KERA Arts Story Search

Looking for events? Click here for the Go See DFW events calendar.

DSO’s Van Zweden Is Going To The New York Philharmonic

by Jerome Weeks 27 Jan 2016 9:04 AM

Jaap van Zweden made big news in the world of classical music yesterday. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra conductor announced he would be taking over the baton at the New York Philharmonic, the  oldest and most prestigious classical music position in the country. What follows is Art & Seek’s package of coverage of this momentous change for van Zweden and the DSO. First, KERA contributor Quin Mathews looks back — to another time van Zweden caused a stir.

In 2011, at Lincoln Center, Sedgwick Clark, editor of “Musical America,” made an announcement that rippled through the classical music world.

“Our conductor of the year, Jaap van Zweden.”

Jaap van Zweden conducts the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerson Symphony Center January 29-31 and February 4-7

Not yet the conductor of a big international orchestra, Jaap van Zweden was making critics pay attention to his Dallas Symphony. Van Zweden came to the podium late, past his mid thirties. He’d already completed a career as a brilliant violinist.

“My father is a pianist. He played always with gypsies.”

Van Zweden grew up in a modest household in Amsterdam.

“You know the gypsies would always come to our house and I would be fascinated with them. I took up the instrument when I was seven years old.

“When I was 15 years old I won a violin competition in the Netherlands, and this gave my parents the opportunity to send me to the Juilliard School.”


Jaap van Zweden. Photo: Dane Walters.

Suddenly as a student, he stepped up to one of the top orchestral positions in the world.

“Three years later, Bernard Haitink called me in New York in my room, and asked me to be the new concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw. So I moved back to Amsterdam and I stayed there with the orchestra until 1997, 17 years, that’s correct.”

It was a former New York Philharmonic conductor who turned him toward the podium.

“It was Lenny Bernstein who asked me to take over a rehearsal. ‘Jaap would you please conduct the first movement, I want to go in the hall and see how it sounds.’ So I said ‘But Lenny I have never conducted.’ ‘Yes, but just do it.’ To say no to Lenny, nobody did that, so I did it. And he came back, and he said, ‘Well that was pretty bad.’ But he said something else. He said ‘I saw something. I think you should take it serious. I think it is something for you. ‘

In 2007, van Zweden conducted a Beethoven concert with the Dallas Symphony and was quickly hired as the orchestra’s new music director.

“My first rehearsal with the orchestra, I felt an instant connection and a click that I feel is so important.”

Van Zweden pulled the orchestra toward the core of the classical music repertory — German and Austrian music. “Absolutely. This is the heart of the classical music. I’m a big believer in the framework of the traditional from where out we work is Bach, Haydn, Mozart. And then the rest comes. To be honest, if you want to judge an orchestra, listen how they play Bach, listen how they play Haydn, and then you know what meat you have.”

It will be Mozart in this weekend’s concerts at the Meyerson Symphony Center. And it was Beethoven, recorded with van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony, where they clicked.


Van Zweden and the DSO. Photo: Mark Kitaoka.

Next, Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks on the background of the entire move to New York. Van Zweden may be on his way to lead the New York Philharmonic, but he’ll continue holding the baton with the DSO through 2018. Jerome spoke with the conductor the morning of his announcement.

In a way, Jaap van Zweden’s job in Dallas is complete. He came here in 2008 to transform the quality of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. And by all accounts and critical acclaim, he’s succeeded. Van Zweden certainly thinks so.

“The Dallas Symphony is one of the top orchestras of this country now,” he says, “and I’m happy I was part of that.”

The 55-year-old Van Zweden started as a violinist – he was a Juilliard student at 16 and was the youngest lead violinist ever appointed to Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw orchestra. Van Zweden switched to conducting in his mid-thirties, relatively late. So when the DSO hired him, Van Zweden was making his American debut as the head of a major symphony.

It was a big, smart career move, coming to America to turn an orchestra around with his intense, muscular style. It got him noticed fairly fast. But van Zweden says, when he came to America, when he came to Dallas, his ultimate goal wasn’t leading the New York Philharmonic.

“I’m not the type of guy who, when I kiss my wife, I look if there’s something better around,” he says. “So it’s not that I started something in Dallas and I was hoping for this. But I can tell you that it’s a fantastic opportunity for me.”

In fact, when van Zweden first guest-conducted in New York in 2012, there wasn’t even a job opening at the Philharmonic. Alan Gilbert held the baton and was relatively youthful; he was seen as a likely long-term leader. So van Zweden says his relationship with the New York orchestra developed without pressure. It was only last year, when Gilbert said he would step down in 2017, that van Zweden started being touted as a candidate. And even then, he wasn’t seen as the top choice.

