Bombshell: The top-paid US conductor of all time is…

Bombshell: The top-paid US conductor of all time is…


norman lebrecht

June 22, 2016

The annual survey of conductor salaries compiled by Drew McManus on Adaptistration is about to blow the socks off the music industry. Drew’s pay list for 2013/14, which goes live in the next hour, will reveal that compensation at the Dallas Symphony that year went way off the scale.

The music director Jaap Van Zweden, little known at the time beyond Dallas, was paid $5,110,538.

That’s five million bucks in plain English, paid via his company, Bajada Productions LLC.

There are more details on Adaptistration.

Five million is miles off the grid.

It is almost double the squeeze that Christoph Eschenbach puts on the National Symphony and it beats by a clear two million the $3,291,791 paid to Lorin Maazel in his final year as music director at the New York Philharmonic, which was the previous all-time high.

It is also more than three times what Jaap Van Zweden was paid the year before.

And it’s not just Dallas that has questions to answer.

There will be demands to know what the New York Phil is planning to pay Van Zweden, 55, when he becomes its music director in 2018. Is this unremarkable Dutchman worth more than any conductor alive or dead?

van zweden lebrecht

All the other million-earners here.

Who’d pay a maestro a loyalty bonus?


  • harold braun says:

    Yawn….You wouldn’t post that if he were an unremarkable lady conductor,right?

  • John Borstlap says:

    The DSO is apparently so happy with their music director that they bring-up that money, which means that Dallas is so happy with their orchestra and its achievements, made possible by this so-called ‘unremarkable Dutchman’, that they express their enthusiasm in this way. I don’t think it’s illegal.

    One would wish that such money would be available everywhere in the world where classical music and it’s high achievement is practiced, instead of the miserable critique that the art from is ‘not modern enough’ and ‘elitist’ and ‘boring’ and whatever populism throws at its door.

    Every music lover who has heard Van Zweden’s interpretations of Bruckner, Wagner, and Brahms, knows that this is a talent that appears only very rarely.

    • Halldor says:

      Fair enough. But until such money IS available everywhere in the classical world – and while orchestras, opera companies and education programmes are cutting salaries and in some cases collapsing for want of much smaller sums – this figure may not be illegal, but it is certainly immoral.

      • John Borstlap says:

        If I pay an excellent plumber, whom I happen to know and who has helped me enormously with the drain problems of my house, a big sum, while other plumbers at the other end of the town suffer unemployment, would that be an immoral act? Untill the classical music world is fully regulated financially, establishing generous government security on all levels for its participants, the field is free. Which does not mean that it does not need improvement.

        • Halldor says:

          It’s still a symptom of a profound sickness in the art. Not saying it’s not a fact of life, but I don’t see why we need to accept or endorse it.

      • Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix says:

        . . . and very likely fattening.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Econ 101 says that the fair and correct price is what the willing buyer and willing seller agree on.

      Nonetheless, “this is a talent that appears only very rarely” can be taken two ways.

  • Nick says:

    That figure for van Zweden is so out of the ballpark there surely has to be something wrong. If he were an American citizen, presumably his entire income would have to be filed somewhere, in which case his fees from the Hong Kong Philharmonic (not insubstantial, I believe) and his Netherlands orchestra would be included. But surely he is Dutch and so there is no such requirement. Even if two years were paid in one go for some reason, the amount is still obscenely high. Like others, I await the reason.

    • Anon says:

      If you were to read even just the summary of the report (which NL links to above), you wouldn’t need to wait: it’s right there in black and white. The reason for the apparent increase on last year is a one-off signing bonus paid to JvZ for signing a long-term contract, paid for by a one-off private donation given for that purpose. There’s nothing wrong here as you suggest – if someone wishes to donate a few million dollars to JvZ, they are quite entitled to do so.

      • John Borstlap says:

        But that changes the perspective entirely: if the bonus sum is meant for a longterm commitment, than in principle the sum is spread over that longterm period, which means that pro year it is considerably less.

      • William Safford says:

        Question: if a donor gave him such a bonus, with the idea of keeping him in Dallas, how does his recent appointment to the NY Phil jibe with that?

