Already one of the conducting world’s biggest hoarders of frequent flier miles, Jaap van Zweden will be New York’s music director designate during the 2017-18 season, assuming the full duties of his role in fall 2018. 2017-18 will also be his last full-time year in Dallas, and as if that schedule weren’t busy enough, van Zweden plans to continue as the director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic until summer 2019.
The New York job is a tough one, leading one of the world’s most renowned orchestras, but it’s about to get even harder. Renovations to its concert hall will soon be leaving the band effectively homeless, playing in temporary locations around New York City for at least two years. Alan Gilbert, the current leader, chose to quit rather than face that challenge. Van Zweden will be tasked with managing this wandering-orchestra phase, consulting on acoustic design of the new concert hall and helping with the huge amount of fundraising required to finance it.
Van Zweden’s rise in the conducting world has been swift and impressive. He began, at age 18, as the concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, which some consider the world’s most prestigious orchestra. His February 2006 guest appearance with the Dallas Symphony was only his second-ever appearance conducting in the United States, but it was good enough that the DSO hired him to take over full-time.
In almost exactly 10 years, van Zweden has become a Dallas landmark, known for his exacting, high standards and the energy he brings to the core repertoire. He records for DSO Live, the orchestra’s new record label, which overcame some early issues with muffled sound quality to produce a few excellent new albums. Dvorak’s New World Symphony, from a live concert in January 2014, is especially terrific, a thrilling, old-school performance you can download on iTunes or eClassical.
Following van Zweden’s departure from Dallas in 2018, he will have the title of conductor laureate, which, in layman’s terms, means he will come back to visit whenever he finds time. The DSO’s chairman of the board of governors, Joseph F. Hubach, said in the orchestra’s press release that, “We are looking forward to extraordinary music making for the next two-and-a-half years with Jaap as music director, and for an additional three years as conductor laureate.”
A number of other projects are keeping the Amsterdam native busy. With the Hong Kong Philharmonic and a slew of renowned singers, he is recording Wagner’s enormous operatic Ring Cycle. And he’s recorded a whole shelf of CDs by composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Britten and some whose names do not start with B.
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Meanwhile, the New York City media has been quick to pick up two rumors about van Zweden. The first, noted by Anthony Tommasini in the Times, is that van Zweden doesn’t much like performing new music. But as van Zweden told the Times in an interview, working with living composers “is a luxury I think we should treasure as conductors,” and in the Netherlands, he premiered a new work “every week or two.” He recently conducted the debut of a new concerto by Magnus Lindberg, and plays a violin concerto by Wolfgang Rihm on a CD from the Naxos label.
The other rumor has a stronger basis in fact. There have been rumblings in Dallas for years that van Zweden is, to put it diplomatically, not the easiest boss to work for. He has exacting visions for each work he conducts, rarely compromises and does not rest until his vision is fulfilled in every particular. This can mean demanding rehearsals and sink-or-swim pressure. Last year, two DSO musicians separately confided to this writer that working with van Zweden is “difficult,” but worth it for his high musical standards.
Should New York be worried? The truth is, classical music has a glorious tradition of asshole conductors, and not just on Amazon Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle. Fritz Reiner’s rule in Chicago was notoriously tyrannical, and an old rumor has it that Arturo Toscanini fired a musician who looked at his watch during rehearsal. Dozens of other conductors, past and present, have earned reputations for shouting, harassing or impulsively firing their musicians. By contrast, Jaap van Zweden sounds tame.
It’s too early for rumors about who will succeed van Zweden in Dallas, but as soon as we hear something, we’ll let you know.