In defence of New York’s new music director

In defence of New York’s new music director


norman lebrecht

January 27, 2016

Emanuel Borok, concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony from 1985 to 2010, has posted this assessment of his former music director, announced today as next chief of the New York Phil:

Jaap belongs to few conductors that I have met during my 40 years as an orchestra musician, 39 of which as Concertmaster I met only a handful who had ” their sound” Jaap had it.This talent became obvious during our first rehearsal with him. The very first note revealed that immediately. It was focused, hot and very muscular!!

The transformational effect of his conducting remained through the program and in many subsequent concerts.
The orchestra recognized it and chose him to be their Music Director. and now almost a decade later the New York Philharmonic made the same choice. Good for them and good for the NY audience. I think he may be one of the most effective conductors they have ever had.

van zweeden

And Caleb Young, cover conductor at St Louis Symphony, writes:

The rumors I have been hearing have been confirmed this morning, Jaap has risen to the top and will be going to the Big Apple. Being a young conductor I have followed the Maestro’s career and have always been fascinated by his work.

When my significant other won a position with DSO last year I was fortunate enough to see the Maestro work on a very regular basis. I have to admit; I’ve been damned impressed. From his Brahms to Bruckner, the level of artistry in Dallas is of the highest level. For the record, his Bruckner 4 was the finest I’ve ever heard. She reports of determined and focused rehearsals, but this intensity is born from the music and his high standards. I have also spent some personal time with the Maestro at DSO “functions” and I’ve only found him warm and receptive. (And short for the record…) His mingles well, sharply dressed, usually in a blue suit.

I have covered and worked with some of the finest conductors around, and I promise, Jaap can hold his own. Recently with unnamed major US orchestra, I’ve had many conversations with players and admin who admire Jaap’s work and consider him the highest of talents. He might not have the breadth of repertoire when it comes to new music, such as Alsop or Gilbert, but he is interested and capable.

I for one am excited to see where Maestro van Zweden will steer this ship in New York. There were many options, but I feel this is a positive change of guard. All may not like his methods, but I know he is deeply respected for what he brings to the table musically… The big D has big shoes to fill.


  • John Borstlap says:


    • Emil Archambault says:

      Yes, but he’s “a full league below” (sarcasm). Has Lebrecht even heard JVZ once?

    • ruben greenberg says:

      He should have been appointed chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw. Why wasn’t he?

      • Dave says:

        He will be.

        • John Borstlap says:

          No, he will never be, because he can get better. The management of the KCO does not like the idea that a concertmaster of theirs has more success abroad than in Holland.

          • Grote P. says:

            Who tells you these stories? Do you actually know anyone at KCO? It doesn’t look like it

          • PvanD says:

            Tonight I heard Mahler 7 with van Zweeden and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I’ve heard it with Haitink, Janssons, Kondrashin, Chailly to name a few. Tonight it was: LOUD LOUDER LOUDEST
            JvanZ might be a good Macher with so-so ensembles, Amsterdam needs a Keeper of its sound culture.

      • Grote P. says:

        Because he’s not good enough!

  • CDH says:

    How “top” is the Phil these days anyway? The Big Five are surely L.A., Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Boston…Not that there are not more than five very fine orchestras in the US, and NY is doubtless one of them. But is it really in the first tier?

    • Robert says:

      “These days” don’t matter. When they get a real hall to perform and rehearse in they oughta be big.

      I made a couple of trips to hear the NY Phil in the 90’s. Hearing it in person (as opposed to hearing them on the radio), I was stunned at how bad their hall is. There are municipal multipurpose auditoriums with more life to them.

      • William Safford says:

        It is a terrible hall: uncomfortable to sit in, especially in the side balconies, and with poor acoustics and not the best sight lines.

        There is but one good solution to its problems: the suitable application of high explosives. I would rather see it demolished than renovated yet again. Alas, that won’t happen.

    • Duncan says:

      It’s top 3 using that list. Don’t kid yourself with the trendy idea that they are not world class.

      • Greg says:

        Any one of the so-called “top” orchestras can sound utterly pedestrian on any given day and often do. They routinely go on auto-pilot for performances. For my money, I would rather hear an engaged and committed performance by one of the so-called “lesser” bands. I’ve been blown away by the energy and excitement of orchestras such as Cincinnati, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. There are world class musicians in these orchestras, too, and I think they sometimes feel they are playing with a chip of sorts on their collective shoulder and deliver some vibrant, captivating performances. Conversely I have heard New York, Boston and Cleveland give many rote, safe and uninspired performances. It is all about the energy between the podium and the players. I don’t know Maestro van Zweden’s work at all, but I hope he can consistently bring vitality to his programs.

        • Txmusiclover says:

          The relationship he develops with his musicians is really something special. It is almost like another plane of communication, with the focus and commonality of purpose palpable to anyone who observes them closely. The result of that intensity speaks for itself in the form of some thrilling musicmaking. I think you will be very happy with him on the NY podium.

          • Txmusiclover says:

            You should make a trip to Dallas to hear what he has done with the DSO and enjoy the fantastic acoustics of the Meyerson! And if you enjoy opera, Dallas is reviving Heggie’s “Moby-Dick” next season, right next door at the Winspear.

