So day two of our culture trip dawned with a pleasant buffet breakfast in Cafe Moer and then a twenty-five min ute walk through Vondelpark heading diagonally for the Van Gogh Museum which I’d sensibly prebooked for 11:30, which was of course 10:30 on our body clocks and quite early enough to start the serious part of the day. Vondelpark is a huge green space with lakes and ponds, cycleways and roads and some pedestrian paths but it was our first moment of realising just how profuse and dangerous cyclists are in this city. Add to their sheer numbers the fact that motorised vehicles like scooters and golf buggies also use the cyclepaths and you take your life in your hands every time you cross one. It’s also sometimes difficult to know which is the footpath and which the cycleway.
Vondelpark today and as I saw it with skaters in March 2018.
We arrived slightly early at the Van Gogh Museum to see a sign saying ‘Sold out for today’ so feeling very smug at having booked from the UK in advance, we strolled past the waiting line into the museum. It houses the biggest collection of Van Gogh’s works in the world. We had booked for the special exhibition Choosing Vincent. Portrait of a Family History which made it clear to us why this was the case. Vincent’s sister-in-law was married to Theo for less than two years before he died soon after Vincent. But Jo van Gogh-Bonger and later her son – also Vincent – were largely responsible for promoting Van Gogh’s reputation as a major artist and later establishing the museum which bears his name.
The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Circular entry lobby on the right and the manin collection on the left.
We had time to explore the main collection before and after visiting the fascinating family story which was elegantly curated by getting you to follow a timeline on the floor which led to information panels, personal objects, photographs and paintings. It was staggering to find that at periods of his life he turned out a painting a day. It was also interesting to see how his style varied continually – a carefully painted image with oils thinly applied one day and the next the fervent impastoed brush stokes we generally associate with him. It was then time to head of in search of lunch before the manin event – Vermeer at 14:30. My memory from five years ago failed us so we had quite a roundabout trek to Leidseplein where I remember there being lots of bars. I was shocked when we did get there that so many are now chain operations rather than the local bars I recalled. However we found a very pleasant bar-restaurant under the Casino called Grand Cafe Lido in tribute to its predecessor which had been a landmark in the area since 1937. We had a canalside table (indoors), good beer and food and lots of boating and bird activity on the Singel or Leidsegracht canal (not sure what it’s called at this point).
Our rather damp entry to the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum.
But it was well worth it. Again with prebooked tickets we breezed in deposited coats and bag and entered the intimate worlds created by Johannes Vermeer. Having said that, the first thing we see is a View of Delft and Little Street both of which are exterior views of aspects of life in the city. The degree of detail in the characters in each picture is remarkable. You can almost hear the conversations.
The whole exhibition just grew from this simple start. Paintings were elegantly displayed against the dark grey walls. Captions were clear and available from a QR code on my phone and the 28 paintinbgs were all well spaced so although the exhibition is a complete sell out you didn’t feel unduly crowded and had ample time to look at each painting. The most exciting innovation for us was the semicircular barrier at just below waist height around the majority of paintings which meant you could wait briefly for your turn to be one of the six people in the front line with an uninterrupted view. As we moved around it was fascinating to see how the same window, ther same model, the same yellow, fur-edged jacket, a globe and other props from his studio cropped up time and again. It seems that after that early blast of the outdoors he shut himself in his studio and just painted there. One aspect of his work I thought I knew was that subjects were always lit from the left. Quite a shock then to find three lit from the right: Girl with a red hat, Girl with a flute and The Lacemaker.
We took our time and wandered hither and yon, sometimes together sometimes not until we met up the the last room but as we prepared to leave we asked each other ‘Did you see her?” ‘No,’ was the response. We knew the Girl with the Pearl Earring was going back to its usual home the Maritshuis in the hague on 30 March but she should be here still. We retraced our steps, enquired of a guide and did get to admire perhaps, thanks to Tracy Chevalier, his most famous work. And very wonderful it is too. I have been reluctant of late to buy art exhibition catalogues but this was one I had to have and a fine exploration of his work it is. Reproductions of all the paintings but also lots of small detailed views to explore Vermeer’s technique. Many of the paintings were worked on for a lengthy period with evidence of recomposing them with overpainting revealed by x-ray analysis. Worth the trip to Amsterdam? Absolutely and there’s more to come.
