Hong Kong, defying its musicians, renews Jaap Van Zweden

Hong Kong, defying its musicians, renews Jaap Van Zweden


norman lebrecht

June 14, 2020

We reported exclusively last week that musicians of the Hong Kong Philharmonic has voted 60-40 against renewing Jaap Van Zweden as music director.

Yesterday, the board renewed him for two more years.

That’s how democracy functions in Hong Kong.

We hear there was some dissent on the board, but the chairman railroaded it through. Van Zweden now awaits a decision on his renewal with the New York Philharmonic. We understand that this is also a formality.

Press release below.


[13 June 2020, Hong Kong] The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HK Phil) today is very pleased to announce that Jaap van Zweden has accepted to extend his Music Director contract for two more years, through the end of the 2023/24 season. This will bring Maestro van Zweden’s extraordinary tenure as Music Director with the orchestra to an impressive 12 years. The HK Phil is thrilled that following his tenure as Music Director, he will hold the title of Conductor Laureate.

Jaap van Zweden, one of today’s leading international conductors, has been the orchestra’s Music Director since the 2012/13 concert season. Under his dynamic leadership, the HK Phil has attained new heights of artistic excellence, earning international critical acclaim. The orchestra successfully completed a four-year journey through Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The concert performances and live Naxos recordings were enthusiastically received by audiences, praised by critics at home and abroad and garnered the Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award 2019. The HK Phil is the first Asian orchestra to receive this prestigious international award.

“We are most fortunate to have Jaap as our Music Director since 2012. Within a few years of his leadership, he has transformed the HK Phil into a major world-class orchestra,” said Y. S. Liu, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Society. “Representing the entire Board of Governors, I am extremely proud of the achievements made by Jaap and all the musicians. We share the commitment to continue striving for the highest artistic excellence, locally, nationally and internationally.” The spokesman of the Home Affairs Bureau stated, “The HK Phil is the flagship orchestra in Hong Kong, we are all proud of the marvellous achievements the orchestra has made under the leadership of Music Director Jaap van Zweden.”

Jaap van Zweden said, “When I was asked to extend my Music Director tenure with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, I was very happy to do so by two more years. I am very proud of the work we have done together, especially the historic completion of the Wagner Ring Cycle which led to being singled out by Gramophone as the 2019 Orchestra of the Year. Building on our new history of firsts, in May 2021, we will be the first Asian Orchestra to ever appear at the prestigious Concertgebouw Mahler Festival in Amsterdam. We look forward to continuing to scale new heights in the years ahead.”



  • John Rook says:

    Not just Hong Kong…

  • V.Lind says:

    I wouldn’t count on that Amsterdam gig.

  • Player says:

    Yeah, boards don’t usually care too much about the opinions of the musicians. No surprise there. They probably have a modicum of respect for Jaap, but they see the musicians as employees, at best.

    • R.M. says:

      Look at the met..

      It takes a lot of $$$ and prestige to be heard.

      The met brought this on themselves by indulging Levine and willfully ignoring complaints by singers and players.

      Glad they’re being put in their place along with Lincoln Center!

      The San Juan Hill neighborhood was destroyed in order to build your White Castles…look it up along with Robert Moses.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    A boring conductor with the baton technique of a high schooler. Flying much higher than his talent warrants.

    But he does seem to know the ins and outs of working with boards and executive directors.

    That’s why he was the $5 Million Man in Dallas while the peons received salary cuts.

  • HKmusician says:

    “Defying” the 40% who did vote for renewal? This unofficial, advisory vote happened a year ago. There are no drama or surprises here. A modest majority not in favor of a M.D. who has already served a couple of contracts is common place in our industry. Par for the course. I state this as a member of the orchestra. (Drop the sensationalist, click-bait headers, Norman.)

    • John Borstlap says:

      During the French Revolution, the players of the Orchestre du Théatre Royal had their conductor arrested and beheaded, because he had worked under Louis XVI and suppressed the players’ freedom in ensemble playing and fine-tuning, in an entirely feudal way. To everybody’s surprise, they could no longer play in time and quarrelled so much among each other that Robespierre intervened and got them all under the guillotine, after which order was happily restored.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Well, that sounds more like the Woke Taliban of 2020. The more things change the more they remain the same. Off with their statues, and their movies and heads!!

      • José Bergher says:

        And then, in July 1794, came Robespierre’s turn to lose his kopf…

  • annnon says:

    Don’t exaggerate, what happens in Hong Kong happens in 99% of orchestras in the world.

    1) Of major orchestras, only Berlin is a true democracy in picking its music director, even then, it had to settle for a compromise choice, since 2 major blocs were in a deadlock over Nelsons and Thielemann.

    2) If the HK musicians truly had an alternative consensus candidate in mind (who was also interested in HK!), they should have courted him or her (remember Chicago musicians wrote letters to Muti and got him over New York) and advocated his candidacy to the Board.

    Van Zweden is the best HK and NY can get right now, and that is the reality. If they could’ve gotten someone better, they would’ve gotten someone better.

