One plan, one vote: the Dutch way of choosing a conductor

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra took a democratic path to choosing Daniele Gatti as chief conductor

Conductorships are in the air at the moment. The RTÉ NSO has not had a principal guest conductor since Hannu Lintu's contract ended in 2013, and the orchestra is without a principal conductor since Alan Buribayev completed his twice-extended term last May. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra will also be without a principal conductor when John Wilson leaves at the end of the year.

Amsterdam's great Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which plays at the NCH on Saturday, got rather a shock 2½ years ago when its then chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, announced he was stepping down. The process of finding a successor was quickly put in train by the orchestra's Belgian general manager, Jan Raes.

“It’s an international orchestra, but I think we have a very Dutch way of being in dialogue with everybody in the organisation,” he told me. The idea was to prevent the selection process being “too top-down”, and he describes it as involving a triangle.

There’s the 11-member board, three of whom are musicians. “We have no workers’ council, no unions. All the members of the orchestra are part of the corporation. It was a balance between the musicians, the board and the management. That’s a very good balance; nobody’s too much in power.”


The RCO doesn’t have that much experience in choosing new chief conductors, as there have only been five incumbents over the past 100 years. Jansons stayed with the orchestra “just 14 years, the shortest in our history”.

Principal conductor

Raes himself was not inexperienced. When he was manager of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra he brought in Yannick Nézet-Séguin as principal conductor. “But I was thinking, How we could do this in the Amsterdam way? I involved our artistic commission, seven members of the orchestra, elected by the musicians, who give artistic advice to the management. I asked them if they would like to involve more people, say the leaders in the orchestra. So they held elections and added more people.”

There was “an open conversation”, and Raes suggested that they draw up a profile of the kind of conductor they needed to follow Jansons, but without naming names. And he proposed a procedure about “how we decide, and who will be deciding in the end – this commission, the management, or the board”. The large group set about amending and correcting his proposal, which they did in a few days.

“I said to all the members that they could travel as much as possible if they wanted to see more of some conductors. But I was praying that they would keep it all between us. It was a question of trust. That’s not easy these days, with social media.”

Various artist managements showed up in Amsterdam “for a cup of coffee” and some conductors came knocking on the door. “There was a lot of pressure. In the end we had a number one, a number two and a number three, and I talked to number one, who was Daniele Gatti. Then there was a new conversation involving the whole orchestra. And to make it feel really collective, we gave everybody in the orchestra a vote, anonymous, electronic.” About 95 per cent voted and a huge majority opted for Gatti, who takes up his new role next month.

The selection process took six months. “You have to be fast,” says Raes, “or you may be too late.” Leading orchestras in London, Berlin and elsewhere were in the market at that time. “You don’t have such a large number of top-league conductors.”

Core repertoire

Key points in the profile included that the new person would not have a position with another orchestra – Jansons has left Amsterdam but he still retains his conductorship of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. They would have to be connected with the orchestra’s core repertoire, “the high and late romantic repertoire”. They have to be able to go “beyond technical playing”, to give some space to the orchestra in phrasing, “because we have a natural musical intelligence. They phrase from themselves because of tradition, good conductors, the hall, and not to kill this self-confidence”.

They would need to “be able to take risks, and also be able to allow risks. That’s very important in our way of playing. We have a certain chamber-music behaviour of listening to each other.” And, he adds, “We have to love him, to believe in him. And not every concert has to be a repeat of the rehearsal.”

The longlist, he says, was about 20 names, not all of whom had actually worked with the orchestra, although it was reduced pretty quickly to five or six. “It’s almost impossible to make somebody chief if you have no relationship with them.” The RCO, he says, has had numerous impressive debuts in recent years. “Sometimes an orchestra is euphoric about one production, and then the next year . . . We did not have that dilemma in our choice.” Gatti, he points out, had worked regularly with the orchestra for 10 years, and “was every season improving”.

There were some special considerations, too. “By coincidence, we have a very young orchestra. In the last six years we have 50 new players, and we’re starting this season with six more. It’s a young orchestra, so some pieces are always new for some people. We need to build up and to keep the collective, not destroy the past but to integrate all these new people in our culture. That needs a conductor with experience on the highest level and not a golden star who’s 26 years old. It’s a different challenge to conduct a good orchestra than to conduct a mid-range or student orchestra. At the first rehearsal, everybody can play everything. You have to have something to add.”