HK Magazine Archive

For Jaap van Zweden, Talent Is a Spartan Curse

The Dutch musician is the Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:54pm

I was born in a very low-key neighborhood.  Not very poor, but quite poor.  From the first day I held a violin in my hands, I knew I was going to be a musician. I was 7. The hardest thing in life is to become who you are. To find that out, you have to try a lot of things. If you want to become a musician, you have to choose an instrument. But I’ve always had the feeling that the instrument chose me. My first performance was in Amsterdam. I was 9 years old. It was wonderful. 

I felt very at home on stage—which I still do. That’s my home. It doesn’t matter where my stage is. I left Amsterdam when I was 16 to go to New York. Too early, actually. I studied there for three years, and had a very tough time. I was very lonely for the first year. My parents had no money to visit me, so I was alone. The second year was much better—I made a lot of friends who are still friends now. Then I became the concertmaster for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. So you cannot say I had a long youth.

It was Leonard Bernstein who told me I should conduct. He pushed me into it, and after a few years I started to like it. He’s my big inspiration. If I were to play a violin now, I would hate myself for not being in shape. It’s not that difficult to be a very good conductor, or even a great conductor.  But it is very difficult to be a good father  to the orchestra.  Twenty years in an orchestra helped me  a lot. When I talk to them I know what it’s like because I was on the other side.

What do I love about conducting? It is not a feeling of power, but it is a powerful feeling. When I conduct, I am a part of a very powerful movement, a hundred people doing something together, making something. Being part of that—and leading that—is a glorious feeling. I love this orchestra. I’m very proud of them. When I started here, I said I wanted this orchestra to be at the highest level, and  it is there. I’m really happy with that. The thing is, being at the highest level is a responsibility. You have to stay there. It’s like a muscle. You have to train the muscle again, again and again.

Parents are very smart in Hong Kong because they understand that learning music is food for the soul. We can go to 120,000 restaurants, but still we don’t feed our souls. With music, we do. Parents also understand that being in touch with an instrument and being in touch with music makes you a better pupil at school. The problem for parents is this: If you don’t push, you did it wrong. If you push too much, you also did it wrong. The more talent a child has, the more strict you have to be with the child.

Talent deserves a very Spartan life. If you are a big talent, then the strictness comes too—you have an obligation to your talent. It is also a talent to work hard. Everybody can quit, that’s easy. But if you don’t quit, you run into problems. Whatever it is that you do, you will keep running into problems until your last day on earth.

I’ve never thought about quitting music. That would mean I would quit living. Sometimes I think of when I will stop conducting. There is a moment in your life when it’s time to sit down and not run around, not work all year. To sit down and have my children and my grandchildren around me by an open fire. It plays in my head and I think, “That would be nice.” But then I hear my next Beethoven concerto and I think, “Oh, let’s go!”

I won’t be the conductor who’s 85 and still on stage. There will be a moment when I will stop. What will I do then? Play piano. I want to learn all the Bach suites on piano. I want to play Bach, because Bach is the composer who cleanses your soul. He is the composer who will forgive you for whatever you did. Then you can forgive yourself.If you do what you love, everything will come one way or another.

A version of this article appears in the December 11, 2015 issue of HK Magazine as First Person.