Jaap van Zweden's belief in mutual respect sets the tone for the HK Philharmonic

With a new contract extension, conductor Jaap van Zweden will have time to form a special relationship with the HK Phil, writes Alexis Alrich

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 9:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 9:16am

Jaap van Zweden, international conductor and music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, learned about the importance of discipline at an early age.

"I remember I was nine years old and my father said, 'OK, it's 8.30[pm], I think you should go to bed now'," he recalls. "I remember I said, 'Dad, I want to see something on television,' and he said, 'No, I think we want to go to bed'."

The young Van Zweden didn't listen to his father's orders. By the time he did go to his room, his bed was gone.

"[My father had] pulled it apart and sent it to the attic. He said, 'OK, you don't want to sleep then you don't need a bed,'" Van Zweden says.

"He was also very tough on me. I was brought up very strict, a little bit Spartanic maybe. But with love."

This strong sense of discipline - and responsibility - has prevailed throughout his illustrious career as both violinist and conductor. It's now steering his orchestra forward.

Van Zweden will have at least five more years to do that after last month's announcement of an extension to his contract, although the number of concerts he will conduct each season has yet to be confirmed.

The maestro is a bit fierce-looking with a strong brow, deep-set eyes and bristling salt-and-pepper beard. But in conversation he is warm and generous with his thoughts - it's clear how he wins over his players. He may just help the HK Phil make the leap from good to great.

When asked how he's making that transition, the conductor - who succeeded fellow Dutchman Edo de Waart at the helm of the philharmonic back in 2012 - says: "I think it starts with the respect for the players. It's important we realise, as conductors, as composers, that we can put notes on paper, [but] if they don't play, we have no existence."

That respect does not go unnoticed. One player says Van Zweden commands 100 per cent commitment, but adds, half jokingly, that in many orchestras, 30 per cent of the players love the conductor, another 30 per cent hate him or her, and the rest don't care.

This commitment goes both ways, says Van Zweden. "If you ask for a certain discipline, for a preparation, a way of living even, living for your music - they need to feel, to smell, to see, that you also live that life yourself. You walk on stage with your life, the way you live."

Again, Van Zweden says his father gave him a model for this. "He always said the word 'we'. And I remember that always gave me the feeling of not being separated from him. So when I talk to the orchestra I always try to say, 'I think we want to do this' or 'we want to do that'. I never say 'I want this from you', because that is a separation already."

If one key of top-level performance is mutual respect, another would be sound quality. The template for the ideal sound comes from the Concertgebouw concert hall in Amsterdam where Van Zweden grew up.

"That Concertgebouw sound is the best instrument of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The sound of that hall is always in my mind, always in my DNA," he says.

But he also believes he can recreate that sound anywhere, saying, "I talk with the orchestra about the sound between the notes, and how to create an acoustic instead of depending on it. It doesn't matter what hall you are in."

The sound also relies on the esprit de corps - the common spirit of the members of a group - of the players.

"When I came here I wanted to change the build-up of the sound, the balances in the groups," says Van Zweden."I had a feeling that the leaders were really leading, and the sound would fade away a little bit in the back of the groups. And we have been changing that. The nice thing about it is that people are enjoying it a lot, especially when they sit in the back. They feel so much respected."

Van Zweden is relatively new to conducting - he started in 1995 after a full career as concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

"I was brought up by [The Juilliard School in New York] as an upcoming European star violinist, as a soloist, and then I suddenly made the switch to the orchestra, which was, for many people, a surprise, and also for myself."

It was American composer Leonard Bernstein who first introduced him to conducting. Van Zweden recalls: "This was after Juilliard, when I was the concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Bernstein would come every year for two to three weeks to work with the Concertgebouw, and he was the guy who put me in front of the orchestra because he wanted to be able to listen to the orchestra during rehearsals."

Van Zweden remembers being nervous: "I had never conducted at the time. But to say no to him was … you better not."

Now, Van Zweden is applying the same push to his orchestra. They recently finished a five-city tour to the mainland, which Van Zweden says was important in raising the group's profile. "If you see the season in Beijing and Shanghai, you see that they host some of the world's best orchestras," he says. "So it was really wonderful for us to be in that series."

He works actively with many composers, including Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, Bright Sheng and Conrad Tao.

"It's not easy for young composers to put things on paper. So we need to have a lot of people encouraging them not to give up. And we have to all encourage the people who work for orchestras to really put this on the programme. It's so important," he says.

As if he doesn't have his hands full, Van Zweden is also the music director of the Dallas Symphony, a position he's held since 2008.

He's also served as guest conductor for major orchestras worldwide, including the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the New York and Berlin Philharmonic, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

He is also an active opera conductor, with Wagner, Puccini and Verdi, among others, in his repertoire.

When asked if he has any dreams for the future, he jokes, "I'm not the type of guy, who, when I kiss my wife, I look over her shoulder [to see] if there is something better walking behind her. So, I don't dream so much, actually."

But although Van Zweden is content at the HK Phil, he does have one wish. "I hope that the music will keep inspiring me," he says. "And that I can still inspire the musicians who I work with enough so that they are happy to be going to the hall to work with me. I hope they don't see me as somebody who is just [criticising] them, but as a well-meaning father figure to them."