At the age of 30 Jaap van Zweden took the podium for the fi rst time, rehearsing the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Mahler's titanic Symphony No. 1. He had been the orchestra's concertmaster for just over a decade : having been hired at 19, he was the youngest to ever be in that position : and Leonard Bernstein, who was conducting the performances, wanted to step out into the Berlin concert hall to hear the work. "If Lenny said to do something, you did not say 'no' easily," recalls van Zweden. He also remembers Bernstein's reaction to his maiden voyage: "'Oh, that was pretty bad, but I think you should really take it seriously.' I started to take lessons and after a few years I made a decision. In a way there was no escape for me: I felt most at home."
Twenty-two years later, Lenny still infl uences the Dutch musician who is now the music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He was just appointed the next music director of the Hong kong Philharmonic (with his tenure to start this coming September), and was named Musical America's 2012 Conductor of the Year. In a way, his debut with the New York Philharmonic this month is a manifold homecoming.
Growing up in a music-fi lled, two-room apartment that contained a family of four and a rotating cast who played with his pianist father, van Zweden doesn't remember a moment in his life without music. When he was 16, having won several competitions in his native Amsterdam, he attended The Juilliard School and often crossed West 65th Street to attend Philharmonic concerts during the directorship of Zubin Mehta and became obsessed with recordings of the orchestra under Bernstein.
"Sometimes people would say what he did was over the top," van Zweden notes, "but because Lenny did it, it was really who he was. He was not afraid to just be completely himself while at the same time having always : always : so much respect for the score. That respect inspired me. What I loved about him and the recordings was that he was so free : he was just an incredible free spirit."
It is also serendipitous that van Zweden should make his Philharmonic debut leading Bernstein's and Mahler's former orchestra in the latter's First Symphony, coming full circle for the maestro who had his initial baptism by fire with the very same work. "It means maybe more than anything else," says Zweden, who likens the allure of Mahler's music to his own romance with conducting. "Mahler is a composer who drags you into his world and there is no escape. It is a roller coaster of emotions. The big task for the musicians and for me is that everything should be there and at the same time it should not be too self-indulgent. You need to do it tastefully."
In his April 12 _14 and 17 program van Zweden pairs the Mahler with Prokofiev's vivaciously pert Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring powerhouse pianist Yuja Wang. It will be the first time the two musicians : both possessing a fearless element : are collaborating together. And how do these works relate to each other? According to van Zweden, "With Prokofiev you look at the painting and with Mahler you are in the painting, and you play a part in that painting."
Such duality is part and parcel of Jaap van Zweden's story. As a violinist, he was both soloist and ensemble player. As a musician, he's been both player and director. As a music director, he is concerned with developing both his orchestra and his audiences. In Dallas he has spearheaded the symphony's Teen Council, a youth organization that he hopes will lead children to bring their parents to the orchestra (instead of the other way around), giving teens a sense of ownership of the classical music they enjoy.
Off the podium, van Zweden joins his wife, artist Aaltje van Zweden-van Buuren, in overseeing the Papageno Foundation, a program in Amsterdam that brings music therapy into the homes of autistic children (the van Zwedens are parents of four children, including an autistic son). "My own kid was not able to talk. Many people told us : many doctors told us : he would never speak, but by imitating a song, he learned to speak," the conductor recounts. "Now he's 21 and learning English. By music we were able to make contact with him : eyeto- eye contact and heart-to-heart contact."
It's that same sort of contact that Jaap van Zweden makes with audiences worldwide.
Olivia Giovetti is the host of The New Canon on Q2 Music. She also writes for WQXR's opera blog, Operavore, and has written for NPR, Time Out New York, Gramophone, Classical Singer, and The Washington Post.