Classical Music

New York Isn’t Thrilled to Welcome the Dallas Symphony’s Conductor

The New York City cultural world has heard the news that Dallas Symphony Orchestra maestro Jaap van Zweden will be taking over the New York Philharmonic, and its reaction is a resounding “meh.” Many critics are underwhelmed by van Zweden’s modest international stature, but there is also more than a whiff of the belief that something from Dallas can’t possibly be good enough for New York City.

Anthony Tommasini, at the Times, says van Zweden is “too predictable a choice,” and asks a series of skeptical questions about van Zweden’s style, but urges readers to give him a chance. No doubt the New York Philharmonic will consider “Give Jaap a Chance” for its new slogan. Justin Davidson of New York magazine seems disinclined to Give Jaap a Chance, suggesting he is inexperienced and likely to “find scores of formidable sparring partners” for bickering, infighting and personal drama. And Davidson writes dismissively of the Dallas Symphony: “van Zweden has been slowly ratcheting that group’s reputation up from second-tier to mezzanine.” Thanks a lot, Justin.

New Yorker critic Alex Ross says the choice of van Zweden is “a curious outcome” given rumors that “the Philharmonic wanted a charismatic celebrity figure.” Word is, van Zweden was not the New York orchestra’s first or even second choice. The orchestra’s in-house composer, Grammy winner and former iPad spokesman Esa-Pekka Salonen, politely declined the job. So did the most interesting conductor in North America, Pittsburgh Symphony director Manfred Honeck, who preferred to finish his orchestra’s transformation into one of the world’s best.

For the New Yorker, Ross strikes a note of skeptical optimism, saying “Van Zweden may yet turn out to be a happy choice.” On his own personal blog, though, he’s seriously unhappy, venting, “This is an orchestra going around in circles, lacking a clear direction.”

Only Barbara Jepson of the Wall Street Journal shows much enthusiasm for van Zweden, or a strong understanding of his past work. She provides a cheery counterpoint to the chorus of skeptics by noting that van Zweden “consistently generates excitement” and “has demonstrated an ability to bring the classics alive.” And unlike the others, she’s heard a few of van Zweden's CDs.

But if our maestro is disheartened by his lukewarm welcome in New York, he can at least be thankful he did not get appointed to lead a London orchestra. Over in the United Kingdom, blogger Norman Lebrecht, the Donald Trump of classical music, is livid. Lebrecht, who combines the grumpiness of Statler and Waldorf with the playful wit of Ted Cruz, calls van Zweden the “White Van Man.” Because he’s white and his name has “van” in it. Ha, ha.

Lebrecht goes on to call the New York Philharmonic “redneck,” says the White Van Man’s record in Dallas is “bumpy,” contends van Zweden’s time in NYC “can only go bad” and alleges the DSO’s recent decision to cancel a European tour, citing security concerns after the Paris attacks, was “dishonest,” “shameful” and would place the DSO “in a self-enclosed ghetto.” By the way, Lebrecht’s 2007 book about the classical music industry was destroyed by the publisher because it contained over a dozen libelous statements.

So these are the perceptions that Jaap van Zweden must fight against when he moves to New York in 2018. Is he too conservative and predictable? Will he fight with the musicians? Does he live in a van down by the river?

Van Zweden — and the music-loving public of New York City — can take some consolation in the words of Emanuel Borok, who served as the Dallas Symphony’s concertmaster from 1985 to 2010 and now teaches violin at SMU. The Dallas Symphony recognized at the very start, Borok says, “the transformational effect of his conducting,” which is why they hired van Zweden. “And now almost a decade later the New York Philharmonic made the same choice. Good for them and good for the NY audience. I think he may be one of the most effective conductors they have ever had.”

In other words, Give Jaap a Chance.
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart