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Classical music

Van Zweden’s premiere-heavy debut season as New York Philharmonic music director

United States’ leading orchestra will highlight ‘music of conscience’ and celebrate immigrants in its first season under HK Phil maestro, which also features US$5, one-hour concerts intended to draw new audiences

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 5:03pm

The New York Philharmonic will celebrate immigrants and highlight “music of conscience” in a strikingly modern season – its first under incoming music director Jaap van Zweden – that features five world premieres.

Some observers had presumed van Zweden, a Dutch violinist turned conductor who is also music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, to be most interested in leading refined performances of the classical canon.

But the leading US orchestra’s 2018-19 season will take on themes of activism and immigrants’ contributions to New York – an unspoken statement in the age of President Donald Trump and his nativist “America First” platform.

Among the world premieres will be “prisoner of the state” by leading US composer David Lang, a contemporary reinterpretation of Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, about a disguised guard who rescues her husband from a political prison.

Van Zweden said he considered the opera a “wonderful statement from us” that will close the season.

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Lang’s opera will be part of a series that the New York Phil calls “Music of Conscience”. Other works will include Beethoven’s Eroica, which he famously un-dedicated to Napoleon; Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, written as he weathered intense pressure from Soviet authorities, and US composer John Corigliano’s 1988 Symphony No. 1 that touched on the Aids epidemic.

The orchestra will also put its principles into practice – and take a new stab at classical music’s eternal quest to rejuvenate audiences – with a series of US$5 concerts conduced by van Zweden.

The one-hour concerts – dubbed “Phil the Hall” – will be open to teachers, first responders and others involved in public service.

Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s new president and chief executive, who has moved quickly to shore up its financial health, said the US$5 concerts aimed to bring in “people who might not normally come to the Philharmonic – partly because they’ve never been invited, partly because there could be an economic barrier”.

I learned the city from the street where I’m from, I would say. And it was wonderful
Jaap van Zweden on being a student in New York

Another world premiere, Fire in My Mouth by composer Julia Wolfe, will be accompanied by multimedia projections as it looks back at the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

The blaze, made worse by unsafe working conditions, was the deadliest in New York’s history, with 146 workers killed, most of them immigrant women.

Borda said that the piece was part of the New York Phil’s look at how immigrants “built our city.”

“We all know New York is a city of immigrants, and that is our pride and our strength,” she said.

Van Zweden said he was intimately aware of New York’s immigrant history. As a cash-strapped student at The Julliard School, he said he lived in Spanish Harlem and would play soccer in Central Park with Mexican and Puerto Rican youngsters.

“I learned the city from the street where I’m from, I would say. And it was wonderful.”

The season will open with a yet-untitled world premiere by Ashley Fure, a scholar in her mid-30s who researches the forces behind sound.

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Fure said that the orchestra’s decision to throw its weight “behind the voice of a young, female composer at the start of a new era is a very rare and profound choice”.

Women’s lack of representation has been a topic of growing concern in the cultural world.

The other world premieres in the 2018-19 season will include a commissioned piece from 23-year-old piano prodigy Conrad Tao and Agamemnon, a work inspired by Greek mythology by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.