On a recent Friday afternoon, in the concert hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a rehearsal is about to begin. It’s for Siegfried, the third part of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which will be performed as opera-in-concert with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by its music director, Jaap van Zweden. The flow of musicians through the stage door has lured in a couple of tourists, who are politely moved on; the general public won’t be admitted until Thursday and the following Sunday. Prior to that, only a lucky few will hear the work in progress.
Sitting in the auditorium is one other person, a young man called Volker Krafft, from Hamburg, in Germany. He is the production’s vocal coach. No singers are present – they’re due to arrive in Hong Kong the following week – but Krafft is checking balance and acoustics. On a music stand, he’s placed a bound score of Siegfried, thicker than a Bible and already bristling with multicoloured Post-it notes for Act I.
Now, as the orchestra rehearses Act II Scenes 1 and 2, he scribbles further tiny musical annotations or comments (“melt into each other”) in English; that’s the language he’ll use with Maestro Van Zweden, who’s Dutch, in their meeting immediately afterwards. The maestro is exacting, and so Krafft works non-stop.
“One pencil per production,” he says, wryly.
On the podium, Van Zweden – short, clad in black, slightly hunched – looks almost otherworldly. Even from 10 rows away, it’s clear he’s a force to be reckoned with; to the musicians on the stage, he surely feels all-consuming. In January 2016, the announcement that he would become the New York Philharmonic’s music director in 2018 (he is music director designate for the 2017/18 season) drew global attention to the alchemy he has worked upon the Hong Kong Phil, with which he will remain until 2022.
Siegfried will be recorded under the Naxos label during the coming performances. The orchestra has already made acclaimed live recordings of the first two parts of the Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre; when the latter came out late last year, the praise was noticeably wide-ranging.
(The Times: “evidence of Van Zweden’s success in dramatically raising standards at Hong Kong”; The Washington Post: “gorgeous work from the Hong Kong wind section”; Gramophone magazine: “Jaap van Zweden has turned the orchestra into a Wagner band to be reckoned with”.)
The effort that goes into such a transmutation is quickly apparent. In orchestra rehearsals – at least ones I’ve attended over the years – there’s usually a faint, underlying soundtrack of exhalations, murmurs, page rustles. With Van Zweden, it’s as if everyone has suspended breathing; what you hear, loudly, is the absolute silence. Once, he admonishes a musician: “You can talk at 4.30 until 9 o’clock tomorrow morning.” Other comments include, “You are not doing what I am asking” or “I’ve told you this before, by the way! I know that! I remember that!” or “Sloppy again on the last one”.
Occasionally, he makes a remark that triggers a slight ripple of what might be called amusement (or relief), but he’s no comedian. Sometimes, he sings from the libretto in German or he makes a distinctive clicking noise with his tongue, tock-tock-tock, like a human metronome. And then there are times when what he hears displeases him so much he, too, falls silent. He leans back on the podium as if summoning the strength to either go on or go ballistic. That’s a little scary.
What about the music? I’ve never heard Wagner before, apart from during the 1979 Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now, so my ability to make an informed comment is nil and my notes bear no relation to Herr Krafft’s. All they record is immediate emotion: “strings and horns creep into concert hall”; “goosebumps”; “concert hall trembling, or feels as if it is”; “JvZ’s compact vigour”; “frustration of interrupted climaxes”; “music encourages dread, wonder, expectation”; “such lovely, lovely, piercing music ...”
That occurs at the beginning of Act II Scene 2, when Siegfried, loitering in the forest outside a dragon’s cave, hears a bird singing. He tries to imitate it, fails, blows on his horn, awakens the dragon, kills it, tastes its blood and realises he can now understand birdsong. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the artist’s constant struggle with creativity. I don’t know. But listening to Wagner’s music being perfected for an afternoon before interviewing the maestro feels like a blood-stirring, nerve-wracking, life-enhancing epiphany.
HOW DOES HE THINK THE REHEARSAL WENT? “I’m very happy,” replies Van Zweden, and pauses. His already evident qualities of deliberation and precision are further magnified by his careful Dutch accent. We’re in his dressing room, which isn’t exactly a cave but is unexpectedly basic and cramped. Luckily, the maestro has dispensed with two Hong Kong Phil members of staff who were also due to squeeze in for the duration of the interview.
“The word ‘happy’ is, of course ... relative because we are not there yet,” he continues. “It’s wonderful to put the seed in the ground and I can see the flowers are growing fast with a lot of energy.”
The flowers, however, are tended by their gardener only intermittently. Van Zweden’s contract stipulates 14 weeks a year with the Hong Kong Phil. Does he notice a change after the inevitable gaps?
