The 2012 Honorees

By Scott Cantrell

He was concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw when Leonard Bernstein urged him to try conducting, and now his whitehot music-making is in demand throughout the world.

“Sell the farm, mortgage the children, cancel the cruise. Do what you have to do to get to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this weekend.” So began a Dallas Morning News review in February 2006, the morning after Jaap van Zweden made his Big D guest-conducting debut. “You’ll see the familiar faces onstage,” the review continued. “But something miraculous has happened: The DSO is playing like one of the world’s great orchestras.”

That virtually overnight transformation was the work of a short, stocky Dutchman then virtually unknown in the U.S. Five years on, and three years after he took over as the DSO’s music director, Jaap van Zweden still has both musicians and audiences marveling at the orchestra’s continuing transformation. We’re still struggling with his name: “yahp v’n ZVAYden” is close enough. But, down-to-earth and outgoing, with a great guffaw—he could have been a Texan in a former life—he just tells everyone to call him Jaap, and so we do.

Beyond Dallas, he may be attracting more interest than any “new” conductor since Gustavo Dudamel. Just into his 50s, he lacks the Dude’s boyish charm and telegenic curls. But, with a résumé including 17 years as concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, he’s no flash in the pan. His is music-making of intense discipline and thoughtful proportions as well as passion and tenderness. White-hot intensity, just occasionally over the top, is allied to fastidious balancing of textures and elegant shaping of phrases. There’s never a note on auto-pilot.

Van Zweden is turning up on guest-conducting schedules of more and more major orchestras. He’s become a favorite in Chicago, where Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein has compared him to Georg Solti, but with more warmth.

The 2011–12 season has van Zweden returning to Chicago for three weeks and leading the orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. International dates include the London Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France, and Hong Kong Philharmonic as well as the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, where he’s in his last season as chief conductor.

“I think he is the best maestro we have in the United States,” says Emmanuelle Boisvert, who left a 23-year concertmaster’s appointment with the Detroit Symphony to take a fourthchair violin position in the “other” DSO. “It’s not just his musicianship, it’s his intelligence. He’s the most demanding maestro I’ve ever worked for, but in a good way. Everything he asks for makes amazing sense. And when he’s conducting, he’s living the music. There’s a purpose for the music, not just what’s written in score. It’s all felt in the heart.”

A native of Amsterdam, van Zweden studied at the conservatory there, then with Dorothy DeLay at New York’s Juilliard School. Only 19 when tapped as the Royal Concertgebouw’s concertmaster, he never thought about conducting until one day when Leonard Bernstein was rehearsing the Concertgebouw in Mahler’s First Symphony. Wanting to hear how the beginning sounded out in the hall, he asked van Zweden to conduct a bit. The violinist protested that he’d never conducted in his life, but Bernstein insisted.

“I know it was a disaster,” van Zweden says with a laugh, “but afterward he said to me, ‘You know, I saw something there. I think you should develop this a little more than you think.’”

Having watched conductors as different as Solti, Haitink, and Harnoncourt at close quarters, van Zweden took some conducting lessons and began to work with some lower-profile orchestras. The response was encouraging enough that in 1997 he gave up the Concertgebouw, and the violin, to devote himself full time to conducting. In 2000 he succeeded Evgeny Svetlanov as chief conductor of one of the Netherlands’ top orchestras, the Hague-based Residentie, and five years later he moved to the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.

By the time of van Zweden’s Dallas debut, the DSO was searching for a successor to Andrew Litton, who had decided not to renew his contract after 11 years.

“I remember thinking, wow, who is this guy?” Gregory Raden, the DSO’s principal clarinetist, recalls of van Zweden‘s first rehearsal. “He wasn’t really a known name here yet. But he had an intensity, and an expectation for detail, and he didn’t stop ’til he got it. I just remember him addressing some of the things I felt were issues in the orchestra right away, within like five minutes.”

Tracing its origins back to 1900, the DSO is actually one of the nation’s oldest orchestras, previous music directors including Solti, Antal Doráti, Paul Kletzki, and Eduardo Mata. While plenty of people still imagine Dallas as the over-the-top caricature on the TV show of the same name, the city has been making major investments in the arts. In addition to the DSO’s I.M. Pei-designed Morton H.
Meyerson Symphony Center, with lush acoustics that have been compared to the Concertgebouw and Vienna Musikverein, the surrounding Arts District includes an opera house designed by Foster & Partners, museums by Renzo Piano and Edward Larrabee Barnes, and a multiform theater by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus. The Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area is now the nation’s fourth largest, outranked only by New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Like other orchestras, the DSO faces challenges: difficulty filling seats when van Zweden isn’t on the podium or programming ventures beyond well-known composers, too much management turnover, and budget deficits wiped out only by a special capital campaign. The van Zweden/DSO partnership has been represented on several in-house CDs, but as yet on no commercial label, and the orchestra hasn’t
even dipped its toes into downloads. (Van Zweden’s non-DSO discography includes the complete Beethoven symphonies with the Residentie Orchestra, on a Philips-import set; and, with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, an ongoing survey of the Bruckner symphonies, on the Japanese Exton label—alas, not yet distributed in the U.S.) But van Zweden, the DSO, and the Dallas Symphony Chorus got glowing reviews for their performance of Steven Stucky’s Lyndon B. Johnson oratorio August 4, 1964 in Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music festival last May, and a European tour is planned for 2013.

Acknowledging the challenges, Musical America’s Conductor of the Year is still upbeat. “It is like a family to me,” he says of his Dallas orchestra. “I remember the first few months, and thinking this relationship would change. But I can say that the relationship only got deeper and more respectful toward each other. Today it’s still a very happy marriage.” •

Scott Cantrell is classical-music critic of the Dallas Morning News.


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