New York Philharmonic Taps Jaap van Zweden as Music Director

Jaap van Zweden (Credit: Hans van der Woerd)
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The New York Philharmonic has found its successor to Alan Gilbert. The orchestra announced on Wednesday that its next music director will be Jaap van Zweden, a fastidious Dutch conductor who will lead the ensemble as it embarks on a multi-year hall renovation set to begin in 2019.

Neither a wunderkind nor an éminence grise, the 55-year-old van Zweden is a former violinist who came to professional conducting in his mid 30s. He became the music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2008, and of the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2012. He will start as New York’s music director designate in the 2017-18 season, and then as music director in 2018-19, a five year appointment. 

It is clear that the Philharmonic wanted an experienced (though not celebrity) maestro and a seasoned fundraiser as it looks toward an itinerant phase while David Geffen Hall undergoes a $500 million gut renovation. The orchestra chose van Zweden over several younger candidates and after it was unable to make a match with Esa-Pekka Salonen, who several pundits tipped as a frontrunner but who has asserted his dedication to composing, not conducting.

The Philharmonic’s choice signals a departure from the leadership of Gilbert, 48, a thoughtful New Yorker who has championed a healthy dose of contemporary fare and some attention-getting theatrical presentations. Van Zweden’s programming in Dallas has been steeped in Austro-German Romantic symphonies, plenty of Beethoven, and occasional forays into modern Dutch repertoire. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has called his Dallas programming “a shade more adventurous than that of most American music directors.”

Critics and other observers have also credited van Zweden with raising the playing standards of the Dallas Symphony through a firm, hard-charging style that won him respect, if not always love, from audiences and musicians (there were reports of friction with some members of the orchestra in 2014, though it has been quiet since).

Conductor Jaap van Zweden (R) and executive director Matthew VanBesien (L) at a press conference on Jan. 27, 2015
Conductor Jaap van Zweden (R) and executive director Matthew VanBesien (L) at a press conference on Jan. 27, 2015

If there is one area that van Zweden may be wise to build on in the years ahead, it’s his programming in non-traditional formats, such as ReMix, the Dallas Symphony’s popular casual series aimed at young people. Similarly, in 2014, van Zweden introduced the Soluna International Music & Arts Festival, a month-long spring event focused on boundary-blurring artworks, held in venues around Dallas. It has included pieces by Conrad Tao, the orchestra’s young composer-in-residence.

Though van Zweden doesn’t have a Twitter or even a Facebook presence, he’ll be in the media glare plenty in New York, a point he acknowledged at a press conference on Wednesday morning. He spoke particularly about being a concertmaster in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra during the 1980s, a time when the ensemble was displaced for a hall renovation. “To get a new perfect house for an orchestra is a challenging time but also a very inspiring time,” he said. “The whole city went behind this. It’s a time when we as an orchestra should reach out to the people in the city.”

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