“The people in the orchestra know me so well. I like to be prepared and I like them to be prepared. If you start from that point, it’s always a great adventure. The orchestra is changing into a great box of diamonds and we need to shine them every day.”
I’ve heard him make this very analogy before, but it was on a Texan digital-news channel and he was referring to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, for which he has been music director since 2008. (He will become its conductor laureate in 2018, when he goes to New York.) Perhaps, to him, all his orchestras are gems, and that jewel association makes me wonder if he could play a sort of aural version of Kim’s Game: if he were blindfolded and heard an identical piece of music played by the Hong Kong Phil, the New York Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony, could he recall each detail sufficiently to tell them apart?
A much longer pause. He closes his eyes for a moment, internally listening. Then he says, “Yes. I remind myself every orchestra has its own soul, its own face, its own sound. And I’m talking also about the halls. An orchestra with its hall – this combination is a very important moment. You need a hall.”
As it happens, the New York Philharmonic will be hall-less for at least 30 months during his tenure: the orchestra is scheduled to move out of the Lincoln Center in 2019 while the David Geffen Hall is being renovated. Does the upheaval make his appointment something of a poisoned chalice?
“Not at all. First of all, before we leave, we’ll be in the hall for two more years. I also told you, a split second ago, an orchestra should create its own acoustic. The creation is stronger in a hall that’s not the greatest. They have an old soul and are strong enough to play here and there.”
He’s looking forward to the outreach programme. “It gives us opportunities to play in the neighbourhoods,” he says. “That’s a big wish of me.”
New York is a familiar city: he went there in 1975, aged 15, to study the violin at Juilliard and lived in what was then called Spanish – now East – Harlem.
“On 97th and Madison, not great,” he says. He’s picked up a biro and has started fiddling with it. Click-click-click. “If you’re alone in a room smaller than this for three years ...” Another pause. “In the Netherlands, I’d had friends but when I went to New York, I lost everything.”
“In a way, yes. After those years I came back and my parents expected me to live with them again. That was a disappointment, it was a little struggle for me and for my parents.”
By then, aged 18, he was leader of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in Amsterdam, the youngest violinist ever to hold the position. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink (“I never took one glass of wine, ever, in my life”) and he was, already, an intensely focused man. I’d read a story in a Dutch newspaper, via Google Translate, about how he’d met his wife, Aaltje, at a disco: he’d seen her dancing when he arrived and before they’d exchanged a single word, he’d told the doorman he was going to marry her.
Is that true?
“It was always like this,” he says. “I always trusted my eyes not only because she’s beautiful, which she is. I saw how she moved, I saw the grace, how she presented herself to others.” In another Dutch interview, Aaltje talked about her father, an alcoholic whom she’d feared. He’d died shortly before that night at the disco; perhaps what her future husband saw was need.
“She was very open and very closed,” he says. “I saw she was hurt somehow. It was also very attractive to me to get to know her and find out why she was hurt.”
Maybe that’s because he was hurt himself, I offer (cautiously), having lost his childhood when he went to Juilliard. Van Zweden considers this piece of pop psychology for a generous amount of time, and acknowledges the possibility.
“Time heals,” he says.
In fact, the longer we talk, the more engaged he appears to become. His eyes grow bright; once, discussing the horrors of jet lag (“That’s my opponent”), he gives a lovely, throaty laugh. I ask him why he only wears black.
“The other day someone told me Steve Jobs also is like this,” he replies. “I read about some people who are quite successful but I would say get nervous of certain things. There is an autistic element.”
Two bottles of Bonaqua water have been placed on the dressing table in the little room. Was he the sort of child who’d feel compelled to turn them until the labels were aligned?
“Yes. I can say yes. Certain things needed to be in order. With the violin ... before going on stage, I always did a few things. There was a certain cloth I wore under my chin; if I didn’t have it, I would drive back and get it. I did not get nervous. I just liked the pattern of certain things.”
The conversation, as we both know, is heading in one direction (“It’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he remarks kindly) because the Van Zwedens’ third child, Benjamin, now 24, is severely autistic. It took a while for the diagnosis; Aaltje has spoken, memorably, of the inexplicable screaming, the excrement smeared on walls.
“You wonder what’s going on,” Van Zweden says. “You sit, sometimes, at home and you’re devastated. We went to America and, finally, it gets a shape. Then, gradually, he is transformed. There is a saying in Dutch: the heaviness changes into wings. And now we’re flying.”
The flight metaphor is apt. In 1995, they set up the Foundation Benjamin, which has since become the Papageno Foundation – Papageno, the bird catcher, being another opera character (from Mozart’s The Magic Flute) with an avian connection. The emphasis is on music therapy. In 2015, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands attended the opening of Papageno House, a residence for young autistic adults, including Benjamin, in Laren, on the outskirts of Amsterdam.
