Since the announcement last year that Jaap van Zweden will serve as the New York Philharmonic's next music director beginning in 2018, classical music pundits have analyzed the Dutch conductor's every performance with heightened attention.
Angelenos will do the same this weekend, when Van Zweden returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the Fifth Symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich.
Van Zweden still remembers the first time he conducted Beethoven's Fifth.
"It was in the Netherlands in the beginning of my conducting life and I was actually terrified for a piece which has been done so many times and under so many conductors we all know," he recalls. "To make it interesting, Beethoven is asking you to really dig into the piece for the lines in the music which are maybe not so obvious at first. That is the terrifying thing –– that you are not able to bring those lines out so much as you wanted."
Since those early days, Van Zweden, now 56, has developed into a bold, confident conductor. His dogged quest to unearth the deepest intricacies in the symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich reaps thrilling, often surprising performances. In 2012, while serving as music director of both the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the respected website Musical America recognized him as its conductor of the year.
A muscular, imposing figure on the podium, Van Zweden's mature conducting style crackles with energy and seethes with intensity. When he led the New York Philharmonic through a performance of Beethoven's Fifth in 2015, the New York Times' Zachary Woolfe praised his meticulousness, describing the performance as "particularly memorable" and "seductive."
Navigating Beethoven's Fifth is one thing. Handling constant media scrutiny is another.
In 2014, an article in the Dallas Morning News painted Van Zweden as a difficult boss with a penchant for "brow-beating." A year later, when the New York Times' classical music staff outlined its wish lists for the New York Philharmonic's next director, Van Zweden's name was conspicuously absent. In an article covering Van Zweden's appointment, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross noted that the conductor is not a "marquee name" and that some patrons might find the choice "mystifying."
So whereas five years ago Van Zweden answered questions about Beethoven's symphonies with carefree enthusiasm, today he is aware that everything he says and does is subject to examination, and that his repertoire choices have been criticized as less adventurous than current New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert's.
Van Zweden is still eager to discuss Beethoven's music but careful to amend his statements: "I also do other things. I don't want to be put in a corner where people would say this is the composer he does the most or likes the best."
The conductor adds that he is "very into Wagner opera at the moment," and he is quick to point out that the night before this interview, he conducted the world premiere of a new symphony by American composer Christopher Rouse with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Van Zweden says he approached Rouse's new symphony the same way he tackles Beethoven's familiar Fifth. Regardless of the piece, he studies the score intensely, mining it for the hidden gems of melodic and harmonic details that he then coaxes from the orchestra.
"There's always something new to find," he says. "Whenever you get up in the morning, you get up as a pupil. I want to learn more things, to discover more things. That is actually how I like to live."
Van Zweden's passion for in-depth study no doubt aided his rise. This is a man who, according to his daughter, Anna Sophia, brings symphonic scores with him on family vacations. Even with a piece as well-worn as Beethoven's Fifth, he always studies and never conducts on autopilot.
Van Zweden's musical life began in Amsterdam, where he fell in love with music as a boy listening to his father play the piano at night through the thin walls of their "very little house."
Wanting to make music for himself, Van Zweden picked up the violin at age 7. By the time he was 15, he moved to New York to study his instrument at Juilliard. At age 19 he was the youngest person to be appointed concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.
As a young man, Van Zweden walked into an Amsterdam bar one night and met an artist named Aaltje. It was love at first sight for the violinist, who remembers finding his now-wife of 33 years instantly "mesmerizing." The city is still home for the Van Zwedens, who have four children. Their oldest, Anna Sophia, is a curator who worked closely with her father at the Dallas Symphony to establish an annual art and music festival. Their sons still live in Amsterdam. Daniel is a businessman and Alexander a student. The couple's experiences with their middle son, Benjamin, who is severely autistic, led them to establish the Papageno Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping autistic children and their families. Aaltje serves as director.
Van Zweden led an orchestra for the first time at the suggestion of Leonard Bernstein, who was guest-conducting the Concertgebouw in Berlin and wanted to hear the orchestra from the back of the hall. He handed the baton to Van Zweden during a rehearsal. Bernstein saw potential in the violinist's unpolished conducting skills. Lenny, as Van Zweden affectionately calls his mentor, encouraged him to pursue conducting.
The podium suited Van Zweden, and by the mid-1990s he exchanged his violin bow for a conductor's baton permanently. "Suddenly I became what I actually always was," he says.
Van Zweden says something "clicked" the moment he realized his true calling.
He uses that same word –– "click" –– to describe his relationship with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, a group of musicians who, under his leadership, have thrived and evolved into a consistently taut and nimble ensemble. The word comes up again when he talks about the musicians of the New York Philharmonic. "There was this enormous click with the members of the orchestra," he says. "We have made some really wonderful connections already."
That spark between the conductor and the musicians in New York has been cited as a key factor in the decision to hire him. Whether or not New York's audiences and critics will feel a similar click remains to be seen. Van Zweden says that in the interim, he is not overly concerned by critics' lukewarm response.
"I think as an artist, you have to respect the people who write for the papers because they have been there for many years and they have relationships and trust and know the artists. I completely understand that," he says. "But of course I hope that when I come, and they get to know me, they can rethink a little bit their mixed feelings."
This week, Van Zweden is looking forward to connecting with the L.A. Phil. He says that part of what keeps pieces like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony fresh for him is the chance to explore them with different orchestras around the world.
"I think that it is always a very important moment that you realize that an orchestra has its own history and its own DNA with certain pieces, and certainly with the Fifth of Beethoven," he says. "At the same time, of course I take with me from my experience and my years with these pieces. I think that the truth is in the middle. It's about that meeting. That is what is interesting."
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L.A. Phil with Jaap van Zweden
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111. N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 11 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $92-$195 (extremely limited availability, subject to change)
Information: (323) 850-2000, laphil.org
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
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