Travel: Classics galore at Dutch music festival

MPMC - Amssterdam travel feature
MPMC - Amssterdam travel feature

Ask most Brits what they think of when you mention The Netherlands and they will probably answer windmills, clogs and tulips and, while that maybe a little over exaggerated, the Dutch themselves are far more likely to say art, design and music!

Having spent an enjoyable three-day break as the guest of Amsterdam Marketing and the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (NBTC), travel writer Alan Wooding was able to rekindle his passion for both classical music and art in Holland’s liberal capital city.

2013 has been quite a year for the Dutch as a whole and in particular for Amsterdam which has just hosted its 16th Grachtenfestival (August 16-25). It’s a special ten-day celebration of classical music – although it’s true to say that there were so many forms of ‘classical’.

Comprising over 170 individual concerts at 90 varied indoor and outdoor locations around the city, this year’s festival was bigger and better than ever due to a series of historic cerebrations.

With the long-awaited reopening of the Rijksmuseum following its ten-year multi-million euro restoration programme, the city was also celebrating 400 years of its UNESCO World Heritage Canal Ring, while it is also the 125th anniversary of the one of Europe’s best-loved concert orchestras and venues, the Concertgebouw.

It was back in April when one of Queen Beatrix’s final duties as the country’s monarch was to bestow the title ‘Koninklijk’ – which literally means ‘kingly’ – on the building which is highly regarded the world over for its incredible acoustics. It means it is now known as the ‘Royal Concertgebouw’.

It was also in April when Beatrix abdicated the Dutch throne following her 33-year reign in favour of her eldest son, Willem-Alexander although, sadly, there was a family tragedy last month with the death of 44-year-old Prince Johan Friso. The new King’s younger brother finally passed away following an Alpine skiing accident in Austria back in February after which he had remained in a coma.

I flew to Amsterdam from Terminal Four of London’s Heathrow Airport courtesy of KLM, the Royal Dutch Airline. Its comfortable 174-seat KLM Boeing 737-800 took just 45 minutes before it touched down at Schiphol Airport where I was met by Machteld Ligtvoet, the charming press and media manager from Amsterdam Marketing.

With a lively programme to get through, there was a quick taxi drop off at the spacious Japanese-owned Hotel Okura before meeting up with my fellow Grachtenfestival guests.

The Okura – which was opened back in September 1971 by the late Prince Claus – is located just a stone’s throw from the huge International Exhibition and Congress Centre.

It is certainly a plush and very comfortable 23-storey five-star hotel located in the south of the city and it offers tremendous panoramic views from its

Sky Bar. However, its location meant a 20-minute ride on one of the frequent trams to get back into Amsterdam’s bustling and lively city centre.

We started with a visit to the NedPhO Dome, home of the Netherlands Philharmonic and its partner The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, the historic rounded building only being opened in 2012 after having been cleverly (and expensively) converted from an old abandoned church.

Beautifully designed to become a classical and intimate concert hall offering numerous rehearsal rooms, far more important is the fact that the NedPhO Dome plays a huge part in taking youngsters off the surrounding streets.

Located in Majellakerk, a somewhat deprived and run down area of Amsterdam, the scheme allows youngsters to learn to play musical instruments at a series of workshops and, according to the Dome’s general manager, it has proved extremely popular.

Under chief conductor Marc Albrecht, the NedPhO and the Chamber Orchestra (whose artistic director is Gordan Nikolic), get to play regular concerts at the Royal Concertgebou. But as the Concertgebouw is home to its own orchestra, the NedPhO, Chamber and De Nederlandse Opera needed a place of their own… hence the Dome.

After lunch we had a ‘behind the scenes’ visit to the modern 1600-seat Amsterdam Music Theatre where rehearsals were well underway for Richard Wagner’s Siegfried, the third of four operas which make up The Ring Cycle.

Siegfried is perhaps the best known of Wagner’s four ‘Ring’ operas and at five-and a-half hours is perhaps the longest. It’s something akin to a fairytale story about a legendary Norse hero.

Located on the banks of the Amstel River in the heart of the city, the modern Amsterdam Music Theatre – which opened in 1986 and is reputed to be one of the largest (and highest) theatres in the world – is integrated into the City Hall complex and, while there was opposition when the modern brick and glass building was first erected, it is now well attended and loved by audiences from all over Holland.

It is also unique as it houses and manufacturers all its own props and costumes. We toured the multi-level building and saw many of the Siegfried opera costumes being handmade. Meanwhile the building also doubles as home to the Dutch National Ballet company which also has its own workshops and a skilled team of seamstresses.

However the highlight of what turned out to be a very long day was just across the Amstel River where we had a rather unusual three-course dinner.

