When the orchestra was established, there was little classical music activity in Holland. The orchestra was in large part responsible for changing that.
The Concertgebouw opened on April 11, 1888. The Concertgebouw Orchestra, however, was not founded until a little later. It gave its first concert in the Concertgebouw on November 3, 1888 under its principal conductor for its first seven years, Willem Kes (the management had wanted to engage Hans von Bülow, but he refused). Kes concentrated on introducing core works of the repertoire to an audience who had previously had little experience of orchestral classical music.
In 1895, Willem Mengelberg became its chief conductor, remaining with the organization until 1945. It is he who is generally regarded as raising the orchestra to a level of international significance. Mengelberg expanded the orchestra's repertoire, introducing the works of then modern composers such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, both of whom appeared with the orchestra as guest conductors.
From 1945 to 1959, the orchestra's principal conductor was Eduard van Beinum, who introduced much French repertoire to the orchestra, as well as music by Anton Bruckner. He also introduced contemporary music by Dutch composers.
Van Beinum died during a rehersal in 1959, and Bernard Haitink and Eugen Jochum took over, with Haitink becoming sole principal conductor until 1988. Under him, the orchestra recorded all the Mahler symphonies, and gave no less than six performances of Mahler's massive Symphony No. 8, the Symphony of a Thousand, during celebrations of the orchestra's centenary. It was also at this time that Nikolaus Harnoncourt became associated with the orchestra, giving many performances of early Classical and Baroque works.
Riccardo Chailly was appointed principal conductor in 1988, the first non-Dutchman to hold the post. Under him, the tradition of Mahler conducting has continued, and he has also introduced work by lesser known late Romantic composers, such as Alexander von Zemlinsky, as well as conducting contemporary works.
2003/2004 will be Chailly's last season with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. His successor will be the Latvian condutor Mariss Jansons.