In Praise of Jaap van Zweden

January 31, 2016, 5:14 PM · AMSTERDAM -- As the first wave of media frenzy subsides following the announcement of Jaap van Zweden’s appointment as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 2018, it is time to take stock of the emotional roller coaster of reactions. Back "home" in the Netherlands, the search was on to present "friends, colleagues, countrymen" to tell the public about "their Jaap."

All of a sudden, every musician who had ever heard the name Jaap van Zweden had become his closest colleague. Above and beyond the surfeit of "wanna be" friends and happy faces on the vastness that defines social media, there is a genuine feeling of pride in the lowlands. Our Jaap, protagonist in a popular seven-part TV documentary on 'the maestro on tour' has made it to the super top; it has taken almost a century for a Dutch conductor to stand at the helm of America's oldest orchestra, the world-famous New York Philharmonic.

Jaap van Zweden
Jaap van Zweden. Photo by Bert Hulselmans.

The think-pieces or more appropriately, "non-think"-pieces cluttering New York’s extensive print media offerings range from the sublime to the ridiculous. There are tiny digs casting small dents on van Zweden who has "risen from the unknown," as if the former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra whose wide swathe of worldwide successes at such nonentities as the Chicago Symphony or Vienna Opera were negligible. Alex Ross of The New Yorker enlightens, “[h]e is not, however, a marquee name, the kind that can fill a concert hall and cause a jump in subscriptions. Nor have his performances won universal praise." As if critical acclaim was a real measure of musical value.

Looking down from the august heights of the New York Times a tepid welcome is proffered, begrudging at best: "Mr. van Zweden is an accomplished artist and a feisty podium presence who exudes energy. Those of us who want this institution to thrive should offer congratulations and wish him success... still, my feeling lingers that his appointment represents a safe course." Is the most important decision to impact an orchestra's future, the choice of a music director, a matter of "better safe than sorry"? Surely, a unanimous choice on the part of the musicians must go further than a stopgap measure. The vitriol that spews and sputters on Mr. Lebrecht's thinly researched blog Slipped Disc focused on attention-grabbing gossip do not merit further examination.

Speaking of the delightful repartee from those who must know more than their listeners, who can forget the predictions of those wise pundits who ended up wallowing in a state of "being and nothingness" while searching for New York Philharmonic maestros? Aside from reiterating the necessity of hiring a composer-conductor to enlarge the footprint of luminaries such as Mahler and Bernstein, the musical commentators quoted the questionably authoritative Amazon TV series "Mozart in the Jungle" in a plea for a "sexy and dangerous" conductor after an exercise in futility in which the names of several aspirants were strung together.

Old enough to have experienced both Bernstein and van Zweden from the vantage point of the back of a violin section, this insider can vouch for a view from the inside. Bernstein's wave of enthusiasm had the power to dazzle every cog in the orchestral wheel to give freely and fully of themselves at all times. No lapse in attention, no sitting back. A persuasive mental acumen and captivating joy in the process of music-making lay behind the master's kinetic motions and broad-brush approach to conducting.

Sixteen years as concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra taught van Zweden to adjust to every type of podium personality, from Bernard Haitink, a man of few words, to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s dramatic rhetorical statements and silences. Van Zweden's energized focus and single-minded emphasis on "the music" keeps musicians on the edge of their seats. His rehearsals are imbued with useful information as well. His power to turn good into great have leveraged a reputation as an "orchestra builder." Dutch radio string players noted, "a single rehearsal with Jaap is like a refresher year at Juilliard." For the musicians of the Philharmonic, in need a physical home more than an "orchestra builder," the ride will be exhausting, exhilarating and extraordinary. The resonance of The Concertgebouw, Mr. van Zweden's famed hometown hall, has also left its indelible mark on New York's future leader: its acoustic signature is part of van Zweden's engrossing conception of sound.

Is van Zweden demanding? Absolutely, but demanding with an honesty characteristic of his Dutch roots. High expectations, high input and a "never settle for less" mentality shapes his push for excellence. His mantras, "to achieve flexibility you must have technical ability" and "discipline lies at the root of everything you attempt to achieve" raise the bar.

Van Zweden can look at a musician with what some have dubbed, "the look to kill," a combination of George Szell’s ice age stare and Fritz Reiner's glower. Should that be considered as an act of destructive behavior or character assassination as some critics maintain? Nonsense. Van Zweden is a maestro who will settle for nothing less than sheer orchestral excellence. Countless examples of his ability to reassess and yes, to criticize himself first and foremost abound in the annals of his history at the helm of the Dutch radio orchestras. Van Zweden's moments of self-reflection and doubt -- when the question of "have I gone too far?" comes to the fore -- do not make it to the headlines but remain internalized, hidden from view as part of the exhausting process of mental self-examination that shapes all leaders, musical or otherwise.

References to Jaap van Zweden, the "mensch" deserve to pass muster. His commitment to his family and notable causes, epitomized by the Papageno Foundation, is significant and more importantly, real. And shortly after the first of what was to become a repeated pattern of cutbacks, when the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra merged to form the somewhat clumsily named Netherlands Chamber Philharmonic (dissolved in 2013), Jaap invited the entire musical staff of the Dutch Broadcasting Center to a lavish dinner party at his home. British comedians were flown in to entertain and food and libations abounded. Beyond thoughtful correctness, van Zweden understood that orchestras coming to terms with reorganization are precarious at best. A great evening out went further than a mechanical exercise in corporate teambuilding; it was downright comforting.

Way back at Yale in the early 80s, the "statesman" amongst American music critics, Paul Hume elucidated that the role of the music commentator is to edify, to educate, to carry the torch of our art. As musicians, we hope to carry the flame of what is good, true and worthwhile to another generation. That challenge has become ever more daunting as financial crises and dwindling audiences take their toll on the very foundations of the orchestra as an institution. If music is to survive beyond our lifespan, it needs spirit and yes, heroic champions. It does not need quibbling, niggling pens in search of the petty and the picayune. In place of observing that "van Zweden may yet turn out to be a happy choice" why not welcome a dynamic force who might well turn out to be the match that sparks an orchestra feted for its particular New York blend of brilliance, creativity and insolence?

Detractors and pessimists move over: the Philharmonic is in for a great ride.

You might also like:


February 1, 2016 at 01:18 AM · As a New Yorker, I think the criticism was just as much toward the New York Philharmonic as toward any conductor they might have chosen.

New Yorkers who know and love music do not love the New York Philharmonic. We have hoped for improvements from each new conductor. The musicians of the NY Philharmonic abuse conductors rather than learn from them. Are there better conductors than Boulez and Mazur? They both ran from the orchestra when they learned of the musicians true nature. These are not intellectual musicians but rather the sociopaths that New York can produce. Remember, Donald Trump is from New York.

I wish Japp van Zwede good luck, but I do not really expect much. Conductors are not magicians. They can only be as good as the musicians and the musicians attitudes.

I suggest that you read this article from the New York Times from 1982. It is called "Why Isn't the Philharmonic better?" It is still pertinent.

February 3, 2016 at 02:44 AM · Perhaps the Phil should engage the services of Dr. Lou Cox, group counselor for Aerosmith. He has his office right there in Manhattan. Maestro van Z. will be missed down in Texas, I believe . . .

February 3, 2016 at 08:01 PM · I have made two Spotify lists with Jaap van Zweden conducting. It maybe answers the question if he is up to the job...

Rolf (Netherlands)

February 4, 2016 at 12:40 AM · Thank you Rolf; loving that strings sound in the Mahler 5.

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine