose opening calls out: “Rise again, yes, you shall rise again / My dust”. Since 1990, it has become a tradition in Rotterdam to perform this symphony in May, when the RPhO and Bernard Haitink first commemorated the city’s rebuilding on the 50th anniversary of its destruction.

Bernard Haitink conducts Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in Rotterdam in 1990.

“We always combine two things in our Mahler 2 performances: the drama of devastation and the power of reconstruction,” Wiegel says. He adds: “You have to forgive, but you don’t have to forget. The lessons from the war must not be forgotten. We are therefore having the concert recorded by medici.tv and have yet to see how we will shape it.”

This production is also going on tour to Amsterdam, Eindhoven and Dortmund. Are there any implications of taking such a memorial concert on tour to Germany? “We are a very international orchestra. There are no resentments. That’s not there.”

“The memorial concert is no longer so much about the bombing,” Wiegel says. “It's about paying attention together to the fact that you always miss something here in Rotterdam: a historic centre. But we also got something very different in return. And that is an emotion you have to reflect on together from time to time. It is always there and it is often very difficult to name. Only during the small window of time in May does it suddenly become very tangible. That helps every Rotterdammer.”

Stage of De Doelen under construction in 1965
© Netherlands Nationaal Archief | Public Domain

“We love coming to Germany,” Wiegel adds. “Wonderful halls, wonderful orchestras, fantastic colleagues, fantastic audiences. We are always welcome there.”

How does the orchestra plan to bring these memorial aspects to a new generation with less historical awareness? “Just this morning we had a meeting about the side programming. We still look for a way where we don't make it too dramatic but explain to the new generation why the city looks the way it does.”

I ask if, with this memorial event, the orchestra is planning any collaboration with other cultural partners in Rotterdam. “No. We would like to stick to this masterpiece. The few words that are used in it say it all. All our emotion is concentrated in this symphony by a Jewish composer performed by an Israeli conductor. That Lahav will do that gives the concert a charge that we find very special.”

Lahav Shani conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic
© Guido Pijper

I wonder how Wiegel feels about Shani leaving the orchestra for Munich in three years’ time (2025/26)? “For him and for us, it is a great compliment that he has been appointed. Lahav lives in Berlin. He has studied there, he has done quite a lot there and he feels at ease in that culture, just like with us.” Shani studied at the Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler”, Berlin.

“Munich, of course, is a great city and has the attention of the rest of the world,” Wiegel says. “But from a world perspective, the Netherlands are really only on the cultural map because of Amsterdam. I think that is a mistake: our government policy frequently forgets that we have some very beautiful and valuable things outside of Amsterdam. They deserve more attention than they often get.”

The Rotterdam Philharmonic has a history of contracting youthful conductors, who often become world famous through their engagements at Rotterdam. “That also has to do with the history of the orchestra,” Wiegel tells me. “The RPhO was founded by musicians. In the 1910s many Rotterdam musicians earned their living in the theatres, where they played film music. They felt they didn’t play enough, and that besides, they weren’t quite trained for film music, so they started an orchestra.”

“With a violin teacher as a first-time leader,” Wiegel continues, “for two years, they managed to play without fees. Making money was something you did in the entertainment industry. With serious music, even as a professional, you did for the sake of art. Money was not the priority.”

Eduard Flipse and RPhO give an outdoor concert after the destruction of the Doelenzaal, June 1940
© Stadsarchief Rotterdam | Public Domain

“The primacy of what happens at the orchestra has always rested with the musicians,” Wiegel tells me. “And that means you are dealing with a very stubborn, idiosyncratic orchestra who knows very quickly what it wants, and whose members are very brave about it. That is exactly what happened with the appointment of Shani. He was the youngest chief conductor the orchestra ever had. But when I asked them about possible doubts whether he was fit for the job and all its implications they only said, ‘we know how to do this’. With this confidence, they chose their artistic director.”

I ask whether the orchestra now has a pool of young conductors in consideration for taking on the job. “No,” Wiegel replies. “We only just faced the news here. And I think you should always think first: What do you actually want? What type of conductor suits the RPhO? What are you looking for as an orchestra? And then a profile comes out of that and you can focus. We are now at this stage to determine what do we actually want.

“We are, of course, being framed as the orchestra where the next big young conductor will start his world career. But we have never looked for the youngest conductor, we have always looked for the best one that suited us.”

Children ride a miniature railway on Schouwburgplein, outside De Doelen concert hall, 1970.
© Stadsarchief Rotterdam | Public Domain

“We in Rotterdam may take a progressive role a little easier than elsewhere. We have more freedom of movement in this city, and we have more freedom of movement from our audience. Our audience thinks it’s fantastic when we do things differently. This city expects change – this city looks to tomorrow. This city does not value doing things the way they were done a hundred years ago. Does a principal conductor still belong to the orchestra of the future? That’s also an interesting discussion. We need a leader who is not afraid of the future.”

Lahav Shani and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra tour Mahler’s Second Symphony from 11th–17th May. This article was sponsored by Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

The performance on 14 May 2023 at 13:15 will be live streamed. Click here to see the video listing.