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Interview: Simon Reinink

Simon Reinink has been the director of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam for 13 years, a role he took on after a career in law. We asked him about his goals as director, the challenges a 130 year old hall presents and how he works to make the Concertgebouw relevant to as diverse an audience as possible.

When did you start as director of the Concertgebouw? Was it something that you’d always wanted to do?

Well, I started in 2006. I always thought I might end up in the arts but I had no idea where, how and when. It’s such a privilege that I ended up in this job. One of the former members of the advisory board put me on the long list of potential successors. After many conversations I ended up in the job. I love it!  

How did it feel taking over from Martijn Sanders after almost 25 years? 

Many people kind of pitied me and told me that they were huge shoes to fill. My response was – and I still think it’s the only right response – that I was not appointed as his successor, but as the director of the Concertgebouw. He’d done a marvellous job together with his team. I just took over.

Can you describe what your day to day job entails?

It varies from day to day! On the one hand we have to run the organisation – e.g. meetings, budgets and plans to be managed, so that’s part of my job. On the other hand it is a very specific job because our product is live music. That requires a huge network, talking to people about ideas and making plans. Representing the organisation – whether it be to musicians, sponsors, donors or politicians – takes quite a big chunk out of my time. One day I’m just running the business and having meetings around this table, and the next I might be travelling for days. It all depends.

When you started, the Concertgebouw was already in great shape, but I believe you’ve even managed to increase attendance from there? It's become one of the highest attended concert halls in the world.

Well, we have many specific elements in Amsterdam which make it quite unique. On the one hand we are a village, and on the other we are a metropole. It’s a unique configuration. When Martijn left, that was the period with the highest attendance. However, we focus on quality, and diversity within this quality. It’s a constant evolution. Our mission is to enrich and connect people with a sublime musical experience, and we have three ways to achieve those goals. First the unique building – it's our instrument that we have to maintain in top shape. The second is that this instrument needs to be played – that’s the programming, of course. Third is how we present the Concertgebouw – the tune of it, the atmosphere. Is it genuine? Is it true? 

So the first of those elements – the hall itself, the instrument – what are some things that you’ve had to do in your time to improve it or maintain it?

Our predecessors started the renovation process. In the early eighties the hall nearly collapsed so they had to replace the whole foundation which was an unbelievably complicated task, but they did it wonderfully. In the early nineties they decided that the whole interior of the hall had to be renovated. Under the leadership of our architect Evelyne Merkx they made a master plan and completed about 70% of it. When we  took over, we completed it. To maintain a hall which receives around 730,000 people a year, requires a lot of work, and the annual cost related to the maintenance is around €2 million. Apart from the foundation, the interior and the maintenance we also want to prepare a future-proof building that enables us to programme concerts for the future. The technical aspects such as lighting, amplification are very important, but we have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t harm the characteristic of the hall – respecting the historic details and atmosphere. Unfortunately, that makes everything at least three to four times more expensive! If we want to replace a single lamp, it has to be designed specially for our hall because it was built 130 years ago. For the regular visitor these kinds of things may not be very visible, but for us it's very important. And complicated.

The second aspect of your mission – the music itself, the musicians, the concerts that you’re programming – how do you approach that? How have you introduced diverse artists and programming to the hall?

We have a wonderful team of programmers, and we discuss how we should approach and be part of the world around us. The world has changed dramatically in the last sixty years. The percentage of people with non-western roots has exploded in Amsterdam so if we want to remain relevant art institutions we have to think about that. This hall was built for Western classical music, and we will take care of this heritage, but that’s not enough anymore. That’s why we've started various new initiatives such as children’s concerts, family concerts, pop and jazz. More and more now we are focusing on non-western music. If we want to remain a relevant hall for all the people living in Amsterdam, we need to programme artists from other genres, and the top notch stars who are the same level as the best classical musicians.

As well as people from different ethnic backgrounds, how about the difference in age? Is there an issue around an ageing classical population?

This issue is at least a century old, it has been, it is, and – I predict - it will remain the same. Classical music is, in general, something for people over 40 years old. We shouldn't worry about that, also because our population is ageing. The real issue is if the audience will be replaced in the future. If you grow up in a family where classical music is played regularly, there is a fair chance that you will listen to classical music when you grow up. If you grow up in a family where there is no classical music at all then there might be a future problem. That’s the issue that we have to tackle by enabling young kids to at least listen to classical music, so that they can make their own selection. We should present the very best of music to every generation. We should take them seriously, and if we want to programme string quartet or a symphony it should be top notch.

So what’s next for the hall, and what’s next for you?

I’ve never planned my own career. Someone once said to me that the first job you have to find yourself, but from then on the job will find you. I've no plan to move on, I love my job – it's such a wonderful place to work. I’m a very privileged man. The challenge for the future is of course that we remain a relevant artistic organisation within society through the diversity of our programming and the diversity of our staff. It’s presenting the best of the best that is – and hopefully will remain – our strategy.

How do you see music streaming services affecting the classical music world?

The more classical music that is available, the better. It's similar with the introduction of the television. The theatres were afraid that the attendance would fall down, and what happened was exactly the opposite. People wanted to see the real thing, and the interest was raised because of television! Hopefully the same will go for streaming.