People Issue

Jaap Van Zweden: The Maestro

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

You might have seen his face on billboards -- intense eyes conducting the traffic below with precision -- or studied the back of his short, sturdy body and cleanly shaven head. But if anything, it's with your ears that you've encountered Jaap van Zweden's ability to draw excellence from the instruments of his charges.

"The word is not to tell the orchestra how to do it," says van Zweden, conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 2008. "The word is to inspire them to sound different."

Sound different they must. Van Zweden was recently named Musical America's Conductor of the Year, and he guest-conducts around the world, preparing a different program nearly every weekend from his condo at the Ritz Residences. "If you go to my apartment," he says, "you would see my bed completely covered with scores. I read scores, scores, scores, all day, all day, always."

The obsession started when he was 16, when he left his family in Amsterdam to study violin at Juilliard in New York. "Study, go to bed, maybe watch a little bit of a Yankees game," he says, describing that first year on U.S. soil. "I studied 10 hours -- maybe 12 hours a day."

By 19 he was appointed concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the youngest person to ever hold the position. As a violinist he worked under some of the world's greatest conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, who first suggested van Zweden look into conducting.

Van Zweden is still a baseball fan, and he's not oblivious to Dallas' reputation as sports-obsessed and materialistic. But, he says, the city "has put more effort, more energy and more money in culture than almost any [American] city in the last 20 years. There is a lot of art here. ... I'm so proud that if I go to a shopping mall there is unbelievable art. Where do you have that in Europe?

"Our quality has to be recognized worldwide," he goes on. "It is time that we realize ourselves that Dallas is not a city which just likes the outside, but also likes the inside."

See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

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Katie Womack
Contact: Katie Womack