Jaap van Zweden sets bar high for Hong Kong Philharmonic

Jaap van Zweden, ahead of his first concert, suggests that HK's flagship ensemble might one day become 'the Berlin Philharmonic of Asia'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2012, 3:24pm

When his appointment as the new music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was formally announced this year, Jaap van Zweden addressed reporters via a televised link from Amsterdam with a warm smile - an attribute largely absent from his publicity shots - and a twinkle in the eye, on suggesting that the city's flagship ensemble might one day become "the Berlin Philharmonic of Asia".

That's setting the bar high. But van Zweden is riding high himself right now.

The 51-year-old Dutchman directs his first concert in the new post on Friday, having come a long way since his appointment as the youngest ever concertmaster of the Netherlands' Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, aged 19. For the next 16 years he was to watch the world's finest conductors - and, inevitably, some not so fine - plying their craft before him; the artistic spectrum no doubt ranged from inspirational musicians to those motivated more by the fee.

Since he has stepped up to the podium as chief conductor of several European orchestras since 1996, and been music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 2008, where do critics currently rate van Zweden within that spectrum?

There are plenty of voices united in opinion.

"I would go to hear van Zweden conduct anything, anywhere," said Andrew Patner at the Chicago Sun Times.

"I cannot recall orchestral music-making as gripping or as lovingly expressive as what Jaap van Zweden got out of the Dallas Symphony," said Scott Cantrell at The Dallas Morning News.

An even more resounding endorsement came in November last year when he received the Conductor of the Year Award for 2012 from Musical America, the country's oldest magazine for classical musicians.

No wonder, then, that Liu Yuan-sung, chairman of the Hong Kong Philharmonic's board of governors, was hot on his trail during the search for someone to replace fellow Dutchman Edo de Waart as the orchestra's music director. Two questions arise: how did Liu bag him, and what is the scope for achievement during his four-year tenure?

The orchestra has not revealed the remuneration van Zweden will receive, but it takes a financial magnet to attract his sort of mettle. An equally significant consideration for the maestro, however, was the orchestra's current form. Having conducted the ensemble previously, in 2006 and 2011, he was impressed by the progress achieved in the intervening years under de Waart's stewardship, particularly in discipline and repertoire.

"The variety of styles and how they interpret everything had grown so much," he said. "My feeling was that I could bring them to the next level."

While de Waart put blockbuster performances of Mahler and Richard Strauss into the regular diet, van Zweden is keen to integrate Chinese musicians as much as possible, both in the ranks and on the programmes.

Michael MacLeod, the orchestra's chief executive, gave context: "One of the problems of modern symphony orchestras is that they have become homogenised all over the world, with the ease of travel and getting work permits and visas. I think Jaap recognises the extraordinary talent of the Chinese, not just in terms of playing ability but also in terms of composition."

The fact that van Zweden commissioned the opening piece on Friday's programme from Conrad Tao, an American- Chinese composer, exemplifies his intent; that the multitalented Tao will return later in the season as the soloist in a Mozart piano concerto underscores it.

He also has imaginative plans for weaving the younger generation of concertgoers into the fabric of the orchestra (which will undergo a rebranding this week with a new logo).

"In my first week, I'd like to start an organisation for young people with their own board," van Zweden said. "That organisation should think and talk with us [about] which kind of programmes they'd like to see every year." Even the choice of guest soloists will be up for discussion. "I would like them to help organise and be involved in a few concerts each year, so it's not the parents who drag their children to the concert hall, but the other way round."

Van Zweden will direct only six programmes in his first season, hardly enough to wave a transforming wand.

He will also be doubling up with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has renewed his contract until 2016; then there are one-off engagements with orchestras around the world, not to mention his involvement with the Papageno Foundation, which he and his wife established in 1997 to support families that have one or more children with autism - one of the van Zwedens' four children is autistic.

MacLeod points out, however, that over the following three years the conductor will spend increasingly more time gaining traction in Hong Kong. "Next year, it could be 10 weeks," he explained, "with more in year three and even more in the next.

"How he's dealing with his commitment with Hong Kong and with Dallas is that he essentially has two wives, and he's going to have fewer one night stands with other orchestras."



Age 51

Currently Music director, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Previously Chief conductor, Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, Residentie Orchestra in The Hague, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Royal Flemish Philharmonic

Education Juilliard School of Music, New York 

Personal Married with four children