“Love at first sight” is how Dutch culture minister Jet Bussemaker described the first encounter between Milanese conductor Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. As if officiating at a wedding, she sealed the union between the orchestra and its seventh chief conductor by presenting the maestro with a golden baton, previously owned by his predecessor Eduard van Beinum. The show of love by the musicians for their new leader after this short ceremony was echoed by a genuinely warm reception from the audience.

RCO Opening Night is a very recent tradition, a black tie affair at which the season’s first concert is preceded by a walking dinner and followed by drinks and mingling with the performers. Marking the start of Gatti’s tenure after numerous appearances as a guest conductor, this year’s programme was presumably a showcase for the orchestra rather than an indicator of the maestro’s plans. Perhaps the three operatic excerpts, like the tricolour tomato-basil macarons served at dinner, augur memorable performances of Italian opera like the ones from Riccardo Chailly’s era. Lovers of the genre will be hoping that Gatti’s many operatic engagements spill over into Amsterdam, beyond the RCO’s annual appearance at the Holland Festival, where this year he will conduct Richard Strauss’ Salome. Significant omen or not, the concert ended operatically, with an overture from Verdi’s I vespri siciliani. The walls of the Concertgebouw have heard this piece, extolling 13th-century Sicilian patriots, countless times, usually as a respite between arias for vocal recitalists. Rarely, however, have they heard it played so tautly and heroically, starting with a tense Largo and brewing up to a lightning-speed Prestissimo.

Another stirring overture depicting brave rebellion started the programme. Beethoven’s incidental music for Goethe’s play about Lamoral, Count of Egmont, resonates strongly in the Dutch context, where children are taught to despise the tyrannical Duke of Alba and his wicked Spanish ways. Together with William the Silent, ancestor of the reigning Dutch monarch, King Willem-Alexander, Egmont was part of the 16th-century rebellion against oppressive Spanish rule in the Netherlands. That bloody conflict led to the foundation of the independent Dutch Republic. For the Egmont Overture around thirty members of the Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands joined the RCO musicians on the stage. This “side-by-side” concept is part of the “RCO meets Europe” formula. Launched last August, this two-and-a-half-season tour will take the orchestra to all 28 member states of the European Union, “including Great Britain” managing director Jan Raes assured us in his opening speech. In each country the musicians will perform a local youth orchestra. The joint performance, which made up with muscular drama what it lacked in polish, was a heart-warming demonstration of performance tradition being passed on, a process that is usually invisible to audiences.

Gatti, a self-avowed risk-taker, has taken flak for extreme tempi and other choices. Happily, he goes on undeterred, and when his risk-taking pays off the dividends are high. This was not the case in the Entr’acte no. 3 in B flat major from Schubert’s music for the lost play Rosamunde. It was heavily perfumed and its recurring main theme sounded sluggish. It served, however, to show off the excellent principal woodwinds. Naturally, Mahler, inextricably linked with the orchestra’s history, was also on the menu. In Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), the RCO confirmed that their Mahler can be equalled but not bettered. Baritone Christian Gerhaher’s portrayal of disappointed love was faultlessly executed and expressively complex, but proved a size too intimate for the hall. Only in the turbulent third song, “I Have a Gleaming Knife”, did his singing leap across the stage, despite Gatti being careful not to overwhelm him. Gerhaher took full hold of the audience after the break, with two surprise Mozart arias approached with post-Romantic sensibility. The tender string pizzicato set off his overtly cynical wooing in the serenade from Don Giovanni. In Figaro’s aria “Non più andrai” he went through rapidly changing shades of pique with fabulous ease.

The take-home memory of the evening was, however, Ottorino Respighi’s symphonic poem Fountains of Rome, a showpiece with lyrical passages for the various orchestral sections and a brass and percussion spectacle in the Trevi episode. Gatti’s colouring, dynamic and phrasing details all clicked into place during this glittering, horizon-wide performance, from the sinfully sleepy dawn at the Fountain of Valle Giulia to the softly dying twilight at the Villa Medici. It called for a complete assumption of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy, together with Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals. Gatti recorded these musical dioramas of the Eternal City in 1996 with the Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia. Maybe it is time he revisited them with his new bride.