East meets West

Aged just 19 he was the Royal Concertgebouw’s youngest ever concertmaster, and went on to conduct some of the world’s leading orchestras. Now Jaap van Zweden wants to establish a ‘Berlin Philharmonic of the East’ 

Earlier this summer the Amsterdam-born conductor Jaap van Zweden made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. It was an eleventh hour decision, stepping in for an indisposed Mariss Jansons, who had been advised by his doctor to cancel a series of concerts in Berlin and Amsterdam.

Leading the legendary orchestra in a programme of Bartók and Brahms seemed the logical next step for a conductor who has been in high demand in recent years. Cutting his musical teeth at the Royal Concertgebouw, in 1979 van Zweden was named concertmaster of the RCO (at 19, their youngest ever), a role he held until 1995 when he began his conducting career. He went on to lead and hold positions at many of the world’s top orchestras, and last year was crowned Musical America’s Conductor of the Year.

The Berlin concerts were also particularly fitting in light of van Zweden’s ambitious goals for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has just completed his first season as music director. ‘My wish has always been that the Hong Kong Philharmonic could be an orchestra of the Berlin Philharmonic’s calibre, in the East,’ he says on the phone from his home city, catching a break between engagements. ‘This is what I would like to achieve.’

‘It’s really wonderful to see an orchestra with its own soul starting to put its footprint on the music world’

Establishing the HKPO as a Berlin Phil of the East is no mean feat. Reflecting on his first season at the helm, does van Zweden think this is a realistic goal? ‘The orchestra is getting in really fantastic shape,’ he continues.‘There’s an enormous amount of talent there. Of course, it’s a young orchestra, only 40 years, but they already have their own style, their own sound. The first season was about getting involved on a more personal level, not just in a musical sense. It’s really wonderful to see an orchestra with its own soul starting to put its footprint on the music world. In the future this orchestra is going to be – and I know this for sure – one of the best orchestras in the East, absolutely.’

For van Zweden, quality is a top priority. While in previous years the Hong Kong Philharmonic has brought unusual twists to conventional pieces – staging Holst’s The Planets against a backdrop of projected planet images, for instance – van Zweden isn’t particularly interested in continuing this. ‘Of course it’s important that we don’t stand still and we do unusual things, every orchestra needs to do that sometimes to attract people. But our main aim is high quality.’

Van Zweden has spent the bulk of his career conducting orchestras in Europe and the US – why was he drawn to the music directorship in Hong Kong? ‘It’s a huge challenge to work with a young orchestra and see how they respond to someone who was brought up with the Royal Concertgebouw for 20 years and worked with big conductors like Bernstein and Solti. To bring that tradition to Hong Kong is really fun. And it’s wonderful just to implement these traditions in an orchestra which is very open and receiving – and very professional.’

‘I’m not there to change anything,’ van Zweden adds after a pause. ‘The Chinese culture is incredible, one of dignity and beauty. The thing is, they don’t have much history with European classical music. So it’s wonderful to bring that there. I think it’s like two cultures meeting each other, giving and taking – that can be an incredible match.’

The maestro was also intrigued by the orchestra’s technical ability. ‘If the technique is there, it means the possibility is huge. They’re also very eager, and I love to work with an eager orchestra, it means they want to learn. The other thing is that their discipline is really fantastic. That means there’s an enormous amount of willingness to grow. And this first season they did that tremendously.’

The 2013-14 season marks the orchestra’s 40th anniversary; upcoming highlights include van Zweden conducting Beethoven’s Fifth with baritone Matthias Goerne; Lorin Maazel’s Ring Without Words; and performances from Lang Lang, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, cellist Paul Watkins, and pianist Sa Chen. The Chinese-Canadian violinist Jing Wang will take over as concertmaster in the coming season.

Farther ahead, a move to the city’s highly anticipated West Kowloon Cultural District could be on the cards, and it’s something van Zweden wants to be a part of. ‘It’s one of the great wishes of all classical music artists in Hong Kong to go to a really great hall. The greatest orchestras have the greatest halls. Our current halls [Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall and Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall] aren’t bad, they’re good – but we could have a great hall. The people of Hong Kong really deserve that.’

Van Zweden clearly has a respect for the city’s residents, and their engagement with music: they make a receptive audience. ‘Hong Kong is an unbelievable city,’ he says. ‘And China as a country is extremely interested in classical music. It’s really wonderful to see their love for it. An enormous number of the population – because of Lang Lang – now play the piano. Classical music is really important in their lives.’

‘Of course it’s important that we don’t stand still and we do unusual things. But our main aim is high quality’

As well as his position in Hong Kong, van Zweden is also music director of the Dallas Symphony. How does the conductor divide his time? ‘It’s very easy,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘Dallas is 14 weeks, Hong Kong is eight to 10 weeks. Then I have another 20 orchestras worldwide that I work with.’ He rapidly reels off an impressive list of orchestras across Europe and the US: Chicago Symphony, Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras, the Munich Philharmonic, WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, Orchestre National de France, Oslo Philharmonic… it sounds daunting.

‘The most important thing is planning,’ he says. ‘If you plan well, then it’s possible. I cannot ignore that it is very tiring, but the music and what we’re doing gives us a lot – for that reason, it’s doable.’

The wider social capacity of music, beyond the concert hall, is something that also fuels van Zweden – and it’s a cause close to the conductor’s heart. ‘We have a son who is autistic,’ he says. ‘When he was about six, we were singing him a song and accidentally left out a word. He got really mad. So we said to him, “we’ll finish the song, if you say that word”. Finally, after months and months, he said the word. Of course, we then left out a second word, and so on, and we stretched him like that. Because of that song, he learned to talk.’

It inspired van Zweden and his wife Aaltje to launch The Papageno Foundation in 1997. The organisation supports children with autism, using music activities and music therapy to bring children and young people out of the isolation associated with the disorder.