As we went down the stairs to the loos at the exit from the exhibition, I noticed white fluffy things whooshing down from ornately plastered ceiling. It was a great installation and from the information desk we managed to elicit that it was by Studio Drift. The web confirmed that it’s called Shylight and there’s a fascinating video of it on their website and on YouTube.
We now had a couple of hours to pass before gpoing to the Concertgebouw for a concert at 8.15 pm. As that would not finish until well after ten, we thought eating first might be a good idea. I remembered finding a great bar to the southwest of the concert hall so we set off in that general direction and happened across a very suitable place. It wasn’t the one I remembered from my last trip – I later discovered that Brasserie van Dam was just one block further west. However the Eetcafé Schotsheuvel did us very well. It was pretty empty when we arrived and we had a beer wondering whether to just have the one and move on before finally deciding to stay and eat. The staff were friendly and became increasingly busy as by the time we left to head back to our concert, the place was heaving with locals – always a good sign. Extremely tasty crab cakes and fries with garlic mayo and a substantial pork rib and a decent bottle of wine saw the time fly by and our decision to stay well justified.
We make our way back to the Concertgebouw and settle into sided balcony seats with a good view of the stage. The concedrt is given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra which came to major international prominence under Simon Rattle who joined it in 1980 when he was just 25 and made it into a world renowned orchestra during his 18 years as music director. Tonight the baton is in the hands of the young Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla the Lithuanian conductor who became MD at the CBSO in 2016 at the age of 20. So what we were about to hear could be called ‘Simon Rattle’s Tyla-made Army’. Watford fans groan, others ask for an explanation in the comments!
The concert started with a piece I’d never heard of by Mieczysław Weinberg who was described as Polish-Russian and died in 1996. It was his Sinfonietta No.1 and was a rousing big orchestra number with loads of percussion – a big night for the glockenspiel and tambourine man – vast swathes of brass interspersed with lyrical folk tunes in the strings. It was 20 enjoyable minutes and had something of a film score feel to it. This was followed by the Shostakovich cello concert played by Julia Hagen a rising star according to the Citizens of Beethoven who awarded her the Beethoven Ring for 2022 and others. When I read she plays a cello made in Cremona in 1684, I was fearful of a trip on the lengthy flight of stairs conductor and soloists must use to make a grand applause-filled entrance. It was very well done and conductor and soloist clearly had a strong rapport. At the interval we went out into the bar and picked up a glass of wine at no charge. As Fran pointed out, it means they can get through the interval drinks dispense much more quickly when they are not faffing about with payments. We sat with two Dutch gentlemen who inevitably asked how we were enjoying Brexit. ‘Not!’ was our emphatic reply. They smiled wryly.
The second part of the concert was Prokoviev’s suite from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. It’s a work I know and love and I don’t think I’ve heard it played better than under Grazintye-Tyla here in Amsterdam. So many earworms from the dance of the Montagues and Capulets to the plaintive tune for the young Juliet – I’m still humming it now. After massive rounds of standing ovations we left the hall and knowing our hotel was in a street called Overtoom we boarded – at my insistence – a tram that said it stopped at Overtoom. Only it stopped at the wrong end and Google maps said we were 20 minutes walk from the hotel. I now know that Overtoom is straight as a die for slightly over 1.5 kilometres. So we walked back to the Rijksmuseum and the tram stop at Leidseplein and took the correct tram this time which left us with a mere six minutes walk to the hotel. Moral – swot up on the tram map before you dash onto the first one you see. So an amazing day of varied culture came to an end with a rewarding last glass of wine to round it off.