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IN PERSPECTIVE 16: The Giro d 'Italia and how the Promenade Orchestra lost.

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In the series In Perspective, Erik Akkermans looks back and ahead at developments in cultural policy and practice. Today: walk of the orchestras.

In the Hall of Mirrors

January 1980, the Hall of Mirrors at the Concertgebouw. Culture minister Til Gardeniers takes up the report "Possession in service" 1 received, offered by the Federation of Artists' Associations. I was thrilled, because the report, commissioned by Sytze Smit and Hans Onno van den Berg, evoked sharp reactions even before the presentation. There was adhesion, more often indignation, as the critical look at the orchestra system breathed the atmosphere of a Bastille storming.

The minister took the report very seriously, not only that afternoon we received her in the Hall of Mirrors, but especially afterwards: she turned it into her policy. From then on, orchestras seemed almost permanently subject to discussion, policy changes, reorganisations, closures and mergers. Until, quite recently, the creation of the merger orchestras Phion in East Netherlands and Philharmonie Zuid in Brabant/Limburg. Opinions and reports, such as those of the Sutherland Commission or the Hierck Commission and, of course, the Council for Culture, have accumulated over the years2.

The agitation around the symphony orchestra - already triggered by the Nutcracker action3 - was not an anti-orchestral action, by the way. It was a reaction to the dominant preference, in attention and money, for symphonic offerings (and especially the "iron repertoire"4). Musicians and others protested against the marginal position of ensembles, contemporary music, jazz, pop and (Dutch) modern composers. If there was no extra money for these, it had to be found within the music sector itself if necessary.

At the county hall

March 1984, Provincial Hall South Holland. On the table of the States Committee is "Pleasure of Music",5 the opinion of the South Holland Cultural Council. There is also already a provincial paper on new music policy. Most pressing question: is there still a future for the South Holland Regional Orchestra? The minister no longer wants to subsidise the orchestra. The Regional Orchestra is clearly the brunt of the new orchestra policy. Should the province take over full responsibility, this would require the province's entire culture budget and even more than that. Ultimately, then, that will not happen and the orchestra will disappear. Painful for the dismissed musicians. Worrying for the South Holland choirs. Favourable for a broad provincial music policy that I had the pleasure of helping to develop. And which - in line with "Possession in Service" - offered more space to non-symphonic music, from baroque to rock, from chamber music to music theatre. And also for the start of a focused music education policy, through music schools and education. Musicians from the Regional Orchestra, meanwhile, continued in a flexible ensemble as the Randstad accompaniment orchestra, focusing on choral accompaniment.

In Italy?

May 2002, the start of the Tour of Italy, the Giro. Italian opera music is heard. Choirs and soloists sing Verdi's 'La Donna e Mobile'. And yet this is not Italy. The stage is in the water next to the Groninger Museum. Here, Groningen choirs perform, accompanied by the Promenade Orkest, which recently gained national TV fame by collaborating in the popular talent programme 'Una Voce Particolare'. Groningen was able to bring the start of the Italian cycling race to the Netherlands and is celebrating with a festival prior to the start. The public broadcaster will broadcast the performances.

With other board members of the Promenade Orchestra I sat in the stands along the water's edge. The sky still added a lot of water, but that did not dampen the mood.

Two years earlier, Walter Etty had visited me, former fellow student, but above all: former Amsterdam alderman and now consultant. He had written a new future plan for the Amsterdam Promenade Orkest and was looking for a board to go with it. The Amsterdam Promenade Orchestra had existed since 1949, had almost gone under several times and had been saved just as many times. Etty's plan was to save the orchestra from collapse again.

The (Amsterdam) Promenade Orkest consisted mainly of musicians from the previously disbanded theatre and opera orchestras and other job-seeking musicians. As a result, the Amsterdam employment agency ('de Werk BV') was the biggest subsidiser. The municipality of Amsterdam also contributed from the cultural policy. The minister did not. In the capital, the orchestra had a certain popularity. It performed in neighbourhoods, accompanied choirs, did educational projects and targeted an audience of 'ordinary people'. In contrast, politicians in The Hague probably knew it mainly as the orchestra that demonstrated for subsidies while playing in the Binnenhof. So things were different in Amsterdam, but here, too, it was in danger of ending: the employment service withdrew as a semi-employer in the late 1990s. This was the moment when Etty had to come up with a new plan.

