Jaap van Zweden’s Brief, Fraught Time Atop the New York Philharmonic

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On a balmy spring morning, after a breakfast of coffee and plain yogurt at a luxury Manhattan hotel, Jaap van Zweden grabbed his bag of conducting batons and scores by Mozart and Gubaidulina and set out for Lincoln Center through the wilds of Central Park.

“I love the air, I love the trees,” he said. “Everybody can do whatever they want here. This is freedom, absolute freedom.”

Van Zweden, 63, will leave the New York Philharmonic this summer after six seasons as its music director, the shortest tenure of any maestro since Pierre Boulez, the eminent French composer and conductor who led the Philharmonic in the 1970s. Van Zweden helped the orchestra emerge from the turbulence of the pandemic; shepherded it through a trying, nomadic season when its home, David Geffen Hall, was undergoing a $550 million renovation; and led the orchestra when it reopened the sparkling, reimagined hall ahead of schedule, to the delight of musicians and audiences.

But throughout his tenure, van Zweden, an intense, exacting maestro from Amsterdam, faced persistent questions about whether he had the star power, creative drive and strong connection to New York needed to lead the Philharmonic.

During the pandemic, he spent more than a year at home in the Netherlands, which fractured his nascent relationship with the ensemble. And in 2021, he announced that he would step down from his post, far earlier than many people expected.

Van Zweden said he felt no other Philharmonic music director had faced such profound challenges.

“We had to start all over again,” he said. “I feel like we are still in the process of getting to know each other.”

He concludes his term at the Philharmonic as a transitional figure: A maestro who never fully left his mark. While he led more than 200 concerts and hired 23 musicians, about a quarter of the orchestra, he has been criticized for lacking a signature artistic vision.

“People just saw him as intense,” said Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive from 2017 until last year. “They never saw the other sides of him.”

His reserved manner, he acknowledges, was probably a mismatch for the glamour and grandiosity of New York. He does not often speak to audiences or socialize with the Philharmonic’s musicians, staff and donors — he does not drink alcohol, considering it a distraction from his musical studies — and he likes to retreat to his office at Geffen Hall after concerts. When the Philharmonic announced last year that he would be replaced by Gustavo Dudamel, the gregarious, celebrity conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the contrast was stark.

“We cannot help ourselves, who we are,” van Zweden said. “I realize that New York needs somebody who is a star, somebody who likes to be in front of the lights. And that’s completely normal. I understand. That belongs to the city.”

The van Zweden era was one of change and turmoil, as the Philharmonic faced urgent problems: how to navigate the challenges of the pandemic, address racial and gender disparities and ensure financial stability during a time of concern about the future of classical music. Van Zweden’s greatest ambition — to bring the Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, to a new level of brilliance and virtuosity — was never fully realized. No modern music director spent so little time with the Philharmonic’s musicians and audiences.

Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist, described van Zweden’s six seasons as “a period that left unfulfilled promises in its wake.”

Brey blamed the pandemic. “It was like being in a racecar,” he said, “and getting up to fifth gear and then having all four of your tires blow out.”

VAN ZWEDEN, WHOSE NAME is pronounced YAHP van ZVAY-den, arrived in New York in 2018 from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where he built a reputation as a taskmaster and was credited with helping reinvigorate a fading ensemble. At one point during his time in Dallas, he was the best paid conductor in the United States, earning more than $5 million in a single season. (In New York, he earned a more modest $1.1 million in the 2021-22 season, the most recent year for which records are available.)

While he was not a marquee name, he emerged as a favorite for the Philharmonic post because of his chemistry with musicians during guest appearances, including a well regarded performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in 2015.

“Right away, the orchestra liked him,” said Oscar S. Schafer, the former chairman of the Philharmonic’s board. “And because they liked him, I liked him.”

Still, some questioned whether he was the right fit. The critic Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker that his selection was a “curious outcome,” adding that he was not the kind of maestro who could “fill a concert hall and cause a jump in subscriptions.”

Van Zweden’s skeptics also worried that he might focus too heavily on the standard repertory instead of new music. But with Borda as a partner, he made a point of prominently featuring living composers, helping to lead Project 19, a multiyear effort to commission works by women to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment. In 2020, he conducted the premiere of Tania León’s “Stride,” which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music, one of the roughly 20 premieres he has led with the Philharmonic.

He won accolades as a skilled interpreter of new works who approached them just as he did Mahler symphonies.

“He has an almost boyish energy and curiosity — a desire to feel connected to what’s new and what’s happening on the ground,” said the composer and pianist Conrad Tao, a frequent collaborator.

The composer Julia Wolfe recalled van Zweden taking the unusual step of adding a rehearsal for her 2019 multimedia oratorio, “Fire in my mouth,” about the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire.

“He really took it seriously,” she said, “and that doesn’t always happen.”

Van Zweden, with a shaved head and sturdy body, had a reputation for brusqueness in Dallas. He adopted a more affable demeanor with the New York musicians, though some still found him abrasive. (Reflecting on his work style, he described himself as “a little bit fanatic,” adding, “I really try to be as soft as possible.”)

Cynthia Phelps, the orchestra’s principal violist, said that while van Zweden could be cutting, he helped inspire the musicians to listen more closely to each other.

“He doesn’t mince words; he’s a gruff presence,” she said. “But it’s couched in this incredible commitment and love for whatever art we’re putting onstage.”

Van Zweden said he was hurt by suggestions that he was not the right maestro for the job, and he became sensitive to even mild criticism. While reviewers praised his embrace of new music, they often found his performances of the classics, like Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” unsatisfying.

Shortly before van Zweden’s debut as music director in 2018, Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times that some of his performances of Mahler and Wagner lacked “subtlety, lyricism and depth.” He questioned whether New York needed a maestro who had a reputation as “a disciplinarian and orchestra-builder.”

“I want a music director with clear ideas about what a major American orchestra should be,” Tommasini wrote.

Accustomed to generally positive reviews, van Zweden said it was difficult to have “a tough newspaper around your neck.”

“You know the minute you walk onstage that you are vulnerable,” he said. “But of course when you are questioned about whether you’re the right person or you get a bad review, it hurts.”

He tried to draw lessons from reviews, and he asked Borda at one point if she thought opinions about him might ever change. She told him that he would have to wait at least eight years.

“It was eating at him — that he was under constant attack, that he couldn’t do anything right,” she said. “He never felt welcomed here.”

He took some comfort in the fact that his predecessors at the Philharmonic, including Leonard Bernstein, a mentor whose photo hangs in his office, endured their share of withering reviews. He turned to Zen Buddhism for guidance on dealing with outside perspectives. (“Let it come and let it go,” he told himself. “Feel a little bit of pain sometimes, but don’t react.”)

But he never got used to being a regular subject of scrutiny.

“In New York,” he said, “the smallest step you make, you are in the picture.”

THE PANDEMIC HIT in the middle of van Zweden’s second season. The orchestra was forced to impose painful budget cuts and cancel more than 100 concerts, including its entire 2020-21 season. It lost more than $21 million in revenue.

As the virus spread and cultural life came to a standstill, van Zweden returned to the Netherlands, where his wife and four children live. For more than a year, he was cut off from the Philharmonic, staying in touch only through occasional Zoom calls. In seclusion in Amsterdam, he underwent a physical transformation, losing about 70 pounds.

The pandemic made him more reticent, he said, even as Borda encouraged him to speak more often with the players. (He does not have a Facebook account and says he dislikes videoconferencing.)

“With music-making, it is such a heart-to-heart, eye-to-eye, personal relationship for me,” he said. “I’m not such a modern person, to be honest. For me, being in front of a camera doesn’t work so much.”

He added: “ You cannot change an animal.”

The distance strained his relationship with the musicians, though several said they did not blame him for being abroad.

“We were all kind of lost,” said Judith LeClair, the principal bassoonist. “But it was hard to have a relationship with anybody at that point.”

Van Zweden’s absence was prolonged by a ban on European travelers in the United States. He finally made it back to New York in March 2021, for the first time in 13 months, to tape programs for the Philharmonic’s streaming service. But in April of that year, when the Philharmonic returned, after 400 days, for its first indoor concert before a live audience, the conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen was on the podium, not van Zweden.

Van Zweden described the pandemic as a “very unfortunate and sad situation that was out of everybody’s control.” He said he regrets not doing more to connect with musicians. “The relationship onstage was the one for which I wanted to be with them,” he said. “Not on Skype.”

He gave up his Lincoln Center apartment in June 2020 and began staying in hotels during his trips to New York. In fall 2021, just as the Philharmonic and other cultural institutions were coming back to life, van Zweden announced he was departing. He said the pandemic had made him rethink his life and priorities.

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

WHEN VAN ZWEDEN RETURNED to New York in May for his final few weeks of rehearsals and performances, he was distracted. His 34-year-old son, Benjamin, who is autistic, had recently had a seizure, and in the days before he left Amsterdam for New York, he and his wife, Aaltje van Zweden, had taken him to the hospital.

At his first rehearsal, van Zweden took a moment to address the players. While he was away, the Philharmonic had been in turmoil. An article in New York magazine in April had revived accusations of misconduct against two players, whom the administration had tried to fire in 2018, during van Zweden’s first week as music director. The ensemble was forced to reinstate the players in 2020 after the musicians’ union challenged their dismissal. They were suspended with pay after the article was published.

Speaking from the podium, van Zweden told the musicians that the experience of raising his son had taught him the importance of nurturing a secure environment.

“I know when his house is not safe,” he said. “We give our heart every day, and when we are giving our heart, we need a safe place where we can make music together. My emotions are with you, and my heart is with you.”

When van Zweden announced he was leaving New York, he said he had enjoyed the break from his jet-setting life during the pandemic. He listened to more pop music, played table tennis and became a devoted follower of the television series “Succession” (the show’s theme song is his ringtone). He spent more time with his family and with the Papageno Foundation, an organization that he and his wife founded in 1997 that uses music to support children with autism.

It was a surprise to some when he revealed that he would have a busy post-New York career, taking on music directorships at the Seoul Philharmonic and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in Paris.

Van Zweden said he did not anticipate the opportunities but was drawn by the challenge of reshaping those ensembles. In Seoul, where his tenure began in January, he has received a warm welcome from audiences and critics; the mayor has promised a new concert hall. When he starts his job in Paris in 2026, van Zweden said he hoped to be able to spend more time with his family, including at their vacation home in southern France.

“You never know what’s in the stars,” he said.

Back in Central Park, van Zweden smiled as he passed horse-drawn carriages, vendors hawking sliced mango and even a man lying across a path with a ukulele by his side.

“Somebody would have said something in Amsterdam if you would lie down like that, but here it’s fine,” he said. “That freedom is amazing.”

He had been up at 7 a.m., red pencil in hand, studying his score of Mozart’s Requiem, which the composer wrote at the end of his life and which van Zweden made a point of featuring in some of his final concerts with the Philharmonic. (“He says goodbye to life,” he said, “and I say goodbye to my life in New York.”)

Van Zweden said he does not think about his legacy, but that he hoped New Yorkers remembered that he loved and felt deeply connected to the Philharmonic, even if he was not always visible.

He compared himself to a judo athlete and said he had long ago become resigned to the fact that much of life was outside his control.

“I did my best not to fight anything — to try to go with the energy and the flow of what was happening,” he said.

Then, taking a deep breath as bicycles and runners whizzed by, he said, “I learned my lesson.”