New York — The Sept. 19 gala opening concert offered a rare opportunity to hear Jaap van Zweden conduct his new home orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. We have watched him grow in stature over the years he conducted the Dallas Symphony, empathized with him over his shoulder injury, and proudly watched his reputation achieve international stature.
All his gifts and faults were equally on display as he strong-armed Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 into submission. Despite setting a sluggish tempo at the beginning, van Zweden and the orchestra went from zero to sixty, thanks to exaggerated dynamics and tempi, as soon as the trumpet solo ended. Van Zweden’s unhappy penchant for micromanaging was also on full display from the start as he conducted every note of the trumpet solo.
Mahler’s symphony is filled with contrasts. Some frighteningly raw music, which starts in the first movement, runs through the entire work. However, the graceful Austrian peasant folk songs and the elegance of Vienna’s waltzes must relax. Further, van Zweden didn’t allow the famous Adagietto to linger over its beauties. It is a love poem to Mahler’s future wife, Alma, and requires that intimate heart-felt warmth to make it glow. At least he didn’t take it too slow.
The finale is celebratory and, other than overplaying the dynamics, van Zweden did a fine job creating a triumphant mood. The audience was justifiably rapturous at the end.
Reportedly, there were troubles before this concert even started. Several reliable sources shared that van Zweden dismissed the guest principal hornist after one, or maybe two, rehearsals and the concert was played by the assistant principal. The story is believable because van Zweden has fired musicians in rehearsal before.
What is the effect of such behavior? Does it improve the playing by telling the players that make an error and you are out, or does it have a negative effect on the morale of some of the best instrumentalists in the world? Time will tell.
For some reason, van Zweden doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a rehearsal, where every little detail needs to be indicated, and a performance, where the conductor needs to relax and give the players the freedom to play the score. The result is an orchestra always on edge in performance; the players’ eyes peeled to the conductor’s every twitch out of fear of doing something that would displease him.
All that said, van Zweden’s innate musicianship allows him to deliver the white-hot and incendiary performances that his supporters adore. And so he did on Sept. 19.
He is capable of making magnificent music, such as a Brahms Requiem that changed my concept of the piece and is worthy of the honorific “Maestro.” He deservedly stands on equal footing with the towering greats in the past who stood on the NY Philharmonic’s exalted podium. In Dallas, he dramatically improved the orchestra and, while still heavy on German romanticism, freshened the repertoire. Many of his performances are revelatory.
But can he ever let go? Let us hope that will be the case. If so, he will move up to the very short list of the best conductors in the world.