Welkom to Amsterdam, the tolerant, bike riding, pot smoking, subsea urban utopia! I really, really enjoyed A’dam, but not because of the legal cannabis (I’d like to be able to get a security clearance).
This day began with a flight from Barcelona to Schiphol airport, where I met up with my expat friend, Katie. I knew Katie from high school, but she decided to go abroad for graduate school. When she suggested I check out the Nederland, the prospect of a local guide and a free place to stay was too good to pass up.
We trained to her neighborhood, dropped off my stuff, and headed to the Concertgebouw for an orchestral performance – on bike. I have never seen so many bikes in my life. Amsterdam has dedicated lanes with traffic lights for bikes, making them almost like limited access bike highways! It was a little intimidating at first. A couple of traffic symbols that don’t exist in the states were apparently “yield” markings. Oops! However, bike is clearly the best and fastest way to travel in the pancake-flat city. It was a ton of fun cruising with hundreds of other cyclists that sunny afternoon.
The Concertgebouw (concert building), at one end of the gorgeous Museumplein, is the home of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the world’s best. It’s only fitting that the acoustic space is also one of the finest anywhere. Beautifully ornate and bright inside, and with remarkable acoustic clarity, the hall adds meaningfully to the musical experience.
We figured out that the Dutch words written on our ticket meant we were entitled to free drinks before the show. It adds a great social aspect to the concert – everyone gathers to chat in the vestibule well before the downbeat and it was clear that the regulars know each other well. It was also a young crowd. The median age was probably 45 or so. I vote we make all American orchestra concerts open bar and maybe the same effect will occur…
The program was all French:
Rugby – Honegger
Symphonie Espagnole – Lalo
Symphony No. 3 (with Organ) – Saint-Saëns
The opener, an 8 minute orchestral poem, was pretty forgettable but well played. I could already sense the amazing acoustics.
The Lalo was really fun! It is a five movement violin concerto originally commissioned for Spanish legend Pablo de Sarasate. The soloist was the orchestra’s concertmaster, and you could tell he was feeling the home field advantage. It was pretty well played, far from the best violin concerto I’ve heard live, but his audience gave him a huge standing ovation. He stole the show with his encore.
The Saint-Saëns was what I came for, and the RCO delivered. The opening movement was carefully interpreted and beautifully played by the strings. The “third” movement was lively, not as dark and ponderous as some recordings I own, and other than a little trumpet issue it ranks among my favorite renditions.
And the finale was amazing! The brass was right on, loud and crisp, particularly the horns. I could actually hear the piano part for once! The tempos were perfect. It is so easy to let the end of the finale start to drag, and the conductor kept the sense of forward motion going without giving it too much gas when it drops to double time.
The only nitpick I have is that the organ is a little underpowered. Even after pulling literally all the stops (that’s where the expression comes from!) the organ was still losing the battle with the RCO’s robust sound. Supposedly the organ has a 32′ pedal, but I couldn’t “feel” it like I could in Chicago, or Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. Oh well. Fantastic musicianship, and I’d rank it as my second favorite if it had been recorded.
After the concert we sat and read in the sun on the Museumplein for a while. The Dutch seemed so happy as they biked and played with their families this Sunday evening.
This day I headed out on bike to the center of the city and the Jordaan neighborhood. I stopped by the Anne Frank huis and while the line was too long to justify going in, I paid my respects outside.
Nearby is the Westerkerk, one of A-dam’s first Protestant churches. It was so plain inside compared to the Catholic buildings in Spain, for some of the strongest reaction to Catholic traditions took place here during the years of the Reformation. It does, however, have an amazing tower.
Jordaan is super pretty. The canals, houseboats, and flower-boxed windows are the most picturesque part of the city in my opinion.
The rest of the day was really relaxed. I went back to the Museumplein and finished my Europe history book. Then we had a fabulous Ethiopian feast at a local restaurant. Top notch lentils and lamb!
I spent the morning catching up on this blog before meeting Katie in Jordaan again for lunch after class. I had a great club sandwich at Singel 44, and the mint lemonade was even better.
After lunch I felt obligated to visit the notorious red light district. Fun fact: the XXX in the city’s coat of arms does not refer to adult content. It refers to the three struggles old Amsterdam overcame: fire, flood, and disease.
I found the whole experience pretty underwhelming at 1pm. It was jarring to see people staring back at me from the windows and the famous coffeeshops were tame at this hour. I did, however, catch a good shot of the Oudekerk on my way out.
Soon it was time to catch my train to München and the next leg of my journey. Reflecting on my short stay in Amsterdam, I realized it wasn’t the hippie capital I thought it would be. The people here are extremely educated, efficient, friendly, and happy. And they love those bikes. I found biking around to be the most enjoyable part of each of the three days I was in town. If I had to live abroad for a long time, I think Amsterdam would be a good personal fit.