New York Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden Wraps Up His Final Season | Playbill

Classic Arts Features New York Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden Wraps Up His Final Season

He spoke about the orchestra he has led and the city it calls home as he approaches the conclusion of his NY Phil tenure.

Jaap van Zweden and the NY Phil following a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on an Inaugural Gala concert, October 28, 2022. Chris Lee

"Every great orchestra is a mirror of its city. What makes the New York Philharmonic special is its energy, positivity, and brightness,” Jaap van Zweden said in a conversation between rehearsals in March. “When you wake up here and the sun comes in your window, you are struck by its brightness and the freshness of the air—that is the feeling I have when I think of this orchestra.” 

We caught the maestro as he was preparing one of the final concerts of his tenure as NY Phil Music Director. In 2018 he took on the mantle previously worn by the likes of Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, and Leonard Bernstein, the last of whom encouraged van Zweden, then a renowned concertmaster, to pursue conducting. Since becoming Music Director Designate in 2017, despite the 18-month cessation of concerts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, by the time he steps down van Zweden will have led 242 concerts (including 32 premieres), recorded 5 albums, hired more than 20 members of the Orchestra, and championed and helped oversee the planning and reopening of the transformed David Geffen Hall.

He is delighted with the Orchestra’s new home. “The hall does not only sound very good; it is also extremely good-looking. The warmth has surprised me. Before, we were too high and too far away from the audience; now the people surround us, which gives us a deeper relationship with them — we are much more a part of them.”

Looking back on his tenure highlights, one may think of the musical epics he led in the hall’s inaugural season, perhaps J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Or the premieres, such as Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth (in 2019) or unEarth (2023), and the staged performances of David Lang’s prisoner of the state (2019). “Performing new pieces has always played a major role in the New York Philharmonic’s history,” he said. “I am very proud that we have kept this history alive by playing so much new music, and I’ve been very lucky to have developed musical, and personal, relationships with so many of today’s great composers.”

Asked for his list of highlights, the Music Director replied: “I treasure above all the players’ true love for music, and the relationship I have with them. There was that year when they had to go from one hall to another hall [in the 2021–22 season], during the rebuild of this fantastic hall, when we needed all the time to adjust to different acoustics, and I never heard a complaint. That spirit is something I learned from, and I’ll take with me as a beautiful element from these years.”

Van Zweden also senses that spirit in the audience. “This public was always there for us: they never got tired of schlepping from hall to hall [during the David Geffen Hall construction]. That is the spirit of New York that is so strong.” 

This admiration extends beyond those who attend concerts at David Geffen Hall. “The Concerts in the Parks are always a phenomenal moment,” he said of the series he conducted both before and after the pandemic. “It is wonderful to see how many people are connected to the Philharmonic, to know the very important role we play as an ambassador for music. And to see so many people coming together! This is a very meaningful thing, and it is fantastic that Oscar and Didi Schafer underwrite this huge gift to the audience of New York.”

After his final concerts as NY Phil Music Director, at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival this July, what’s next? This January he began presiding over the Seoul Philharmonic, “one of the top orchestras in Asia, which also has a very special part of my heart,” he explained, because as a 15-year-old Juilliard student he studied with Hyo Kang, a Korean-born violin pedagogue who is still teaching there today. “Now, to work with a Korean orchestra, it’s a little bit like coming home for me.” And in 2026 he’ll become Music Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, which will allow him to spend more time closer to his Europe-based children and grandchildren. When he first conducted the ensemble, he recalled: “There was an enormous click. It’s a beautiful orchestra, which also has a fantastic hall.”

Of course, he will continue to join his wife, Aaltje, in helping families of children with autism through their work at Papageno Foundation, an approach developed in partnership with hospitals and scholars. “Everybody seeks eye-to-eye contact because that is the sign of heart-to-heart contact. That can be made possible for people on the autism spectrum through music and music therapy. Some children who moved to our houses [residences established by the foundation] years ago are still there, but now as teachers. We are extremely proud of that.”

Still thinking of the future, Jaap van Zweden again speaks of the New York Philharmonic. “Coming back here is something I wish for. And, at this moment, I would like to say that I wish Gustavo [Dudamel, who will become Music and Artistic Director in 2026] all the best with this astounding orchestra. He will carry this organization forward with the greatest care, and I am sure they are going to be a fantastic combination.”

Jaap van Zweden explained his thoughts behind the programs he is conducting in his final New York concerts as Music Director.

• May 23–25 & 28: “I’ve always wanted to conduct the Mozart Requiem with this orchestra, but in combination with a work that is really different. Sofia Gubaidulina is a phenomenal composer, and I don’t think she is played enough in America.”

• Of his concerts on May 30–June 1, in which five NY Phil Principal players appear as concerto soloists: “It is a thank-you, a bow to them, not only for the soloists but for the whole orchestra. It’s a celebration of the talent of this orchestra — a way to tell our public and the musicians themselves how much I honor them, and how much I am impressed by them, week after week.”

• And of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, which he conducts June 6–8: “This work is often performed as a statement, when a music director says goodbye to an orchestra. Also, I conducted Mahler Five in 2017, on my first concert as Music Director Designate, so it completes a circle.”

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!