Cloud Over Van Zweden Exit From NY Phil Veils His Gifts As Conductor

Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic during their opening night concert of the 2021-22 season at Alice Tully Hall. (Photo by Chris Lee)

PERSPECTIVE — Through no fault of his own, Jaap van Zweden has had one of the strangest tenures of any music director of the Big Five American orchestras. It’s short — six years in total when he departs after the 2023-24 season but with 18 months of pandemic limbo lost in the middle, giving the impression he’s leaving almost just after arriving.

Inevitably, one wants to find fault somewhere. Van Zweden’s stated reasons need to be taken at face value. He caught COVID; that will change you. So will having an extended taste of stay-at-home life, especially considering that he has a special-needs child. The result is a whirlwind effect. New Yorkers never got to know him. And the only good part of that is that the local audience doesn’t know what it will be missing — which is a lot.

Even though the 60-year-old van Zweden only switched from being a violinist to a full-time conductor in 1997, tracking his activities means following him through three continents, specifically in his relationships with the Dallas, Chicago, and New York orchestras, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and, most important, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in his native Netherlands.

Pianist Daniil Trifonov performing with the New York Philharmonic and Jaap van Zweden on opening night in September 2021. (Chris Lee)

In the U.S., he walked into the Dallas Symphony in 2006, seemingly out of nowhere, and stayed for a decade (2008-2018) — one of his longest appointments. But while Dallas was looking for a conductor to give it major-league status, the more skeptical New Yorkers needed an epoch-making music director, with its history that includes Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, and Leonard Bernstein. More recently, Lorin Maazel was always considered temporary, and Alan Gilbert wasn’t given enough of a chance. And van Zweden will have had even less of one.

Conductors should never be judged by their season brochure. But they are. The more the brochures tried to make van Zweden more cosmetically friendly, the less genuine they seemed. What can’t be denied is that van Zweden had great successes with Julia Wolfe’s multi-media Fire in My Mouth and David Lang’s prisoner of the state, and, just before lockdown, premiered Tania León’s Slide, which won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for music. I loved his pairing of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Among Philharmonic radio broadcasts, the Brahms German Requiem is among the most passionate renditions of the piece I’ve ever heard — and it’s a passion that comes from deep understanding of the work.

Jaap van Zweden had a stellar career as a violinist before taking up the baton.

Other repertoire, upon closer scrutiny, tells a different story. He can be scrupulously unsentimental. That’s a valid approach even in the 2009 Bruckner Ninth Symphony that I heard him conduct, pre-New York Phil, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Much more curious is what developed after his arrival in New York. Tempos, even in The Rite of Spring and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, could be surprisingly slack. When going for gravitas, he can seem like he’s dragging every New York player into his zone. Strangely, I don’t hear that when he conducts in other places. In fact, van Zweden’s best work is some of the very best out there. What happened in New York? Or didn’t happen?

He’s no stranger to New York, having studied at the Juilliard School. At age 18, his career seemed to be made — for life — when he became co-concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. With that came solo work. He surfaced playing violin solos in any number of famous recordings, including Bernstein’s Mahler Fourth and Chailly’s Scheherazade. His concerto recordings are perfectly good, such as the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1. But what told me that van Zweden was meant to be a conductor is Bernstein’s Serenade, which he recorded separately as a violinist with the Flemish Chamber Orchestra in 1992 and as a conductor in Dallas in 2015. His violin sound is smallish, and, in that Juilliard/Dorothy DeLay tradition, not especially rich. It seems that van Zweden was not a high-personality violinist. But as a conductor, he had all elements — including the Broadway-ish charm and flash — well in hand.

He certainly had a strong voice by the time he recorded his imposing but budget-priced Brahms symphony cycle with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (Brilliant Classics, released in 2011), with its wide, Bernstein-esque range of expression but clear classical outlines. New insights arise over years of repeated hearings of these recordings. With the same orchestra (where he was chief conductor 2005-2012), his Rite of Spring, in contrast to the New York recording, is a razor-sharp model of clarity and precision. In his best moments, van Zweden’s sense of clarity creates buoyancy.