  • Rich says:

    Blah! Can’t the NYP ever make a big splash with a young conductor (exception being Bernstein)? Here in Philadelphia in past 100 years we have had three young conductors who were (Stokowski), or went on to be (Muti), or will be (Yannick) superstars.

    • Greg says:

      Didn’t they try that with Gilbert?

      • Ross says:


      • MWnyc says:

        Didn’t they try that with Gilbert? If you mean a charismatic young star along the lines of Dudamel and YNS, then no, not really.

        Back in the mid-00s, when the NY Philharmonic was searching for a successor to Lorin Maazel, at one point management announced what they described as a new form of artistic leadership, with an established top-tier conductor as music director and a newly-created position for a younger conductor who would explore more contemporary music and connect with younger (than retirement age) audiences. At the time, it seemed pretty obvious that the new position was being created specifically for Alan Gilbert, with the thought that he might take on the music director job when he was older.

        As many of us know, the NY Philharmonic musicians have a reputation for being difficult with conductors. But they were always likely to play nice with Alan Gilbert: both his parents were in the orchestra, and the older players had known him for literally his entire life. So it seemed worthwhile for the Phil management to get Gilbert on contract.

        As we now know, the NY Phil wanted Riccardo Muti for music director, and he turned them down.

        As I understand it, other likely senior candidates weren’t available or would be a bad match, and time was running out. So they went ahead and gave the music directorship to Gilbert.

        I know he’s not super-mediagenic, but I’ve been pretty happy with his tenure, for whatever that’s worth. The Phil is a lot more interesting now than it was before he got there, and the old quip from the Zubin Mehta era – “Best orchestra in the world? It’s not even the best orchestra in New York!” – doesn’t get tossed around anymore..

        • Ross says:

          I keep reading that playing new music attracts newer, younger audiences.
          It’s the Wishful Thinking Doctrine, as set forth by a certain NY Times critic.

          I have been to several of the new music venues around NYC.
          Not only are they very small places, but they are rarely full. Much of the audience is made up of family and friends of the performers and composers.

          An orchestra has to sell 1600+ tickets at least 3x/wk. 5000 different people each week go in and out of that hall.
          It’s a large venue for the people.
          Ask Beyonce to suddenly start singing atonal music in Gaelic, and see how the masses like it. Maybe the NY Times would praise her for “taking chances” and “challenging” her listeners.
          Why is a huge hall always sold out with people begging for tickets when Beethoven or Mahler are on the program?

          • John Borstlap says:

            Because they were part of a musical tradition which cultivated emotional experience formalized in engaging, thrilling musical structures and narratives. And since WW II, it has become increasingly difficult to write such music because any composer having the impertinence to do that, would have been crucified for deviating from the gospel of progress. Modern times seem to demand the loss of such capacities….. which is, in fact, puzzling, since PERFORMANCE of outdated music is still very contemporary, including dug-up music from pre-Mozartian times with specialized ensembles. We live in a very confused and contradictory period.

          • Ross says:

            And John, who were/are those doing the crucifying?
            If you’re afraid to say it, you may whisper it in my ear.

  • DESR says:

    “It was focused, hot and very muscular!!”

    Crumbs. Still talking ’bout the music…?

  • Martin Bookspan says:

    I’m excited about the choice of VanZweden! I’ve heard him with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood and the New York Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall. With both orchestras he delivered electric performances of Beethoven Symphonies: the 7th with the BSO and the 5th with the Philharmonic. Further, one of his Philharmonic concerts included Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, a masterpiece which inexplicably has fallen into the hole of abandon; it was the Philharmonic under Barbirolli that played its premiere in 1940.

    The enthusiasm of the Philharmonic musicians for his appointment will, I’m sure, be quickly reflected in the reaction of Philharmonic audiences once VanZweden takes charge.

  • John de Jong says:

    Mr. Lebrecht: do you know that Van Zweden started conducting thanks to Leonard Bernstein? During a tour of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, at a rehearsel in the Konzerthaus in Berlin, Leonard Bernstein asked Jaap van Zweden to conduct the orchestra in Mahler 1. van Zweden replied: I never have conducted. Bernstein answered: just do it, you can. It was 19 october 1987.

    Now he will be Bernstein’s successor in New York.

    Great. You lucky music lovers in New York.

  • harold braun says:

    Spot on!Mr.Borok certainly knows what he’s talking about,he can tell a guy….and Jaap’s concerts with the DSO on tour in Germany were stunning,as are the recordings on their house-in label….

  • Nigel Harris says:

    Excellent choice. Heard him several times in Birmingham and London, and more recently have bought his Bruckner, Brahms and Haydn recordings. Wonderful sound, absolute structural command and plenty of passion. I know the comparison with Haitink is on one level facile, but it is an apt one in terms of their ability and many of their strengths.

    • John Borstlap says:

      VZweden’s Brahms recordings belong to the musically best available, and are full of nuance, apart from the passion and intensity.

  • Jill says:

    Oh please, Levine and Jaap… now there are 2 reasons to avoid Lincoln Center.

    • Rudolf A. Bruil says:

      Jaap and Lenny. JVZ tells in a Dutch documentary that Leonard Bernstein asked him (Van Zweden) to direct the orchestra for a few measures so Bernstein could hear what the orchestra sounded like in the space of the audience. Bernstein came back on stage and said “That was pretty bad”. However Bernstein encouraged him to study conducting.