But it’s hard not to see the Philharmonic as something like van Zweden’s inevitable ‘destiny.’ When he was a lead violinist in Amsterdam, van Zweden was encouraged to try conducting by Leonard Bernstein himself. The famous maestro of the New York Philharmonic handed van Zweden the baton to conduct part of Mahler’s First Symphony. Fittingly, decades earlier, Mahler himself had also left the Royal Concertgebouw to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

So stepping into Bernstein’s conductor’s shoes now must feel remarkable.

“Yes, it is a remarkable moment, as you can understand,” says van Zweden, “especially with him, being always in the back of my mind.”

What’s more, van Zweden is Dutch. And the Dutch conductor, Willem Mengleberg, led the Royal Concertgebouw before he took charge of the New York Philharmonic in 1922. See a pattern here?

“Yeah, well,” van Zweden says with a laugh, “I thought this morning, every 100 years, you choose a Dutch conductor, so it’s probably my turn.”

Jonathan Martin, the Dallas Symphony’s president, says the move to New York isn’t surprising at all – given van Zweden’s meteoric success here in North Texas.


Jonathan Martin. Photo: Jerome Weeks

“I think Dallas should feel a sense of pride about the fact that the seven and a half years he’s been with us,” Martin notes, “there’s been an unprecedented growth in the quality of the sound of the DSO — I’d even say historic. So it’s not a surprise that that would be recognized by one of the world’s great orchestras.”

Martin says a search committee to choose van Zweden’s successor is already being formed and will convene in a few weeks. Van Zweden will step down as the DSO’s music director at the end of the 2017-18 season. But Martin cautions against seeing that as a hard-and-fast deadline to hire a new conductor.

“This will be my fourth time I’ve been involved in a music-director search,” he says. “One of the things I’ve learned is that if you adhere slavishly to a timeline, it may also mean you may not end up with the right person.”

In 2017, Van Zweden will become the New York Philharmonic’s ‘music director designate.’ The year after that, he’ll officially become the DSO’s ‘conductor laureate’ – and will hold that title through 2021. Van Zweden says all that means he’ll continue to play a part at the DSO for the next five years.

“It means that we are going to treasure our relationship with a few weeks a year, not as much as it was, but we will still continue our fantastic relationship.”

Jonathan Martin puts an upbeat spin on this whole shift of titles and leadership. Ultimately what it means, he said, is that the Dallas Symphony will regularly be led by the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. And that’s not bad.

But not everyone is happy with the New York Philharmonic’s choice. This is NYTimes critic Anthony Tommasini:

“For the Philharmonic post, I thought Mr. van Zweden would be too predictable a choice — a solid, disciplined, middle-aged European maestro — to follow Mr. Gilbert, a youthful native New Yorker who has brought the orchestra vision and innovation. Even those who haven’t found him to be the most engrossing interpreter of repertory staples must credit Mr. Gilbert with emboldening the Philharmonic at a time when strong artistic purpose and outreach are crucial to the future of classical music.

So I was wrong. The Philharmonic has made its choice. Mr. van Zweden is an accomplished artist and a feisty podium presence who exudes energy. Those of us who want this institution to thrive should offer congratulations and wish him success.

Still, my feeling lingers that his appointment represents a safe course. I’ve long argued that orchestras everywhere, but especially in America, worry too much about how they play and not enough about what they play and why they play it.”

Given all this, it’s ironic that the program for this weekend’s DSO performances has van Zweden conducting the world premiere of Jeremy Gill’s Serenada Concertante for Oboe and Orchestra.


Here is the New York Philharmonic’s press release, followed by the Dallas Symphony’s release:


Initial Five-Year Contract To Begin in 2018–19 Season Van Zweden To Serve as MUSIC DIRECTOR DESIGNATE in the 2017–18 Season

New York Philharmonic Chairman Oscar S. Schafer and President Matthew VanBesien today
announced that conductor Jaap van Zweden will become the Orchestra’s next Music Director,
beginning in 2018–19, the Orchestra’s 177th season. Mr. van Zweden will serve as Music
Director Designate in the 2017–18 season.

As the New York Philharmonic’s 26th Music Director, Mr. van Zweden — who has been Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 2008 and Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra since 2012 — will succeed Alan Gilbert, whose tenure began in 2009 and culminates in the 2016–17 season. Mr. van Zweden will become Music Director Designate in the 2017–18 season, when he will conduct several weeks of concerts. In the 2018–19 season he begins his tenure as Music Director, conducting the New York Philharmonic for 12 weeks each year, leading the Orchestra on national and international tours and residencies, and guiding the Philharmonic through the planned renovation of David Geffen Hall.