Climbing aboard one of the two 80-metre long floating pontoon platforms moored either side of the Keizergracht canal, the ‘Diner der Compoisten’ was all pretty rustic as the waiters and waitresses walked along the centre of the tables to deliver our food and drink.

Starting with loads of bread and dips, the main course was served up in huge pans having been cooked in an even bigger one aboard a boat. Akin to a Spanish paella (fish, seafood and chicken), it was delicious but the fun aspect of the dinner came with a series of 12 specially written musical pieces played by a band who were dressed like they had just come off The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album!

As there were pontoons on either side of the canal – each playing host to around 150 diners – we were given drum sticks to accompany the crazy goings-on on the boats that floated up and down and the frivolity was clearly enjoyed by everyone.

Having been up for over 20 hours without sleep, I still had enough energy to cross the Amsterdam’s wide IJ River on one of the regular free ferries for an hour-long Jazz concert at ‘Culture Clash’.

Held on the steps of the futuristic Eye Film Institute, it was a different aspect to Glachtenfestival but was very well attended.

The next morning we were again back on the ferry, crossing to Amsterdam-Noord and the area known as NDSM. It’s really a series of derelict wharfs, ship building docks and industrial sites but it is now opened up as a cultural centre.

In a huge yacht repair shed, we listened to a clarinet four piece – the Nieuw Amsterdams Klarinet Kwartet – who played a selection of musical arrangements from Peter Krumov to Robert Schumann while finishing off with a fantastic piece from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa played on a hollowed out gourd!

Lunch was taken at one of Amsterdam-Noord’s latest hotspot restaurants, the Pilek. It is built entirely from old steel cargo containers and it also has its own urban beach (well it’s really shingle!). Musically we were entertained by a female duo playing contemporary music on a single grand piano which was dragged into place on a trailer behind an old Renault Clio!

What followed was a traditional boat tour around Amsterdam’s historic Canal Ring (it gained UNESCO status in 2010) before we were dropped off at the Museum Van Loon where we enjoyed what was really a 45 minute operetta written by Englishman Sir William Turner Walton titled ‘The Bear’. It was played out in the beautiful setting of Van Loon’s coach house garden.

It is a tale of a grieving widow Irina Popova (played by mezzo soprano Rosanne van Sandwijk) whose butler (Luka, baritone Martijn Cornet) constantly reminds her of her late husband Popov’s infidelity and of the big debts that he left behind.

Then when Russian Army Major Smirnov (baritone Jan Willem Baljet) turns up asking for the money owed to him by the late husband, she cannot pay but they finally end up as lovers … all very predictable but fun all the same!

The brilliant accompanying pianist, Jeroen Sarphati, was also the show’s musical director while Rosanne was a nominee for the top prize at the Grachtenfestival.

The highlight of the whole trip came on Saturday evening (August 22) with the annual Prinsengrachtconcert featuring the 90 piece Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra who were also celebrating 125 years of existence.

Back in June I was in Germany where I enjoyed an open air concert given the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. It featured the better known pieces by Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms and Ludwig von Beethoven and was conducted by Argentinian-born Daniel Barenboim.

With an audience of around 30,000, it took place in the shadow of the Humboldt University on the Unter den Linden close to the Brandenburg Gate, its popularity a virtual thermometer as to rise in power in recent year of classical music throughout western Europe.

For the big Amsterdam concert there were even more people, many precariously sitting on the roof tops or gaining vantage point from every canal-side balcony, the Dutch television cameras were everywhere as it was being screened live.

Beforehand we had eaten at the five-star Pulitzer Hotel on the banks of the Prinsengr Canal. The Pulitzer (which is really a host of old canal-side houses converted into a wonderful multi-room hotel) is best known for its clients. They are either very rich or indeed famous and they come from all over the world to stay there. It also meant that we were really honoured to enjoy a superb three-course dinner along with such exalted guests!

It was thought that Holland’s new Argentinian-born Queen, Maxima, was among the concert audience guests – she really is the darling of the whole of Holland – but we didn’t see her. However just as we approached the enormous stage that had been erected on pontoons filling the whole waterway, it began to rain.

With fears that the highlight of this classical music extravaganza could result in a washout, the organisers assured the many thousands of partying concert-goers that it would definitely go ahead as planned.

With thousands taking their seats and hundreds of boats filling every available space – you couldn’t actually see the water! – the concert started with a series of famous operatic arias, the Pearl Fishers duet being the standout one for me.

Meanwhile we all got wetter and wetter ahead of a 30-minute break which allowed the Royal Concertgebouw Symphany Orchestra to finally take to the stage.