Van Zweden embodies Dutch traditions — good ones — in a number of ways. Though he is seldom heard in opera houses, the Concertgebouw (the concert hall, as opposed to the orchestra) has Saturday afternoon concert performances of opera — which is where I encountered him live in 2008 with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. The opera was Verdi’s Otello, long sold out, though at the last minute, seats behind the chorus were available. That meant I got to watch van Zweden in the face.

Jaap van Zweden recorded Wagner’s ‘Ring Cyle’ with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

Unlike seasoned opera conductors, he didn’t consistently mouth the words to the singers. No, this was a concert performance in the best sense. It was about the total musical package, not just a star vehicle, still with much dramatic momentum but also a kind of purely musical concentration that comes without having to accommodate staging considerations. His Ring Cycle recording on Naxos from Hong Kong, where he is contracted to be chief conductor through 2024, truly deserves the good reviews that it has received for the same reason, with a cast of singers that are microphone friendly. Van Zweden drew an amazing Sieglinde out of Heidi Melton (for one). Other voices lacked the heroic amplitude you’d want for the opera house, but you must admit that Gun-Brit Barkmin makes Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung an unusually interesting character.

Amsterdam is one of the great centers of the early-music movement, and van Zweden reflects that in his Beethoven Fifth recordings. He has made three at irregular intervals, starting with the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague (where he was chief conductor 2000 to 2005) with the first movement clocking in at just under seven minutes. At the time, The Hague recordings were considered notable for representing a halfway point between modern instruments and historically informed performance, with phrasing that refused to linger, swift tempos, and low-vibrato sound. That manner was somewhat maintained in Dallas (2012). But New York’s 2018 Beethoven Fifth first movement is nearly a half minute longer, which is substantial real estate in Beethoven’s symphony world. The biggest problem with the New York performance is that it doesn’t have a reason to be longer, almost suggesting the tempo wasn’t his choice.

Though The Netherlands is not an especially religious country these days, Amsterdam has a great choral tradition, the most obvious instance being the St. Matthew Passion conducted annually in Amsterdam from 1899 until the end of World War II by Willem Mengelberg. This tradition stands somewhat apart from the early-music scene: Choirs are larger and soloists aren’t necessarily Baroque specialists. So it was when van Zweden conducted the St. Matthew Passion at least twice in Dallas, the 2017 radio broadcast being an extraordinary document, and not just because it has a dream cast headed by tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Matthias Goerne, and shows how love, devotion, and musical insights are not enough for this piece. Each one of its moving parts not only has to be in optimum working order but in a coherent balance with a convincing whole. That happened in the van Zweden Dallas broadcast on a level that I’ve seldom heard in the modern concert hall.

In that context, van Zweden’s success with Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish) doesn’t come out of the blue. This ambitious work for narrator, vocal soloist, and chorus has a 70 percent chance of failure in performance, with a narration that rages at — and later has a buddy-bonding with — God, one that can make you doubt the sincerity of all other elements. Casting is crucial. So is a belief that this music and all the issues that come with it are as monumentally important as the composer thought them to be. And van Zweden is in a small circle of conductors (Marin Alsop among them) who are more convincing with the piece than the composer ever was.

Jaap van Zweden had great success with Julia Wolfe’s multi-media ‘Fire in My Mouth,’ commemorating the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, with the New York Philharmonic in 2019.

That sets the scene for van Zweden’s greatest New York Philharmonic triumph. Juggling such disparate elements is one thing, but he would also have to be well acquainted with the music of the great Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (1939-2021), who deeply influenced the downtown New York composers in the Bang on a Can collective, especially co-founder Julia Wolfe. No doubt van Zweden had special insight into Wolfe’s manner at the 2019 Fire in My Mouth premiere, which commemorated the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in a semi-staged presentation with scissors (of all things) playing a significant musical role in this choral/orchestra/video piece.

All of this goes to prove that inspiration without strategy isn’t much good. Van Zweden has both to spare. And now that he has hit the magic age of 60 — when conductors become great because they stop caring what others think of them — his best work is no doubt ahead of him. Unfortunately, a lot less of it is going to be in New York.