Meet the new maestro: Jaap van Zweden talks taking over the New York Philharmonic

This month is one Jaap van Zweden will never forget. At this moment, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s treasured music director will most likely be found studying a score or brandishing a baton backstage at New York’s iconic Lincoln Centre, where he is about to take over the reins at his “other orchestra” – beginning a tenure leading the New York Philharmonic on Thursday (September 20) with a ceremonial gala concert entitled “New York, Meet Jaap”.

Less than a week ago, the Dutch maestro was onstage at Hong Kong Cultural Centre, taking his umpteenth bow after four concerts in nine days which raised the curtain on the HK Phil’s landmark 45th season. There was the assured sense of routine as Jaap – as he’s lovingly known in the city – directed the 96-piece ensemble through August 31’s opening programme of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, a typically brave juxtaposition of Russian voices which inaugurated his seventh year in charge.

Some 13,000km away in the Big Apple, van Zweden takes over at one of America’s historic “Big Five” orchestras, filling the top job once held by luminaries including Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Pierre Boulez and his own mentor Leonard Bernstein. It’s easy to imagine which engagement is causing the greater headache.

“I want to make it clear that this [Hong Kong] is not my second home, or my second orchestra,” protests the 57-year-old, fresh from rehearsals a few days before opening night. “It’s just that I have two orchestras and the other… is the New York Philharmonic. It’s not a number one and number two.”

In fact, he insists, the upshot of this arrangement is that van Zweden’s commitments to the SAR have contractually increased; while previously bound to annually spend ten weeks in Hong Kong, the new deal will see the maestro’s combined stay notched up to 12 weeks in 52. And time, in van Zweden’s case, is most certainly money – he was once notoriously paid US$5.1 million in a single year by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which shared its celebrity figurehead with Hong Kong until this summer (in fairness, much of the sum was a one-off bonus paid in 2013 for agreeing to stay on until 2019; he stepped down this summer but will instead serve as Conductor Laureate until 2021).

Whatever his corresponding fee from Hong Kong, many would say it has proved money well spent; van Zweden has been almost singlehandedly credited with elevating the orchestra’s profile and reputation (“dramatically raising standards” raved one oft-quoted review in London’s The Times). Following well-received tours of Europe, Asia and Australia, it’s not unusual to hear whispers that the HK Phil might today be the best orchestra on the world’s most populous continent.

When I dangle this carrot in front of Jaap he doesn’t quite bite – “it’s not on me to say that; if people say it, that’s fine” – but tellingly names only one other ensemble when I ask who might challenge this title: Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra, the 92-year-old institution that will visit this city as part of Hong Kong Arts Festival in February, under the baton of chief conductor Paavo Järvi.

While founded just two decades later, in 1947, the HK Phil didn’t go professional until 1974, and the distinctly cosmopolitan collective has arguably made its greatest strides since the handover. An anniversary exhibition collecting vintage concert programmes and cassette releases of Cantonese TV themes, currently on display at the Cultural Centre lobby, serves as a timely reminder of how far and fast the players have come.

“This is the spirit of the orchestra, they feel they can compete with any orchestra in the world, but they also understand that yes – you have to work for that,” adds van Zweden. “The process of really getting to a high level really is the fun. And when it is recognised that we are now one of the strongest orchestras in Asia, or even in the world, it’s fine with me, fantastic, great. But you know, it’s just words.”

Some might dispute the “fun” part: van Zweden’s managerial style has been characterised as “abrasive” and “autocratic”. Rumours are rehearsals are not always pretty. “I did not fire anybody,” he insists of his work in Hong Kong. “If there were people who were not so strong as we liked, we made them better,” he corrects himself, “they made themselves better.”

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Originally published in China Daily Hong Kong

Instead of personnel change, van Zweden credits much of the Phil’s transformation with the four-year slog he led through Wagner’s complete 15-hour Ring saga – officially known as Der Ring des Nibelungen – performing and recording one epic chapter per season, an arduous four-hander which closed with January’s glorious reading of Götterdämmerung. It was a spine-tingling – and posterior-crunching evening – at curtain call one felt a sense of elated exhaustion waft throughout the audience and players alike.

“This world of Wagner gave us an extra layer, a different colour which we did not have before,” says van Zweden. “If you look at a painting – I saw the orchestra play a lot with watercolours, and now they are also able to paint with oil on canvas.”

After Wagner, the 2018/19 season will be defined by the Dutchman’s ongoing quest to conquer the work of late romantic extremist Gustav Mahler. Van Zweden possesses an evident zeal and sizeable track record with his predecessor in NYC – of the ten programmes he will personally conduct in Hong Kong, three are entire evenings devoted to Mahler’s epic symphonies, each typically running an uninterrupted 80 minutes or more. Indeed, van Zweden recently caused no small consternation when concertgoers were told two special, sponsored Mahler evenings – where all tickets are just HK$200 – have been switched (the seventh will now be performed in November, the ninth in April – a full-price reading of the legendary second is still set for May).

Looking ahead, van Zweden refuses to be drawn on whether he might be enticed to stay beyond his current contract, which ends in 2022 (“I don’t think we are talking about that yet”) but promises “more opera” as part of a “Beethoven season” in the near future, and hints at future tours of East Asia, Europe and the USA, and plans to add to the 40-odd releases already in his discography.

As well as continuing to raise Hong Kong’s profile abroad, van Zweden also pledged a renewed turn towards the city. This season’s programme answers critics with a commissioned work from locally based composer Wong Chun-wai, to be premiered in May alongside a performance by award-winning homegrown pianist Rachel Cheung, both conducted by the maestro himself.

“Hong Kong is our home,” he added. “It is very important that we understand we are from Hong Kong – we are proud to be the best ambassadors of Hong Kong – and that starts here and nowhere else. We want to be recognised not [just] worldwide, but in the first place be recognised in Hong Kong itself.”

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