Acclaimed for superb performances and orchestra-building in Dallas and around the world, Amsterdam-born Jaap van Zweden was appointed at age 19 as the youngest-ever concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and began his conducting career 20 years later in 1995. It was upon the encouragement of Philharmonic Laureate Conductor Leonard Bernstein, during a rehearsal of Mahler’s First Symphony there, that he first took up the baton. His appointment as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic will be a homecoming for Mr. van Zweden, who was trained as a violinist at The Juilliard School.

Mr. van Zweden made his New York Philharmonic debut on April 12, 2012, and has returned regularly, most recently in October 2015. During the 2016–17 season he will lead the New York Philharmonic in a program featuring the New York Premiere of a Viola Concerto by Julia Adolphe written for Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps.

“On behalf of the search committee and the entire New York Philharmonic family, I am thrilled to name Jaap van Zweden as the New York Philharmonic’s next Music Director,” said Philharmonic Chairman Oscar S. Schafer. “I’d like to sincerely thank the committee and its chair, J. Christopher Flowers, which was unanimous in its choice of Mr. van Zweden, who demonstrates the highest level of music making, befitting this excellent Orchestra, as well as an infectious enthusiasm and dedication toward taking this great institution into the next era.”

“Having experienced his passionate and dynamic artistry with the New York Philharmonic over four appearances in the last four years, I believe Jaap van Zweden is not only a logical choice for the Philharmonic’s next Music Director, but an incredibly inspired and exciting one,” said Philharmonic President Matthew VanBesien. “As both a strong musician and leader, Jaap brings energy and electricity that mirror our hometown, the great city of New York, and his deep commitment to the music itself promises many thrilling performances for our audiences. Moreover, Jaap will be an engaged, visionary, and dedicated partner in building the future of this Orchestra, including the planned renovation of David Geffen Hall, activities during the renovation, and the eventual return to our concert home.”

“This is one of the happiest and most fulfilling days of my life,” said Jaap van Zweden. “To be asked by the great musicians of the New York Philharmonic and by the Board of this iconic institution to be its Music Director is truly an honor. As musicians, we strive to achieve the best for our audiences in sharing the music of so many gifted composers of the past and present as we look to the future. My heart is full, and my family and I look forward to being true New Yorkers, as I was during my Juilliard days.”

“I am very excited that Jaap van Zweden will be the Philharmonic’s next Music Director, as is the rest of the Orchestra,” said Fiona Simon, Chairperson of the Orchestra Committee. “He is an outstanding musician who brings a special type of energy to the podium that will be inspiring to both musicians and audiences. In Jaap we have a strong musical partner whose commitment to the Orchestra will ensure performances of the highest art.”

The DSO release:

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra congratulates Jaap van Zweden on the announcement of his appointment as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic beginning in the 2018-19 season.
DSO is proud to have been an integral part of Maestro van Zweden’s exciting musical journey. We look forward to continuing our artistic path together through the 2017-18 season, which will be his final season as DSO Music Director.

This morning, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is pleased to announce that following his tenure as our Music Director, he will hold the title of Conductor Laureate of the DSO starting with the 2018-19 season and going through 2020-21, ensuring a robust conducting presence with us.

“We thank Jaap for his years of artistic leadership and guidance,” said Joseph F. Hubach, Chairman of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Board of Governors. “He and the musicians of the DSO have worked tirelessly to advance the level of artistry of the organization, and they continually perform concerts that thrill and excite. We are looking forward to extraordinary music making for the next 2 1/2 years with Jaap as Music Director, and for an additional three years as Conductor Laureate.”

“The velocity of artistic growth of the Dallas Symphony in the past seven-plus years under Jaap’s leadership is unprecedented in modern orchestra history”, added Jonathan Martin, President & CEO of the Dallas Symphony Association. “Jaap brings to the podium an intense focus, discipline and adherence to the very highest standards, and it is revealed every time he makes music with the outstanding musicians of the DSO. I am looking forward to working with Jaap in the coming years as this growth continues.”

Jaap van Zweden has asked us to share the following message with you: “As excited as I am about my new appointment with the New York Philharmonic, I continue to be gratified by the work we have done and will continue to do in Dallas. During my last seasons and into my role as Conductor Laureate, the DSO musicians and I look forward to sharing wonderful musical experiences with you our audiences. It all started with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and this is something that I will never forget.”