Hard to believe it was 10 years ago that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra heralded the arrival of a new conductor with billboards and banners implying the man only frowned and only stood in dark lighting. But in that time, talk about the orchestra evolved from “They’re playing Mozart this weekend? Sounds interesting,” to “Jaap’s conducting what? Take my money.”
Now we watch the formidable conductor known for imparting an unprecedented power and musicality to the DSO depart for the New York Philharmonic, no replacement in sight. (DSO has started the search, but has remained secretive about any progress.) Fortunately, Jaap van Zweden had some parting words to share.
“When you are a great orchestra it’s one thing, but remaining a big name needs a lot of work," van Zweden says. "I mean I go to big orchestras — Berlin Philharmonic, I go to Concertgebouw Amsterdam, New York, Chicago — they work really hard to keep their level and this is the thing that this orchestra is realizing now."
When he arrived, he felt that the orchestra was not using its talents to the fullest extent. So they drilled down into details, different styles, building the sound in the strings, repeating passages and going over how to make them better every day. The great orchestras, he said, all worked that hard at some point in their history.
The assiduity of Van Zweden in concert with the potential of the players proved a magic combination. Over the years, they welcomed the world’s greatest: Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming.
That type of energy has reverberated around the Dallas arts scene in recent years, overshadowed as it sometimes is with sports and financial endeavors. Van Zweden knows he’s leaving at a pivotal time, but he exuded optimism for the energized city.
“I think that we put a lot of seed in the ground for a national profile and I think that the years to come if things are going well," he said, "and I’m 100 percent sure that this will happen, that Dallas will be recognized as one of the big cities in the U.S. where the arts scene is a huge thing.
The vast undertaking, lofty expectations and wide regard for his predecessor the new director will meet shouldn’t be intimidating at all.
Van Zweden had some simple advice, though: Be yourself.
“He or she is going to do it completely different probably and that’s fine," he said. "That’s life. I would never imitate anybody and I hope that my successor is not going to imitate me because it’s impossible."
Van Zweden takes his signature obsession with detail and developing talent to the top of the league next season: the New York Philharmonic. There he’ll follow in the footsteps of giants like Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta and Gustav Mahler, and he’s aware of the enormousness of the task.
“Yes, of course I’m thrilled, but also humbled because these people have all proved that they were the right choice and I still have to do that,” he said. “To be humble is the best place for me now.”
New York will also point him in some different directions musically. With more adventurous artistic tastes, the city will allow for more freedom for experimentation and new music. Already, he played Philip Glass with the orchestra, and he will perform a contemporary violin concerto next season.
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New music is a sticking point for some of his critics. Van Zweden’s favorite composer is Richard Wagner, the 19th century German known for tempestuous, sprawling operas, and his repertoire seems weighted with late romantics Mahler and Bruckner. Van Zweden doesn’t think the critics have done their homework, though. In Dallas, he often had to balance new music with more recognizable works on the program. As music director of a radio symphony in the Netherlands he did a contemporary piece every two weeks, and he has performed a long list of world premieres and music by living composers over the past 15 years.
“So if somebody writes like he doesn’t do contemporary music, then I’m not going to react at all. I’m just going to say they can wait,” he said. “So dealing with toughness is fine as long as it is fair.”
The New York Philharmonic releases its 2018/19 program Tuesday. Van Zweden plans to head there next week to conduct Wagner’s "Die Walküre," then return to Dallas to perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 before hitting a world tour to China, Japan, Taiwan and other countries with the philharmonic in two weeks. He hasn’t played extensively with them yet, he said, but already he feels a strong chemistry and looks forward to meeting the family behind the orchestra on the tour. Dallas announces its new season next week, but said that, fortunately, the city will continue to see him from time to time.
“In the coming years when I will return here there is one thing I can assure you — that when I fly in and I fly in this airport I will feel always at home here,” he said. “I never felt Dallas as my second or third home but my other home, and this is going to stay.”