Dutchman Jaap van Zweden is flying high as New York Philharmonic's new Music Director

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito/NYTimes

Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito/NYTimes

Today, the New York Philharmonic announced the appointment of Jaap van Zweden as its new Music Director.   Alan Gilbert, the current Music Director, will step down at the end of 2017, and the orchestra will be temporarily homeless for 18 months while the David Geffen Hall undergoes the much-needed renovation.  During this time, the Phil will play at various venues around the Big Apple, effectively making it a true community orchestra of New York City. 

Already, the Big Apple and beyond are abuzz over who this new guy is (“Jaap who?”) and why couldn’t the NY Phil have picked a younger ‘name’ conductor (like the thirty-something Daniel Harding from the UK) similar to its counterpart L.A. Phil on the left coast?  One of the doubters, New York Times' Anthony Tommasini, opined, "I thought Mr. van Zweden would be too predictable a choice — a solid, disciplined, middle-aged European maestro — to follow Mr. Gilbert, a youthful native New Yorker who has brought the orchestra vision and innovation. Even those who haven’t found him to be the most engrossing interpreter of repertory staples must credit Mr. Gilbert with emboldening the Philharmonic at a time when strong artistic purpose and outreach are crucial to the future of classical music."  Mr. Tommasini raised a valid point, except he failed to note that, in 2009, few people had heard of the name Gilbert either, and the so-called innovation through new commissions has not produced any works of lasting value.  Concertgoers still want their Mozart and Beethoven.

Musically, Jaap van Zweden is unapologetically old-school, steep in the European classical traditions and those of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, where he started his professional career.  Van Zweden excels in the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovich.  Nothing wrong with that, given the lamentable state of new classical music with dubious value and longevity.  One may argue that it is more beneficial for the future of classical music to unearth rare, unusual or neglected works by the old masters (such as Respighi's orchestration of five Rachmaninoff piano "Études-tableaux", or Rossini's rarely-staged "Otello" with three top tenors) than to risk box office poison by commissioning new works that are played only once or twice and then forgotten.   

Music aside, the more pressing concern is Van Zweden’s reputation as an orchestra builder but not so much a diplomat.  He was named Musical America’s 2012 Conductor of the Year for revamping the Dallas Symphony and beating it into shape – literally.  Since taking over the Dallas post in 2008, there has been growing discontent among the musicians with his “abrasive style”.   The local musicians union told the Dallas Morning News, “We don’t shy from high expectations. We have that for ourselves. So, it doesn’t require tactics of fear and intimidation on the part of the music director to get us to do our best work. That sums up where the rub is for us. Nobody’s complaining that he expects too much of us; it’s how he’s going about it.” 

The New York Philharmonic does not need the ‘orchestra building’ but it will need a tactful leader who is a good communicator to survive the 18-month nomadic life away from the Geffin Hall.  Judging from the critical raves of his guest conducting in New York since 2012, I remain cautiously optimistic about Van Zweden’s day-to-day livability with the musicians (we all know dating and marriage can be two very different things).   In all fairness, it should be noted that no harsh words are ever heard from Van Zweden’s other job, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, who liked him so much that they acquiesced to his demand for a shorter residency period from 12 to 8 weeks.   

Jaap van Zweden’s five-year contract as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic starts in 2018.  The late maestro Kurt Masur, who helmed the orchestra from 1991-2002, was not known to endear himself to the musicians either, so only time will tell if there will be harmony or dissonance in the Van Zweden regime. 

Truman C. Wang is editor-in-chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.