With the heavens now well and truly open and everyone completely soaked, British-born pianist and London’s Royal Opera House conductor Sir Antonio ‘Tony’ Pappano raised his baton and proceeded to get the evening’s highlight under way… and what a show it was!

The rain stopped and the cheers rang out as fabulous Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja (he is at the London Proms this week) burst into Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ from the opera Turandot.

In recent years, the late Luciano Pavarotti’s version of Nessun Dorma had topped the pop music charts after it was adopted by BBC Sport as their anthem for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Calleja was absolutely brilliant and, after the 15 minute long 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyisch Tchaikovsky which featured a group of French Army musketeers who fired their rifles at the appropriate moment, the whole canal began to rock as the Maltese tenor came right to the front of the stage to sing the Amsterdam anthem … in perfect Dutch!

With the red Amsterdam city flags flying and with the canal boats rocking furiously from side to side, the singing reached a crescendo. Tears were clearly visible as they ran down some of the proud audience’s faces, it really was that moving.

In fact the only time I’ve ever seen that amount of pride and emotion at a music concert was on television at one of Andre Rieu’s legendary affairs when he plays the Maastricht anthem in his home town. It really was a joy to be there!

On Sunday we paid a visit to the Royal Concertgebouw where we were given a guided tour. It is a magnificent building that has undergone several changes since its completion in 1888 and it overlooks the Museumplein, the vast open expanse of grass which fronts the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

With 2000 seats in the main concert hall, there is also a small and intimate 400 seat hall plus a smaller rehearsal hall which was doubling as a jazz club when we were there.

Each year around 800,000 people attend concerts there making it the second highest attendance record of its kind in the world. We also had lunch in one of its restaurants and were accompanied by a talented young brother and sister who played Beethoven’s Concerto No.3 on piano and cello respectively.

Every Sunday there are tours of the Royal Concertgebouw which is certainly worth a visit if only to hear the story of Vivaldi’s revenge.

The building is beginning to tilt slightly as its deep wooden piles begin to rot away. As Vivaldi’s nameplate was originally missed off the concert hall wall, rumour has it that it’s his ghost that originally caused the building’s subsidence!

Fortunately some costly below ground restoration and a huge new cellar area seems to have rectified the problem.

With time to spare before my flight back to Heathrow, I paid a visit to the biggest museum in the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum. Originally designed by PJH Cuypers in 1876 (he also designed Amsterdam’s Centraal Station), its recent re-opening has attracted thousands of visitors from all over the world… and none would have left disappointed.

Featuring all manner of artifacts and paintings by some of the best known Dutch masters, only Rembrandt’s giant 14 x 12 foot masterpiece ‘The Night Watch’ (which he painted in 1642) has remained in its original place. The lighting is superb throughout all the exhibition halls and it really brings home the power and influence that Dutch art has imposed on the world.

Fact File

Alan Wooding travelled to Amsterdam as a guest of Amsterdam Marketing (www.iamsterdam.com) and the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (www.holland.com).

Flights were courtesy of KLM, the Royal Dutch Airline (www.KLM.com) from London’s Heathrow Airport while he stayed at the Hotel Okura (www.okura.nl) at Ferdinand Bolstraat 333, 1072 LH Amsterdam, Netherlands. Tel: +31 20 678 7111, the closest tram stop being at the Ceintuurbaan.

Special thanks to Machteld Ligtvoet and Manon Zondervan from Amsterdam Marketing and the rest of the press and media team.

As a little extra, you can hire a Canal Bike pedal boat from four locations in Amsterdam, with moorings at the Rijksmuseum, the Leidseplein, the Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht/Westerkerk. There are 13 pedal boats available and to hire for one or two people, its eight euros per person per hour.

There is also a Canal Bus which provides a regular service through the canal systems which have four routes and 19 stops for the main museums, shopping areas and attractions. It’s a ‘hop on, hop off’ system and is an excellent way for visitors to Amsterdam to combine transport with sightseeing in the city centre.

A day ticket costs 20 euros (children under 12 years are half price) while groups of more than 10 people pay a reduced rate of 18 euros each. There also are 24 hour, 48 hour and combination tickets with museums available.

One of the best tips for an Amsterdam break is to either purchase a 48 hour/two day GVB tram card for 12 euros or an iAmsterdam card. You can get them from the Tourist Office in front of Centraal Station which is the usual direct route into the city from Schiphol Airport.

The iAmsterdam card itself is really convenient and at 62 euros is good value as it provides a valuable 72-hour pass to no fewer than 38 museums, gives all travel on the city’s tram and bus system besides offering various discounts … and it also includes a canal tour.