        I don’t believe I have ever heard him live, so I have open ears for when I first attend a concert that he conducts.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The last 3 years of the period for which the bonus apparently was meant, are for the position of conductor laureate, i.e. principal guest conductor with honors, which can be combined with a position elsewhere. So, the agreement is not violated by the NY appointment. You cannot keep a conductor at a location forever.

  • Mark Stryker says:

    It’s important to note that JvZ’s compensation that year included a $3.3M signing bonus for a longterm deal that runs through 2021, the last three seasons as laureate. Remember this deal was signed in 2013. Moreover, the bonus was paid for entirely by a restricted gift from a donor solely for that purpose. Whether JvZ — or any music director — is worth what they’re paid is always an important conversation, and to be clear, I’m not taking a position one way or the other here. But you can’t have an informed debate without understanding the full context of the numbers.

  • Mome Rath says:

    Mr. Lebrecht neglects the fact that mediocrity is a highly prized quality and one that is extremely rare among the top orchestras of the world.
    The New York Philharmonic has chosen wisely. The predominantly elderly audience need not fear being startled from their peaceful slumber by any noise emanating from the orchestra designed to arouse the passions of the soul. Likewise, they need not be concerned about any distractions from the stage interfering with their social discourse.
    We all need to recognize that white noise does not come cheap!

    • Michael Connolly says:

      Have you heard him conduct?

    • John Borstlap says:

      I searched in vain in my collection of senseless and ignorant comments upon conductors to find anything as ridiculous as this comment. With all due respect, it’s a quite new level of [redacted].

      To begin with: JvZw is a top conductor, which every musical professional and every music lover with two ears can easily establish: his Bruckner, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler are therefore universally lauded. His concert performances of Wagner operas in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw are sold-out in a couple of days, many months before they take place, and people are hanging in the lamps to be able to hear these impressive performances. His style is not: distorting the music with his own, peculiar, personal vision of the music, like the Regietheater does with opera, but to intensily render the music as loyally to the score as possible, combining the grand expressive gesture and intensity of the old garde with the modern, lean and stylish clarity that he learned from Harnoncourt. It is a return to the core of performing: no frills, no special effects, but as honestly as possible the music itself as suggested by the score, and this with great intensity. Also his conducting technique is no-nonsense, but includes all nuance which is necessary. The now famous Wagner performances in Amsterdam combine the grand sweep of the music with an ever supple flowing, never heavvy and ponderious, and folded around the singers with great understanding of balance and perspective:

      Then, the NY audience may be just right to prefer tradition – which holds pieces that are contemporary and meaningful for ever – to the noises of Time Square rush hour of the modern metropolis, the superficial activity they want, for an evening, to escape: to restore a sense of humanity and civilization. Boulez brought Time Square back inside again and of course that did not go down well in the long run. A symphony orchestra and its canonic repertoire occupy a special place in the modern world, and the rubbing of two different worlds together creates friction, true, and a city like NY may suffer more from that friction than elsewhere. But only ears that prefer the noise of the modern world to meaningful musical experience, will think the new MD of NY is ‘mediocre’. They want something from an orchestra – more traffic noise? hysterics? pop? visuals? – that they better look for somewhere else. The friction between orchestral practice and the modern world is a bit further explored here:

  • Brent Hudson says:

    “Unremarkable Dutchman” —- that’s funny, Norm.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Maybe he is looking for a quite different conductor type to be called great, maybe someone like Fartwungler, Toscanini, Bernstein, Mengelberg, Celibidache. But JvZw is a modern type no-nonsense musician who wants in the first place to render the score as truthfully as possible, and is not interested in showmanship on the stage – conductors who consider the score as an instrument to them instead of the other way around.

  • Brent Hudson says:

    The Dutch, if nothing else, are taller than the rest of us.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Tall conductors prefer slower tempi, because in them, energy is more spread-out; short conductors have more compact energy and hence, their performances are much more intense. (Fartwungler on one hand, and Van Zweden on the other.)