Douwe Egberts coffee

Etty attracted a board with PvdA MP Jeltje van Nieuwenhoven as chairman and further on the board including TV producer Marc Dullaert, the later children's ombudsman. As a board, we were motivated by Walter Etty's enthusiasm, the musicians' passion and belief in the mission: music for a wide audience. When Van Nieuwenhoven became president of the Lower House, in her place came Huib Boermans, media director at broadcaster TROS and equally passionate.

Under the Etty plan, the orchestra (under the new name "Promenade Orkest") would focus on commercial clients, educational projects and choral accompaniment. It envisaged a lot of its own income, yet also a grant application within the BIS, the national basic infrastructure. And perhaps some more engagements could be retained through the Amsterdam Work BV.

The orchestra got Jan Stulen as artistic director and permanent conductor. Conductors and musicians did their best and put in a lot of work. The playlist for autumn 2000 included 23 performances: accompaniments of orchestral conducting exams, choral accompaniments, accompaniments at the International Vocalist Competition, a private company concert and five private public concerts. In the next two years, the Promenade Orkest was able to perform in the programmes of the TROS series Una Voce particolare, play in the Douwe Egberts coffee concerts, tour with popular tenor Ernst Daniël Smid and accompany choirs again. But there was nothing structural on the income side.

The process of scraping the orchestral system initiated 20 years earlier does not make the Promenade Orchestra a great contender for a place of its own. The Council for Culture therefore gave a clearly negative advice: no place in the system and an unsatisfactory rating from a quality point of view. At most, the orchestra could have been considered for the choral accompaniment function, but that position had already been given to the Randstadelijk Begeleidings Orkest.

The Promenade Orkest did not give up. Publicity actions followed, including an appearance on the talk show Barend & Van Dorp, but mostly legal action. Not without success: the Council of State asked to revise the advice. State secretary Van der Ploeg appealed. In the end, the Promenade Orkest lost. (Ultra-short summary of a tough fight)

The Amsterdam municipality remained on standby for some time. By motion, the city council set a temporary and modest annual contribution from the culture budget. Social Affairs councillor Krikke gave one-off money to bridge the gap. But at the end of the song, in 2004, salaries could no longer be paid and the musicians filed for bankruptcy. Employment policy in the cultural sector has always been politically marginal, even though the jobs involved are high-quality, relatively cheap and sustainable.6 Under the name 'The Promenade Orchestra', a number of orchestral musicians eventually made a kind of relaunch as a flexible ensemble for choral accompaniment.7

Orchestra biographies

The intense and emotive struggle for the survival of the (Amsterdam) Promenade Orkest is exemplary for other threatened orchestras.

You could write a fascinating biography not only about the Gewestelijk Orkest and the Amsterdam Promenade Orkest. Of most Dutch orchestras, the origins go way back in time8. For some, the end came relatively recently. In Eastern and Southern Netherlands, the wounds are still being licked now.

Against substantive, rational and above all financial considerations are frustrated ambitions, discontinued careers and personal grief of orchestral musicians. And the missed opportunity to reach more people with provincial orchestras and to programme more widely. But the Netherlands deals with the arts sparingly. In this political climate, almost no orchestra is guaranteed to survive. And we should also be happy with the space for music other than the symphonic.

Painfully, the field has had to drag that space away from its symphonic colleagues in part itself via politics. Did it deliver what the change makers had in mind?


Over time, more attention and more money went to smaller ensembles, composers, other musical genres. Jazz, pop, hip hop received policy attention. Conductors in established orchestras also increasingly stuck their necks out for new repertoire, as once negotiated by the Nutcrackers.

Opposition to far too tight orchestra collective agreements that prevented flexibility in performance is now irrelevant. Now the complaint is instead about too much flexitime. The educational commitment of orchestras has grown enormously. In size, but also in approach, in ambition and in pleasure in delivering that work. We may occasionally realise how much is asked of orchestras. There is still an 'iron' audience for the 'iron' repertoire. In addition, there is a great need for new sounds and adventure in the offering.

Orchestras are expected to 'outreaching' to be, out of their concert halls.

Various flex-ensembles are available for choral accompaniments, while established orchestras are also willing to collaborate occasionally with the strongest amateur choirs. Whether the flexible supply of choral accompaniments is adequate and whether the choirs can continue to meet the costs I strongly question.

