The chemistry that the masterful Maestro Jaap van Zweden enjoys with the virtuosic and powerful New York Philharmonic is already palpable, and their passion for performance is about to reach new heights. But what inspires this man of many loves? While he was conducting the Orchestra in Shanghai this July, he sat down for a chat.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you discover music?
Jaap van Zweden: My father is a pianist, and when I was a young boy, four or five years old, he played with Gypsy violinists, and I was really inspired by the instrument. I also loved two records we had of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and the Brahms Violin Concerto, performed by Zino Francescatti. I remember the layout of the record; it was beautiful. That inspired me to ask for an instrument, and my father said, “I think that to play the violin would be something really for you, because it is, number one, an instrument that you can sing on.” He also said that it is a very social instrument: “If you want to play with people, it is easier to carry with you than a piano.” The violin was immediately an absolute hit for me.
By the way, my father is turning 90 years old on September 20, the day the Philharmonic and I start together, and he will come to the concert—his first time in New York in his life! Although I was a student at Juilliard, there were no possibilities for him to come here at that time.
Since we’re talking about your family—you talk very openly about your love for them.
I learn so much from my four children, as well as from my father, my mother, and my wife, Aaltje. And we have a special child, Benjamin, who is autistic. He really inspired me to become a happy detective to reach him, how even in very difficult and dark times to search for brightness and new possibilities. This transformed the way I work with orchestras. So he is a very incredible figure for me.
Speaking of how you work with orchestras, was it love at first sight with the New York Philharmonic?
Oh yes, absolutely! I remember my first rehearsal with them [in 2012], the Mahler One. At first we just played the piece through, and then some musicians came up to me and asked, “Why didn’t you stop us? Why don’t you work with us?” With an orchestra of the level of the New York Philharmonic, first you should read with them the whole piece, at least to show this fantastic bunch of people that you are prepared, as a conductor. Then you can start. I felt immediately this willingness and this eagerness to bring out the best of themselves and of the music. That was a very glorious feeling with them. It still is.
Bernstein gave you your first taste of conducting when you were concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, asking you to lead part of a rehearsal. Did he influence you in other ways?
Bernstein was a father figure, a mentor, for many years. When he conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, he inspired me to make life choices that had risks. He told me that the biggest risk in life was probably not to take a risk, so he gave me the courage to do whatever is necessary. We are not on this planet just to reach a pension. His happiness when he reached something that he really had in his mind and in his heart—that inspired me tremendously.
What are you most looking forward to this season?
There is not one particular thing. There are highlights, of course, and I think that the heart of every musician is always looking the most for the new pieces. We are dying to have some new masterpieces.
But I would say that I am most excited about the diversity, which is the overall theme. It is so attractive. It is also actually how I see New York. There are so many sides of New York.
And, of course, the public of the New York Philharmonic is, for me, a new family member. I look forward very much to getting to know them. The beauty of New York—take 9/11 and what happened there, and how the town stood up again after that. What a backbone this city has, and it is still so forgiving and is still so open to everybody! That is maybe the most inspiring quality of this city.
Monica Parks is the Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.