“We truly think it’s wonderful to earn money but even more to give it away,” Van Zweden says.
It’s fortunate, then, his income is so considerable. Last June it was revealed that, in 2013, his salary with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was US$5.1 million. It transpired that US$3.3 million was a one-off signing bonus – a gift from a single individual – which tells you something about music lovers in the United States. (After the story broke, The Dallas Morning News took the bovine, rather than the avian, route with the headline “Holy cow! Jaap van Zweden was one well-paid dude at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra”.) The orchestra’s spokesman stated later that Van Zweden had immediately decided to use the bonus for its benefit.
But, like a bird, it is Papageno he must follow. When I ask Van Zweden where he spent Christmas Day, he replies Amsterdam.
“I went to the circus with Benjamin, which he loves. Since he was a little boy, we went to the circus.” I had a reason for the question: Aaltje had first noticed a vigorous early response to music while their son was listening not to Wagner but to George Michael. (Benjamin threw a toy train at her upon hearing Jesus to a Child because, he later explained, it made him sad.) The maestro of three orchestras couldn’t bring himself to tell his son the British pop singer had died.
While looking through Van Zweden’s résumé, I was struck by the decade-long gap between his first appearance as a conductor in the US – in St Louis, in 1996 – and his second, in 2006, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. I thought the reason might have been Benjamin’s condition. But no.
“It was a tryout, actually, in St Louis – my first little steps. And I thought, ‘Hmm, that was too early.’”
In 1990, while the Concertgebouw Orchestra was on tour in Berlin and Van Zweden was still its leader, the conductor Leonard Bernstein had thrust a baton into his hand and asked him to take over for a few minutes. Afterwards, while he was learning to conduct, Van Zweden kept up his violin playing but, in 1998, he suddenly – from one day to the next – closed down that part of himself. He didn’t want a safety net if his conducting failed.
“Everyone was shocked but, you see, when you walk on stage with a violin at the age of seven, you walk on with your history – your teachers, your parents, your grandparents – and conducting felt like a liberation. It wasn’t a feeling of power but it was a very powerful feeling.”
Ten years later, in Dallas, he picked up a violin and, after four weeks of practice, played Beethoven and Bach for a gala evening “in front of 3,000 people” before he officially became the Dallas Symphony Orchestra maestro. He has never touched it again. The single visible legacy of those years is the fact he still wears his wedding ring on his right hand.
He is, of course, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s second Dutch music director. His immediate predecessor was Edo de Waart; in his pre-conducting days, Van Zweden occasionally played under De Waart’s baton.
“Now, for people it’s strange,” he muses. “We’re turning this orchestra in Hong Kong into one of the top in the world, and then the New York Philharmonic ... it must look strange to some people ...”
Which people? “People I worked with.”
And not only them. Reactions to his New York appointment have ranged from baffled who-the-heck-ery (The New York Times initially referred to him as Jared van Zweden) to some breathtaking ad hominem hostility online.
“I read everything. People can write good things or bad things, it’s all fine.”
When he’s here, he lives in The Peninsula. Does he ever socialise with the orch... but he’s already said a firm “No” before that question’s fully formed.
“I socialise on stage through music. There we meet each other and recreate something we dearly love.”
He’s learned the one essential thing about Hong Kong – the key to bureaucratic birdsong, if you like – which every cultural import needs to understand: “I get these questions from the government – ‘Should we have a new hall?’ And I say, ‘If you want, I can give an opinion about the design, about the best architect.’ But the government decides. If they’re ready, they will do it.” (I didn’t even know this was on the agenda, to which he says, “There is talk of a new hall”.)
In April, the Hong Kong Phil will begin a five-city tour – to Seoul, Osaka, Singapore and, for the first time, Melbourne and Sydney – to mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Asked what he was doing on the night of the handover, he looks genuinely startled.
“Oh my God ...” After a long, furrow-browed moment, he says, apologetically, “I don’t know. It was not on my radar!”
It is now, although he doesn’t seem too exercised that it will be the Berlin Philharmonic musically marking the occasion in Hong Kong.
“We should have played a role, probably,” he agrees, equably. “But I don’t want to underestimate the power of the Berlin Philharmonic. As musicians, we consider Berlin in the top three orchestras of the world.”
Hong Kong isn’t at that glittering level in the jewellery box. But when, after his long rehearsal day, he adds, “If there’s one thing I want to say in this piece it’s that I’m so proud of this orchestra and they should be proud of themselves”, you believe him.
The Ring Cycle Part 3: Siegfried will be performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall on Thursday at 6pm and the following Sunday at 3pm.