Ageing and too one-sided audiences has also been a decades-old complaint about concert practice. But here too, orchestras have multiple challenges. They need to retain their regular audiences, and surely these come mainly for the standardised repertoire, tend to be older, have the money, time and prior knowledge.

New audiences include young people, "ordinary people" for whom going to the concert hall is not common, and people from different cultural backgrounds. These categories each require different strategies and each requires a different vision of programming.

The hip-hoppers and André Rieu.

The battle for young people has clearly begun: different programming, different audience approach, young popular conductors, mix of genres, performances by symphony orchestras at festivals. Just think of the - pardon the word - cross-border programming of the North Netherlands Orchestra. It seems to be catching on, while the youngest music culture is also building bridges to classical.9

And then there are the concerts for "ordinary people". There is plenty of interest, especially for light classical. André Rieu, the Liberation Concert on the Amstel, Uitmarkt concerts and television programmes like Maestro show that. Broad audience reach and a certain degree of "popular uplift" were the mission from which the Vara Matinee emerged. So were the neighbourhood concerts of the Amsterdam Promenade Orchestra and other initiatives. It is unwise to condescend about the light classical repertoire and exclude it from arts policy.

Apparently, the BoerBurger Movement also has a culture paragraph in the provincial election manifestos. Which is precisely about cultural diffusion10. Perhaps an unexpected additional political handle to strengthen the orchestras' base.

So from the Spiegelzaal in the Concertgebouw, we made our way via the Giro in Groningen to Deventer, capital of the BBB after all. Along the way, we lost quite a few (provincial) symphony orchestras. Were we left with a core that could be seen as the minimum. Fortunately, we gained in supply of non-symphonic music, saw increases in numbers of ensembles, distribution channels, genre broadening, real opportunities for audience expansion. Enough to maintain a consistent policy, aware of the richness and significance of what the Netherlands has to offer in terms of music.

Director, consultant and publicist. Until recently, he was chairman of the cultural and creative sector labour market platform Platform ACCT and, in the past, of several other organisations. Erik Akkermans was, among other things, director of the Federation of Artists' Associations and of the South Holland Cultural Council. He chaired the committee that advised the minister on Jazz policy ("Has it started yet?". Plan for Jazz and Improvised Music, 1983). In 2018, he guided the provinces of Gelderland and Overijssel in their administrative role in the merger of Het Gelders Orkest and Orkest van het Oosten.


1 Sytze Smit, Hans Onno van den Berg, Symphony Orchestras in the Netherlands, Possession in Service, Federatie van Kunstenaarsververeningen/ Bureau Cenario, Amsterdam 1980

2 Sutherland Commission, 1983, Commission led by Hans Hierck, 2000. The advice led, among other things, to the merger of North Holland Philharmonic Orchestra and Ballet Orchestra, but in 2010 the Culture Council concluded that very many other parts of the advice-such as a joint educational approach-had not been followed)

3 Action group of Louis Andriessen, Peter Schat, Reinbert de Leeuw et al. See, for example: A.L.Bouma, 50 years ago: Nutcrackers in debate with Concertgebouw Orchestra, Preludium, Amsterdam, 23 June 2020

4 Frans Brüggen: "Every note of Mozart and Bach, which is performed at the Concertgebouw Orchestra's A- and B-series subscription concerts, is lied about from A to Z" (quoted in the same Preludium)

5 Culturele Raad Zuid-Holland, Plezier van Muziek, notes of the CRZH in response to the Provincial Framework Memorandum "Naar een Muziekbeleid". The Hague, 1984.

6 Erik Akkermans, The Tom Pouce Economy, Boekman Extra, 2022

8 For example: Concertgebouw Orchestra 1888, Rotterdam Philharmonic 1918, Metropole Orchestra 1945.

9 For example, "Conductor Lorenzo Viotti also attracts new audiences to classical music with the Munich Philharmonic," NRC 1 March 2023 or "If Beethoven and Mozart made music now, it would be hip-hop," interview with Maestro winner rapper sor, NRC 24 February 2022.

10 "The BBB vision of art: left rather than right". NRC, 29 March 2023

Erik Akkermans

Director, consultant and publicist.View Author posts

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