Jaap van Zweden to step down as New York Philharmonic's maestro

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Jaap van Zweden to step down as New York Philharmonic's maestro
Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic's music director, during a performance at David Geffen Hall in New York, Feb. 5, 2020. Citing a reassessment of his priorities during the pandemic, and the desire to spend more time with his family, the conductor will leave his post after the 2023-24 season. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times.

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s hard-charging music director, announced Wednesday that he would leave his post at the end of the 2023-24 season, saying that the pandemic had made him rethink his life and priorities.

Van Zweden, 60, said that the upheaval of the pandemic had prompted him to reconsider his relationship with the orchestra, which he has led since 2018, as well as with his family, which he rarely got to see during his globe-trotting days before the COVID-19 crisis. He said he felt it would be the right moment to move on, with the orchestra set to return to the newly renovated David Geffen Hall next fall, a year and a half ahead of schedule.

“It is not out of frustration, it’s not out of anger, it’s not out of a difficult situation,” he said. “It’s just out of freedom.”

His announcement comes as the Philharmonic faces a series of challenges that have only grown more complicated as it tries to recover from the pandemic: The orchestra is homeless this season, playing at venues around the city while its longtime home is under construction, and hopes to make a triumphal return to a transformed hall next season.

Van Zweden’s tenure has not been without criticism. While he has been praised for maintaining high artistic standards, he has also faced questions about whether he has the star power and creative energy needed to lead the Philharmonic, one of the world’s top ensembles, at a moment of challenge and change.

The pandemic hit just as he was settling into the job. He spent much of the past 18 months in the Netherlands, his home country, as COVID-19 swept through New York and the orchestra endured one of the most serious crises in its history.

Van Zweden’s six-year tenure will be the shortest of any Philharmonic music director since Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor who led the orchestra for six seasons in the 1970s. Van Zweden said he had planned to leave in 2023, when his initial contract was set to expire. But Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and CEO, persuaded him to add a year to give the orchestra more time to settle back into its hall and to search for a successor.

Borda called van Zweden a “tremendous partner” and said she would work closely with the orchestra’s players to find a replacement.

“It’s a musician’s impeccable sense of timing,” she said of van Zweden’s decision. “You just have to respect it.”

Van Zweden, whose name is pronounced Yahp van ZVAY-den, came to the Philharmonic from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where he was credited with reviving a flagging ensemble. At one point he was America’s best-paid conductor, earning more than $5 million in a single season.

In New York, he almost immediately faced concerns that he would be too focused on the standard repertoire instead of championing new works. But with Borda as a partner, he made a point of prominently featuring new composers and helped lead Project 19, an ambitious effort to commission works by women to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Last year, he conducted the premiere of Tania León’s “Stride,” which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Critics found themselves praising van Zweden’s adventurousness, while also saying his exuberance could get out of hand in sometimes blaring performances of symphonic standards.

Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic for The New York Times, lauded van Zweden’s embrace of new music in a 2019 review. “Mr. van Zweden has surprised me by championing these initiatives,” he wrote. “It’s in the standard repertory, which was supposed to be his selling point, that his record is more mixed.”

Then, in the middle of his second season as music director, the pandemic hit. The orchestra was forced to cancel more than 100 concerts, including its entire 2020-21 season, and impose painful budget cuts. It lost more than $21 million in revenues.

Van Zweden described the pandemic as a personal turning point. For months, he was isolated from the Philharmonic’s players, staying in touch only via occasional Zoom calls. The cancellation of concerts and major tours prevented him from continuing to develop a rapport with the musicians, he said.

“Building on a relationship as a music director with an orchestra is almost like a daily, hourly experience, and in this period of not being with them, you feel sometimes a little helpless that you cannot have this deep connection through music,” he said. “That was all taken away.”

He also felt powerless as he watched the orchestra reduce its administrative staff by 40% in order to survive.

“You feel like there is a lot of damage going on and you cannot do anything,” he said. “A lot has happened and there is a lot of pain there.”

Freed from an intense performing schedule during lockdown in the Netherlands, van Zweden underwent something of a transformation. At one point, he contracted COVID-19. He began to focus on his health, losing about 70 pounds. He tried his hand at composing, and listened to more popular music, including Frank Sinatra, Van Halen and Lady Gaga.

He spent more time with his family, including his wife, father, children and grandchildren. He also put new energy into his foundation, which is focused on using music to help families of children with autism.

“It changed me as a person a lot,” he said. “And when you are going through a very intense time as a person, your view is changing completely.”

A ban on European travelers in the United States left van Zweden isolated from the orchestra: He was stuck abroad while the Philharmonic embarked on a series of pop-up concerts around the city and grappled with questions about its future.

He finally made it to New York in March to tape programs for the NYPhil+ subscription streaming service. But in April, when the Philharmonic returned, after 400 days, for its first indoor concert before a live audience, he was absent. He said he did not take the podium because the concert was originally scheduled to feature a guest conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

“Any time I could have been here, I would have been here,” he said. “Let that be clear.”

He and Borda spoke about his desire to step down over the summer, and he informed her of his decision in late August. He told the orchestra’s players during a rehearsal Wednesday afternoon in advance of their opening concert Friday.

Van Zweden said he was not certain what he would do next, but did not rule out leading another ensemble. His contract with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra is also set to expire in 2024, at which point he says he will step down there, too.

He said he did not envision pursuing the top job at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, which has been searching for a music director since 2018. Van Zweden, who is also a violinist, got his start at that eminent ensemble, which named him concertmaster when he was 19.

For now, he said, he is focused on the reopening of Geffen Hall, which is in the midst of a $550 million renovation. The Philharmonic accelerated the long-delayed renovation of the hall during the pandemic. In the meantime, the orchestra will perform at a variety of other venues this season, including Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall.

“It will be probably one of the highlights of my life to open this hall,” he said. By staying on for what should be the new hall’s first two seasons, he will be able to assist acousticians as they fine-tune the space.

On Friday, he will open the new season at Tully with a concert called “From Silence to Celebration.” It will begin with a performance of Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” an embracing work that van Zweden said would have special resonance amid the pandemic.

But he added that he did not yet know what it would be like to return to live indoor performances with the Philharmonic.

“The experience is there,” he said. “It will be weird, but it will be.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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