Classical music

Jaap van Zweden talks about his big plans for Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 8:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 6:21pm

Jaap van Zweden has a master plan. The music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra wants his charges to join the upper echelon of international orchestras through an intensive course of touring, recording, polishing core repertoire and stretching its stylistic range. "We can be great ambassadors for the city in coming years," says the 54-year-old.

But first, a more immediate task is to come up with a diverse and far-ranging new season, which is what the Dutch conductor announced in person last week; one with deep excursions into Beethoven, Wagner and Bruckner; side trips to Russia and France, Harry Potter for children, acrobats, Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, Viennese waltzes, and Canto-pop star Ivana Wong Yuen-chi.

There is also the allegation that the Hong Kong Philharmonic is not featuring enough local talent in its next season, a delicate situation that he has to handle with care and sensitivity.

Programme-wise, the Beethoven and Wagner cycles comprise the upcoming season's main course. The Beethoven symphony cycle, all nine symphonies played over four weeks, will mark the longest stretch of time that Van Zweden has been in Hong Kong.

This symphonies, which chart the German composer's path - from writing like Mozart and Haydn, through early romanticism in the Eroica symphony, to the final late symphonies - should be performed in flexible styles to match the requirements of each era, he stresses.

"You need to be a chameleon. You need to have all different styles under your belt," says Van Zweden. Referring to historically informed performance, he says: "There are still people who play Beethoven like Brahms. And that I refuse to do."

The Wagner Ring cycle (or Der Ring des Nibelungen), on the other hand, is a four-year project and the first of four epic operas by the German composer, Das Rheingold, was performed in January.

A recording was made and will be featured in a forthcoming CD. The international conductor is proud of this live recording, saying, "It's really fantastic. To get in the world of Richard Wagner is a journey in itself. Either you are grabbed by it and you get addicted to it, or you dislike it and never want to hear it again."

The Ring cycle will continue in January 2016 with Die Walküre.

In person, Van Zweden is warm and approachable. And his enthusiasm is palpable, especially when he talks about the orchestra's European tour in February and March. "The orchestra saw and felt the success and strength that they had," he says. "Besides that, when people eat together, travel together and talk more with each other, they become more of a family. As well as being on different stages in the world, the travelling itself is a great opportunity."

But maintaining a close connection with China remains a priority for the Hong Kong Philharmonic. The ensemble will perform works by composers Tan Dun, Bright Sheng and Chen Qigang in the new season, and now counts the well-connected mainlander Yu Long as its new principal guest conductor.

Asked about the appointment of Yu, Van Zweden says the music director of the Shanghai Symphony visited the city several times and the orchestra felt very inspired by him.

"So when we thought about the principal guest position, I immediately thought about him. He has done so much for classical music worldwide that he is a very familiar face, maybe the biggest ambassador of classical music for China. In my opinion, the match with the Hong Kong Phil is a great one.

"Yu Long has other relationships outside of China, in Europe, in America, so that's a great thing," he says. "I thought if there was a principal guest it should be somebody who has his roots from here, maybe a different town, but it is still here. He can get us involved in so many more cities and festivals, for example, the Beijing Festival. They work together with important opera houses, the biggest names in the world."

Together with Yu, Van Zweden hopes they can help put Hong Kong Philharmonic on the classical world map. "That is also a part of the picture I saw when I came here. I thought, this place is such an international place, but still, in the classical world, a bit separated. Now we are going to be included in a lot of cities in the world, and I like that very much."

Given this long-term desire to bring the orchestra to the international stage, he was surprised by the reaction recently from some Hong Kong musicians who believe the flagship orchestra doesn't feature enough local talent in its new season. An online petition, with more than 500 signatures, is currently calling for the Hong Kong Philharmonic to support local musicians.

"We got some comments lately that we did not have enough people from Hong Kong itself. Well, we are working on that, but Hong Kong needs to work on itself also; they need to be ready," Van Zweden says. "There is one very talented conductor from Hong Kong [Elim Chan]. She is going to do a Christmas concert and, hopefully, if that is a good collaboration we can start a relationship with her.

"But we are looking all the time for people from [China], people from Hong Kong, people from Europe, people from America. The only thing that we are looking for is quality, quality, quality. We want to present the big talents. But the language we speak is not a nationalistic language, it's an international language. It is a language of the heart, and music is almost, for me, sort of a religion. And I like to share that with everybody. We have no borders. For that reason I don't look so much, to be honest, on who is coming from where."

The season opener on September 4 and 5 features composer Tan Dun's Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, a piece about a secret women's language in Hunan (which is also being featured in the China Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale).

We are going to be included in a lot of cities in the world, and I like that very much
Jaap van Zweden

Other season highlights include flautist Megan Sterling performing Reinecke's Flute Concerto, and a newly commissioned piece by Dutch composer John Borstlap.

And for the first time, Van Zweden will conduct the outdoor Symphony Under the Stars at the New Central Harbourfront on November 21. Belying his usual serious demeanour, he insists he has been looking forward to the festive programme, which, in his words, is like "a good meal with a lot of desserts".

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