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Classical music

Hong Kong Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden takes stock, looks ahead to Wagner cycle, possible new role

Dutch maestro points to top conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Riccardo Muti wanting to conduct HK Phil, hails local talent, and is ‘honoured’ to be linked with New York Philharmonic vacancy as he prepares to lead city orchestra in Die Walküre, second of four operas in Ring cycle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 2016, 11:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2016, 1:00pm

Ahead of this week’s performances of Die Walküre, the second of the four monumental operas in Wagner’s The Ring cycle, to be staged at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall on January 21 and 23, Jaap van Zweden, music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, takes a much needed rehearsal break to talk about the mammoth work and his own multi-faceted career.

Q: How did you get the idea to do the Wagner Ring cycle?

A: First of all, the world of Wagner, of legends, of myths, corruption, love, hate, everything, is something that always intrigues me. And why does it intrigue me? Because I’m not so interested in those things, but I’ve always been interested in how it has been said in the music. And Wagner did that in his unique way. The orchestra did not have experience with playing a Ring cycle. To mature into one of the big orchestras of the world, you need to have this on your programme.

Q: Would you say the Ring cycle is one of the most challenging pieces in the major repertoire?

A: Yes, for complexity, and for transparency as well. It is a very heavy score, but at the same time it’s a big trap to play too loud. He’s always working towards a climax. But strangely enough, the moving parts, for me at least, the most powerful moments are actually the silent moments where it really grabs you by the throat. And in the silence, and in the softness, the tenderness, can be such an incredible power. It is much more interesting for me to search for that kind of power than for loudness. Everybody can play loud but not everybody can play with an incredible intensity and very softly at the same time.

Q: Tell us about the singers in this performance.

A: We have very different singers with all kinds of different colours, also different kinds of characters, which is so necessary in these operas of Wagner. We have some international stars as well, so that’s wonderful. We have Stuart [Skelton, Australian tenor]. To me he is one of the most unbelievable singers who is around at the moment. I would say he is the superstar of these singers. He is a force of nature.

Q: Are you thinking about the story and the words in terms of drama, or in terms of literally what they’re singing about?

A: No, not too much literally, because that’s for everybody to fill in for themselves. It’s also about feelings, a lot of feelings. And it’s also about the light, the eternal light. In fact you [should not] see the Walküre without the [other three operas]. The goal, of course, would be that we take two or three weeks and do all four for the audience, so then you would have the whole picture in front of you. And I think that we are actually planning to do that in my last season, 2018/2019.

Q: How is it going with the Hong Kong Philharmonic since you became the music director in 2012/13? Are the plans working out?

A: If you look at what we did with the [2015 European] tour and the two CDs which came out of Das Rheingold [the first opera in the Ring cycle], I think we are on the right path. International recognition is something which you cannot pick up in one year. It’s a long road, but it’s a wonderful road. I think that the orchestra is growing, and that is not just an impression of mine, but [it is also shown by] the conductors who are at the moment interested to come and to conduct. Those conductors are of the highest level: the music director of the Los Angeles [Philharmonic], [Gustavo] Dudamel wants to come; Daniele Gatti wants to come, the new music director of the Concertgebouw; we just had [Christoph} Eschenbach with us; I’m in talks with Riccardo Muti at the moment.

The orchestra’s name is establishing itself at the right moment. And probably they [would] love to come to Hong Kong. So that combination is a wonderful one.

It is always an obligation for this organisation to push for talent from this region. We have to make a legacy for people who are from Hong Kong. At the same time we just want quality ...

Q: It seems like you took a leap of faith to come to Asia. It could have turned out different ways.

A: No, why would it have turned out a different way? That was an attraction for me – to see a box of diamonds that needs to be polished, but they are still diamonds. I just pull it out of them – they are great players. When you start with an orchestra you have sort of a honeymoon, but I still think that our honeymoon is in the middle of its celebration.

Q: What kind of repertoire is getting a good reaction at the Dallas Symphony [where van Zweden is also music director]?

A: Everything we do. The international language of music is not different from Dallas to Hong Kong, or from Hong Kong to Amsterdam or Paris. That’s the beauty and also the nice thing about our life. But I’m doing a little bit more contemporary music with Dallas. It’s not always appreciated by the audience because what people don’t know, they don’t want to get to know sometimes. And I understand that. But we make a smart “sandwich” formula and so sometimes when we present a new piece we combine that with a nice Beethoven, Brahms, whatever. New music is sneaking in here and there.

Q: One of your goals when you came was to connect more with younger audiences and Chinese players and conductors, such as [Hong Kong conductor] Elim Chan.

A: We are going to have her back of course, and we are going to have [Lio] Kuok-man back with us. It is always an obligation for this organisation to push for talent from this region. We have to make a legacy for people who are from Hong Kong. At the same time we just want quality, and we are happy enough to have found those two very inspiring conductors from here who are coming to work with our orchestra more and more, so that’s a really wonderful thing. It doesn’t matter where you are, where you come from, where is your native country, we just look for talent and make music together.

Q. You are one of the top contenders for the job of music director at the New York Philharmonic. Can you comment on that?

A: Well, whatever is going to happen, I have a phenomenal relationship with that orchestra, and it’s the same type of relationship which I found when I came here, this eagerness, this enthusiastic music-making of the highest level. And of course it’s such an institution, it’s one of the top orchestras in the world, and I’m very honoured that I’m being named in these [newspaper] articles. But we will see.

Listen to a pre-concert podcast on https://soundcloud.com/user-847877198/sets/die_walkure_podcast