When Jaap van Zweden mounts the podium in front of the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall, the orchestra’s new music director gives off a palpable, dynamic energy—he has a commanding presence that stands out among his peers. Sitting behind the desk in his office on a December morning shortly after a rehearsal, clad in his trademark black, van Zweden is friendly and just as energetic. He is eager to talk about his experiences, to explain where he comes from as a musician and a person. He seems a half step further into the future than everyone else around him, yet unhurried about his ambitions for the Philharmonic and its place in New York City.
VAN: At a February 2018 press event, you spoke about your experiences as a young musician at Juilliard. That stuck with me because they weren’t about music but about being on your own, living in East Harlem. You mentioned that until you won a concerto performance audition, no one really knew who you were. It sounded like you had the typical experience of being a young musician in New York, working and being lonely and feeling isolated.
Jaap van Zweden: I think that music always isolates you, because you are always on your own. And to be honest that is great: it makes you realize what you are here for. Just to become better, better, better, and to learn from everybody, including the other students. There is not a lot of tra-la-la about it, it is very… [makes slicing gesture]. That’s it, sorry, that’s the goal, this is where you want to go, this is why you are here, don’t make it too romantic. It’s just about this.
That was what I was talking about when I talked about my youth here. But it changed a little bit after a year and half. Eventually I got friends, and it became very warm. But the beginning was—I wouldn’t say harsh—but the reason I was here was really laid out and clear.
Part of that beginning that you also mentioned was that you would play soccer in Central Park, and that was sort of a community for you. That struck me because it was not necessarily a community of fellow students at Juilliard.
There were a few students, but we were playing with a lot of other people, of course. We were a little group of American and European students who loved to play soccer. And we met a lot of other people who just liked playing in the park, and we would see them every weekend.
Did soccer allow you to connect with people from non-musical backgrounds and with non-musical values and concerns?
Yeah, yeah. And it connected me also with where I’m from. You know, I’m from a particular part of Amsterdam where classical music is not the most common thing to listen to. But that was all fine, because that was part of me, coming from a neighborhood of Amsterdam where sports are a little bit more important than any music, especially classical music! [Laughs.]
How do you feel that background has informed your taste and values in music, and the music that matters to you personally?
I think that, as a young man, just being focussed on playing the violin really well, and then of course having the sports next to that, and family life, you could maybe see it in New York as the East Side and the West Side, and I was absolutely a guy from the West Side who was brought up street-wise, if that’s the word for it. Street-wise, with just one very odd particular thing, which was playing the violin.
Now, at the same time, I learned to embrace every part of town, and what I see is that wherever you are from, whoever you are with, if you are from a very rich or very poor family, we are all humans, and I think that in my case the great connection is that both sports and music connect people on an individual level. I see that when people are really connected to music, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter what color you are, it’s just this connection. It doesn’t even matter what kind of music, I would say, or what kind of sport. I think that we realize we are born alone and we are going to die alone, and that, always for me, is in a way a healing process, because you see people standing against each other, and in my opinion it’s a waste of time.
Is that a criteria when you are thinking about music you would like to bring to an audience? Something that makes that connection?
No, with me, I don’t need to do special things to make that connection, because that is the connection.
In 2019, the New York Philharmonic is starting a Phil the Hall series, for “community and service professionals,” with tickets for $5. Was that your idea?
It doesn’t matter, to be honest, whose idea it was. We are a team and everybody has incredible input here, and so I would like to say that it was our idea.
Classical music organizations are constantly talking about reaching new audiences, and expanding their existing audience, and nothing that I see seems to work. It always struck me as a question of money and whether you are willing to spend, or lose, the money on that.
I personally don’t see it as spending, I see it as an investment in relationships. I think what we are looking for is a deep relationship with everybody in this city. Of course we have wonderful people who are making things happen, but the important thing is the message, and the message is that we are for the people in New York, whoever and where ever you are.
What are you planning for the Phil the Hall programs?
Even this morning we’ve been rescheduling things, we are not there yet, but we will bring some Bernstein, some Beethoven. I think what’s very important is that there are some compositions that the orchestra had either premiered or has a huge, deep connection with. I think that’s very important because then we can show our soul-connection with these pieces, as we are doing during the season.
We would also like people to recognize music that they’ve probably already heard, and they really see now what is happening on stage, live.
And do you think of the audience ahead of time when you are thinking about what you want to put on a program?
I think the audience is alway on our mind and in our heart. Without them we do not exist. So it’s a part of my score with the audience. But of course if you want to reach different audiences that are not so familiar with us you need to bring some other music and you need to give, especially in Phil the Hall concerts, a blueprint of this orchestra and its history.
What do you think about the argument a lot of listeners make that modern and contemporary music is difficult, ugly and unpleasant? How do you confront that?
Maybe we should stop talking about this period or that period. Music is music. You see for instance in the opening of our season, the kind of new music we brought [the world premiere of Ashley Fure’s “Filament,” a Philharmonic commission].
And there was a funny moment: when Conrad Tao’s “Everything Must Go” went straight into Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, I had a lot of people who said, “I did not know when the Bruckner was starting and when the other piece was ending.” And that was probably the best example of what kind of expectations audiences have, and I think we should realize that when we have people coming to the hall with an open mind and a willingness to hear some music other than just Beethoven, that is wonderful.
Now it’s our duty to bring the best talent, of course. But you know, a new piece is a new piece, and that always has risks that some will not like it, others will love it. But on the other hand the biggest risk for us is not to take risks. Because if we don’t do this, then we are sort of a dead organization.
In terms of the music that is being made right now: there are so many different directions, and at the edge of each direction there is a hazy line between what is within the Western classical tradition and what is more experimental and exploratory. Is there a specific dividing line that you see where you would say, This is something we could do, and this is too experimental?
No. If we would have thought that in “Filament” the musicians would be walking through the audience singing through megaphones—if I would have said, This is too much for me—then this wonderful piece would not have been there. I think music doesn’t have borders, and the moment you put borders for yourself you are limited.
Think about the “Rite of Spring,” for instance. When that was premiered half of the hall in Paris was booing and screaming, it was a scandal, and look—today it is one of the most respected pieces in the classical world. [It likely didn’t happen quite this way—Ed.] So if at that time somebody would have said to Stravinsky, You cannot do this and this, then you would not have had this incredible piece. So I’m the last one to limit this!
Should there be more booing and scandals at classical music concerts?
Last year I did a piece by John Luther Adams, “Dark Waves,” and some people were booing, and I was completely happy with that. It was fine with me, because sometimes people need to express that they’re not happy. But it’s not gonna put me in jail [laughs] and say this is not possible.
We’re looking at these pictures on the walls of your office of Bernstein and Gustav Mahler, and Bernstein especially was so successful, but that was 50 years ago and there’s been a dip in the orchestra’s direction. Is that something that’s on your mind?
Maybe. Look, I do realize that when he made “West Side Story” that the classical music world was sort of looking down on it. Look where we are today [laughs]! I think we have learned our lesson, if I may say it like this. So other types of music have our deepest respect. I see myself as an ambassador for other music, to bring in and enjoy.
Here you are living in New York City, this is the capital of the world, and obviously you are very busy with what you are doing, but is there music that’s going on in the city that you like to go check out?
Oh yeah, two days ago I had a free night and I went to [the musical] “Donna Summer.” I went to Chick Corea, he played at the Blue Note, so to me free time checking out other things. It was fantastic.
Sometimes I wish I had a little bit more time, but that’s OK, I still know who is who [laughs]! That’s very important, it’s very inspiring. A guy like Bruno Mars is someone I really adore. What a talent. ¶