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Rotterdam, 14 May 1940. German aeroplanes fill the skies, and the bombs start to fall. Within hours, the heart of this old city has been destroyed. Almost all that remains of the Dutch port, which was due to celebrate its 600th anniversary that June, is rubble.

And so in 1946 began the reconstruction of Rotterdam. Even today it's changing shape and is something of a playground for architects - step out of Rotterdam Central station, and you find yourself in the dust and hullabaloo of a building site. This is a city that likes to keep reinventing itself.

Just round the corner from the station, once you've navigated the temporary walkways, tramways and bike lanes, is a large plaza. Dominated by red crane-like lamps, and the imposing cube-shaped Pathé cinema, this is where you'll find the de Doelen concert hall. Its functional 1960s architecture, and even the more recent additions, might not float your barge, but few would quibble over the quality of the concerts: this is home to the world-renowned Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).

Back in 1995, Valery Gergiev took up the principal conductor post of the RPO, helping to make the city a worthy musical rival to Amsterdam. A year later he set up the Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival, a ten-day extravaganza that takes place each September. He's now handed over the helm of the orchestra to Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but returns for the festival's opening weekend to conduct both his former ensemble and his Mariinsky Orchestra. The rest of the festival includes a mixture of leading names and rising stars.

Each festival has a theme. Since last year, when the orchestra and festival welcomed a new managing director, Hans Waege, these have been linked to the city. 'I want the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Festival and the city to fit,' Waege explains. 'Themes are not just about marketing - they should have a message. We're an old institution as well - 93 years old - but Rotterdam's a modern city. We have to have contemporary music as well as Shostakovich and Mahler, and take risks. I want this to be our trademark.'

'Resurrection: A Story of Rotterdam' was the choice for 2010, marking the 70th anniversary of the bombing. The first three concerts loosely told the story of heading in and out of war: Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony took the audience into darkness; Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony represented war; while Mahler's uplifting vision of creation, his Eighth Symphony, ended the triptych in a blaze of hope. Outside the concert hall, performances took place in meaningful locations: in the Laurenskerk, for example, one of the only buildings to survive the Blitz, and along the fire boundary marking the city's burnt-out heart.

'Sea and the City' is in the diary for 2011. A natural choice: Rotterdam is, after all, the second largest port in the world, eclipsed only by Shanghai. The expansive River Maas is busy with ships and water taxis. Canals criss-cross the city; old harbours and docks line the river. And that's not to mention the American-bound Pilgrim Fathers, or the Holland-America cruise-ship line. While full details of the programme are yet to be announced, audiences can safely expect some interesting twists to this musically rich subject. 'We have some wonderful programmes for this season,' says Waege. 'We'll be doing Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko, and Schumann's Rhenish Symphony. We will open with Mahler's Ninth and Britten's Death in Venice Suite. Gergiev is very creative: he points out that a theme shouldn't be a prison, the key thing is to bring good music to the festival.'

Five musical highlights

Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival
Ten days of concerts, as artistic director and guest conductor Valery Gergiev (below) brings his incomparable dynamism to a programme packed with everything from solo recital and chamber music to symphonies and operas. (http://gergievfestival.nl/)

North Sea Jazz Festival
This 35-year-old festival moved from the Hague to Rotterdam five years ago. Over one weekend, the Ahoy Arena welcomes many of today's top names: last year the Pat Metheny group, Phronesis and Norah Jones appeared; this year's artists are yet to be revealed. (www.northseajazz.com)

De Doelen
Rotterdam's main concert hall is the hub for classical music. Home to the Philharmonic, it also welcomes visiting musicians. In upcoming months, guests include the Takács Quartet, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and pianist Paul Lewis. (www.doelen.nl and www.rpho.nl)

Sinfonia Rotterdam
Created in 2000, and formerly known as the Rotterdam Chamber Orchestra, this chamber orchestra of young professionals performs around The Netherlands. www.sinfoniarotterdam.nl Night of the Proms Classical meets pop as this European-wide tour comes to the Ahoy Arena. This year's classical musicians include conductor, composer and pianist Robert Groslot and his orchestra Il Novecento. (www.notp.com)

The article ‘Musical destinations: Rotterdam, Holland’ was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.

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