      • Mome Rath says:

        I do think it is worth noting Mr Borstlap, as a matter of fair disclosure, that you have a personal relationship with Maestro Van Zweden who has conducted your own compositions. On a different note, your thesis that taller conductors exude less energy than shorter ones is quite curious and I wonder if you can offer any scientific proof of this. Perhaps we can expect a further thesis that taller tenors can hit higher notes than shorter ones. As for your height thesis, given the workmanlike performances that I’ve heard him give, perhaps he could shed a few inches to put a bit more excitement into his conducting. Until then, I’ll be thinking of him as The Plying Dutchman.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Every opera lover has noticed that high sopranos are taller than mezzos and that altos – becoming quite rare today – are really short. Basses, who cannot go any lower in size, compensate with bulk. Jessy Norman began as a very thin, tall high soprano but sank-in during her first career period and took-on quite some girth, after which she slimmed again to get higher, but that did not quite work. The tallest conductor ever, Fartwungler, was notorious for his slow tempi and inability to control arm movements, the slow tempi necessary for the puzzled players to find-out what he actually might mean. Glenn Gould, tallest pianist ever, played a Brahms 1st concerto so slowly that the conductor, who was much shorter (Bernstein) felt the need to excuse the result beforehand to the audience. Etc. etc….

          • Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix says:

            Gould phono-shopped all his recordings; sort of the Chuck Close of recorded music. Did height or Asperger’s play a part in his played part? Some think so.

            Your criteria ought to include “Long Tall Sally”, no?

            The sainted Mae West said, “I Like a Guy What Takes His Time.”

  • Bennie says:

    If you Google “woman conductors” using Google Chrome browser, Alondra is the 7th in the rolling images pane, which means she’s getting the 7th most search hits among all woman conductors in the history of time.

    …. a fact that is totally irrelevant to Jaap making too much Washingtons

    P.S. Jaap’s Brahms … Yawn….. But any conductor who has the guts (and got the backing) to program the Ring Cycle with HK Philharmonic for not-so-adventurous Hong Kong audience would earn my respect

    • Mome Rath says:

      Agreed Bennie. It takes guts to get out in front of the HK Philharmonic and conduct an underwhelming performance of Das Rheingold and have it recorded by Naxos for all the world to hear. Res ipsa loquitur. I have experienced other lackluster performances of his. Guts he’s got!

      • John Borstlap says:

        Really hip comments…. HIP (Historically Informed Performance) uses gut strings of musically-challenged listeners to get the right vibrations for Bach and Handel, because the high levels of acid in the material produces a very durable substance. So, in the end, there is a place for everybody, even for the ignorati.

  • Christopher Coleman says:

    It may be a lot for a conductor…but comparable to what certain sports stars and actors make…actually on the low side. I’d argue that he’s worth it, so long as DSO isn’t going into financial ruin to pay him. And he’s a hell of a conductor!

    • David J Gill says:

      But, sports teams don’t solicit tax deductable donations, they aren’t non-profit institutions and a sports teams has a team full of overpaid athletes while a music director stands on the podium in front of 100 musicians many, if not most, of whom are as musically gifted as he is yet are paid a fraction of what he is paid.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It rarely occurs that an orchestral player becomes a conductor and is successful at it.

        • William Safford says:

          Hmmm. I guess it depends on one’s definition of success, and whether we’re discussing only the great conductors or also the many hard-working professional conductors (and leaving out well-known orchestral performers who dabble in conducting); but more than a few come immediately to mind.

          Toscanini, of course.

          In terms of successful careers, and choosing just two less-obvious orchestral instruments:

          Two trumpeters come immediately to mind: Gerard Schwartz, and Sir Malcolm Arnold.

          For oboe, Edo de Waart, Rudolf Kempe. And, to follow the bouncing ball, Mitch Miller. 🙂


          • John Borstlap says:

            I did not know that. Interesting….

          • M2N2K says:

            Even a violist — Carlo Maria Giulini.

          • Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix says:

            Zubin Mehta plays string bass, and was the go-to guy for the Trout Quintet whenever played by Isaac Stern’s Kosher Nostra. Milton Katims – Violist, who took up the instrument so he could sit under Toscanini’s elbow and learn conducting. Osmo Vanska = clarinetist who has played with the Lahti Symphony, and performs with the Minnesota Orchestra. Andrew Litton plays accordion whenever the Minnesota Orchestra playa Piazzola.