Classical music

In with the new: Jaap van Zweden and New York Philharmonic launch season of premieres

Patrons may not have expected musical adventurousness from Dutch maestro, but Phil’s new music director sees it has having an obligation to bring new works, such as Ashley Fure’s Filament that featured in gala opening concert

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 1:24pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 1:24pm

Opening his era in charge of the New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden could not have been clearer that he welcomes fresh ideas.

The Dutch maestro, who is also music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, started his tenure as the 26th music director of the leading US orchestra with a bold statement – the world premiere of a stirring experimental piece that challenges the physical restrictions of music.

How conductor Jaap van Zweden set the bar high

Filament, composed by 36-year-old Ashley Fure, is marked by haunting whispers from 15 “moving voices” – a choir that circulates through the hall with megaphones, first on the balconies and finally in a meditative procession towards the orchestra.

Fure, an assistant professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire who studies the relationship between music and motion, created a striking audio effect for the audience, with the sound veering from remote and spatial to warm and intimate.

Filament also took in instrumentation that is highly unusual for the Philharmonic, with a slew of objects including beads, brushes and a toy ball for the percussionists to strike.

Bassoon soloist Rebekah Heller performed from within the audience, holding her instrument like a guitar and slapping her tongue against the instrument’s bocal tube with the double reed removed.

Van Zweden followed Filament with more classic fare – Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, with star pianist Daniil Trifonov, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, followed by an unexpected encore of Wagner’s crowd-pleasing Ride of the Valkyries.

Musical adventurousness was not the foremost trait expected of Van Zweden when the New York Philharmonic announced his appointment in 2016.

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A violinist who, while still a teenager, rose to concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Van Zweden was predicted to be more interested in exacting performances of the classical canon than testing the frontiers of music.

But the 57-year-old, who has also led the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, said he felt a duty to experiment in his new position, where his predecessors include Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez and Gustav Mahler.

“I think that the New York Philharmonic is still a leading orchestra in the world in bringing new music. If you compare it to some European top orchestras, they are still very much ahead,” said Van Zweden ahead of opening night.

“At least we tried to make a healthy balance between the new works and old works, and the New York Philharmonic has an obligation, I think, and a great history of bringing new works.”,

Van Zweden said he considered the leader in promoting new work to be the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the long-time home of the New York Philharmonic’s new chief executive, Deborah Borda, who has quickly shored up the orchestra’s long-uncertain finances.

In a season full of new works, this week the Philharmonic will perform one by piano and violin prodigy Conrad Tao, which will transition immediately – without giving time for crowd applause – into Bruckner’s explosive Symphony No. 8.

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In a new feature for the Philharmonic, the 24-year-old Tao will follow his premiere with a smaller, late-night concert – billed as featuring synthesizers and tap dancing – over drinks.

I think that the New York Philharmonic is still a leading orchestra in the world in bringing new music
Jaap van Zweden

Later in the season, the Philharmonic will offer US$5 tickets to New York-based first responders and community workers in a bid to broaden the orchestra’s reach.

Van Zweden has figured heavily in the Philharmonic’s local push, with advertisements on the subway inviting the city to “Meet Jaap!,” complete with photos of the conductor in a stylish scarf strolling the streets in front of an ever-present Manhattan steam pipe.

The Philharmonic did away with plans to tour the United States this season, even though, Van Zweden said, “we are probably asked more than any other orchestra in the world to come and play”.

Van Zweden said it was important to “first serve the public in your own town”.

“I would say that from that solid base, if we can reach that, then we are going to travel again as much as this requires.”