Setting the stage: For conductor Jaap van Zweden, timing is everything

Newly appointed music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic on the pressures of performing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 1:34pm

Being one of the world's most renowned conductors, Jaap van Zweden is well aware of the difference even the slightest change in timing can make. "If you walk on stage and start too early, you can destroy a whole evening. If you wait too long, you can also destroy a whole evening. Everything is in the timing," says the newly appointed music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, who started his four-year contract with the 2012/13 season.

"If you have a climax and the climax comes too early, you give away a highly important moment. And, of course, if the pace is too fast or too slow, you can ruin a piece very easily."

Born in Amsterdam, van Zweden played violin - "up to seven or eight hours a day" - and studied at the prestigious Juilliard School before becoming concertmaster of the Netherlands' Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at just 19.

In addition to his new role in Hong Kong, the maestro is music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, honorary chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and honorary conductor of the Radio Chamber Philharmonic.

The prolific van Zweden also makes special appearances with international orchestras, such as the Chicago Symphony and the Munich Philharmonic, and has made several critically acclaimed recordings, earning him the title Conductor of the Year for 2012 from classical music magazine Musical America. "If I had only the two orchestras [Dallas and Hong Kong], it would be very easy," he says. "But it's inspiring. You learn by just doing things that timing is everything - also with scheduling."

Indeed, years of conducting have taught van Zweden the value of experience and communication.

"To stand in front of an orchestra is not a feeling of power, but it is a powerful feeling," he says. "The big thing for a conductor is to inspire the players so much that they agree with what you want. But I like to talk not about what I want, but what the composer would like. Because, otherwise, it starts to look like it's about me. But it's not about me; it's about the composition."

Besides his role as conductor, van Zweden is renowned for recordings that include the complete Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Petrushka, and Mahler's Symphony No 5. The father of four also founded the Papageno Foundation with his wife Aaltje in 1997 to help children with autism.

The maestro also makes time for hobbies, such as chess, table tennis and soccer. "And I love cars," he says. But van Zweden is perhaps most at home in front of an orchestra, perfecting his craft.

"It's a combination of being very close with the musicians, being very close with the public and then, of course, it's the experience of waiting too long and starting too soon. You have to build that over the years," he says.

"Not one night is the same. But when it all comes together, it's a blessed feeling to be in the middle of a powerful group of people who really enjoy and love making music." TL