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Jaap van Zweden ending tenure as New York Philharmonic music director after 6 seasons

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jaap van Zweden decided during the pandemic that he wanted to jettison the jet-setting life of a transatlantic conductor, so the less-flying Dutchman cut short his New York Philharmonic tenure, the orchestra’s shortest for a music director since Pierre Boulez from 1971-77.

“I strongly believe in heart-to-heart contact, eye-to-eye contact, and not through a camera or something,” he said. “I cannot change myself. I was pushed into the century of Skyping and electronics. It’s not me.”

Van Zweden is conducting three performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony through Saturday for his Lincoln Center finale, then leading the orchestra on the road for five concerts in China from June 27 to July 3 and three performances at Vail, Colorado, from July 17-20.

“COVID changed many people’s lives. In fact, it probably changed all of our lives,” former Philharmonic president Deborah Borda said. “I don’t think this would be an unusual story of somebody — of a man refocusing his life choices.”

Now 63, Van Zweden was music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from 2008-18. He succeeded Alan Gilbert in New York starting with the 2018-19 season but because of COVID cancellations had what amounted to a little over 4 1/2 seasons in the Big Apple.

“I carried the orchestra in a difficult time,” he said.

As the end of his term approached, Van Zweden spoke in his office filled with photographs of four of his famous New York Philharmonic predecessors: Gustav Mahler, Willem Mengelberg, Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein. The photos will remain on the walls for Gustavo Dudamel, who takes over in the fall of 2026.

Van Zweden first guest-conducted the orchestra in 2012 and agreed four years later to become music director after he was the orchestra players’ first choice. Head shaved, his shoulders slightly hunched, he conducts as if his arms were as taut as violin strings, tension running through his shoulders, wrists and fingers. When pleased with a passage in rehearsal, he lifts his left hand and makes an “OK” signal.

“He’s uncompromising and a very intense individual and an intense musician,” principal cello Carter Brey said.

Van Zweden rented an apartment across the street from Lincoln Center and became familiar with the city, settling on favored restaurants such as Marea and Le Bilboquet. He flew to California to recruit Borda to return to New York after she spent 17 years running the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“I’ll never forget the minute he grabbed my hand, leaned across the table and he said: ‘What will it take for you to come here, to come to New York?’” Borda recalled.

While Borda raised the $550 million funding to renovate David Geffen Hall, van Zweden’s planned bonding with the orchestra was decimated by COVID, which cut short his second season on March 12, 2020.

“I think that would have sunk anybody’s music directorship,” Brey said. “It felt like we were achieving a nice meshing with him. Musically and in terms of the way we worked together, it was a good chemistry and suddenly it was gone full stop.”

A European tour to open the Concertgebouw’s Mahler Festival was canceled, along with the entire 2020-21 schedule. Van Zweden said the trip would have been “having a blast with each other as a young married couple actually almost.”

“In the relationship between a music director and an orchestra, it is very important that there is a sort of a honeymoon, a period of getting to know each other and then really deepen that relationship,” he said.

Van Zweden gave up his New York apartment a few months into the pandemic and by September 2021 was ready to announce his departure. He had become comfortable studying scores at the breakfast table of his Amsterdam home, drinking coffee and looking at Vondelpark. He liked having more time around his four children and four grandchildren, and to work with his Papageno Foundation — which assists young people with autism (his son Benjamin is autistic).

When the orchestra returned from COVID, it was faced with a vagabond 2021-22 season during the renovation. Van Zweden led the move into the acoustically improved auditorium in October 2022, planning with the design team and leading the auditory adjustments.

“Jaap tuned the hall,” Philharmonic president Gary Ginstling said. “This hall, which is part of transforming the Philharmonic for years to come, is always going to be associated with Jaap’s tenure as music director.”

Van Zweden will have conducted 245 performances as music director, led 20 world premieres and helped create Project 19, commissioning works by women for the 19th Amendment centennial. Thirty-four commissions were performed during his tenure, and he hired 23 of 96 current players. He cites Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” Julia Wolfe’s “Fire in my mouth,” Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” and Brahms’ Requiem as particularly memorable performances.

“The orchestra has never sounded better,” Borda said.

Future commitments include at least eight weeks annually as music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France starting in 2026-27 and 12 weeks per year as music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he assumed in January. He will devote more time to opera — Wagner’s “Parsifal” in concert at the Paris Philharmonie and a staged “Tristan und Isolde” in Seoul are planned — and hopes to lead more Bruckner.

“When you are a music director with another orchestra, it’s a lot about you,” van Zweden said. “And when you are music director of the New York Philharmonic, you are part of the New York Philharmonic. And in a way that humbles us.”

By RONALD BLUM
Associated Press

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