    NY wanted Muti and Salonen, both declined and went to another American orchestra. HK is not even NY.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is impossible that some 90 players will agree about their MD or a new one. They are all individual artists with their own experiences and outlook, who have, in one way or another, to be united to produce the performance of one piece as the fruit of one person’s musical vision: the composer. A string quartet has already trouble to get to a unified vision, let alone an orchestra. It is for practical reasons that the orchestra as a medium is not suited to democratization.

      There are duos who can’t get along and split-up because of differences in interpretation and tempi. Even soloists are often divided within themselves about important questions of performance. Also, there are composers who have difficulties in deciding on points of tempo, interpretation, etc. (Brahms is a case in point). So, complaining about orchestral differences of opinion is pointless.

  • HKmusician says:

    P.S. Why does the HK PHIL press release, as quoted here, omit the quotes of support from both the orchestra’s Artistic and Players Committees?

  • Darrell says:

    I have always said that the worst thing about music is the musicians. I still remember when I worked in a music store (a thousand years ago) and musicians came who were only interested in the repertoire of ‘their’ instrument.

    It was impossible for a violinist who came for Mozart’s violin concerts to be interested in piano concerts, simply because his instrument was the violin and he was unable to see beyond, his whole world revolved around the violin and piano concerts in his Universe did not exist at all. And so with all the instruments.

    (Someday I will talk about some opera fans, capable of having a thousand versions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and not knowing any of Mozart’s symphonies.)

    Returning to the subject of the Hong Kong musicians Philharmonic and Jaap Van Zweden, in any organization you work for, if you don’t like the boss you always had the possibility to leave.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There are double bass players who married their instrument.


      Sometimes word gets round that cellists marry their instrument and beget violas, but that seems to be a viola joke.

    • Henry williams says:

      I have left jobs where the boss is very unpleasant. But i never argue with them.
      Because one has to obtain a cv from them. When the boss is nice i stay for
      Many years.

    • MezzoLover says:

      Very interesting comments.

      I am not a musician, but I happen to be one of those “opera fans capable of having a thousand versions of Don Giovanni” (with 986 more versions to be collected in my case, and I’m not totally ignoring his symphonies either, having lived happily with both the Böhm/BPO and the Krips/CO sets for a good many years).

      Let me just say right off the bat – people who want a thousand versions of Don Giovanni GET Mozart, whether or not they care to know anything about his symphonies.

      We are talking about what many consider THE perfect opera that is still waiting for the perfect recording (which I doubt it will ever get – but more on that later).

      We are talking about the opera of which the composer himself wrote: “Whenever I sit at the piano with my new opera, I have to stop, for it stirs my emotions too deeply.”

      We are talking about the opera for which interpretive possibilities are endless based on the color, range and inherent character of the voices chosen for the eight roles.

      We are talking about the opera in which each character is vividly delineated by his or her own musical style, with devices even foreshadowing the music dramas of Richard Wager. (For example, the rising and falling third that appears clearly as head motif in “Là ci darem la mano” and “Metà di voi qua vadano” may be called Don Giovanni’s leitmotif.)

      And we are not even talking about the multitude of conducting approaches (giocoso vs. drammatico and everything in between) and production versions (1787 Prague vs. 1788 Vienna and everything in between) employed in all the different versions of this unique opera…

      As a final note – if the perfect performance of Don Giovanni ever existed, it would’ve been the one conducted by Gustav Mahler at Budapest’s Royal Opera on 16 December 1890, which won him praise from Brahms, who was present at the performance:


  • Karl says:

    I heard the HKPhil under JvZ last year in an excellent performance of Shostakovich 9. It was outstanding and I am glad he was renewed. He is a live wire and injects qualities I have not heard there before. Long may they play, with all musicians on board.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Well, not too long, as the contract extension was only two years, after which he’ll return for occasional guest gigs as Conductor Laureate.

  • sam says:

    Isn’t that a photo of the New York Philharmonic at Geffen Hall?

  • Evan Tucker says:

    This is going to end well….

  • CarlD says:

    The HK Phil has been short-listed by Gramophone as orchestra of the year, which has to reflect well not only on the musicians but also JVZ. Why fix what’s not broken!

    • HKmusician says:

      Not just short-listed — but actually won the Orchestra of the Year prize for 2019.

      • TobyF says:

        Now, let’s not pretend the Orchestra of the Year award has the same prestige as the other Gramophone Awards categories. It is essentially nothing more than a “who gets more likes on Facebook” contest. It’s an award voted by public, not the same as those judged by industry experts I’m sorry. The only two winners so far for this Orchestra of the Year award are Seattle Symphony and HK Philharmonic – enough said.

  • Texastimer says:

    I see many posts above of people who seem to appreciate what JVZ has to offer. That is wonderful, as a musicians it is great to hear listeners be passionate about performances.
    He is extremely talented and a very hard worker that demands much from his musicians. This results in great exciting performances much of the time.

    He is also one of the most insecure conductors in the field today. He is abusive to fulfil a need to make himself feel better. It rarely helps any performance, only hurts it. His gifts as a musician elevate the performances not his abusive petty nature.

    There are many greats in the history of western music that are unsatisfactory people in many different ways.

    Just because you like his Shostakovich 7 doesn’t mean he is a good guy.

  • HKmusician says:

    To clarify my earlier post: the press release as presented by the HK PHIL itself included statements of support about the extended contract for JvZ from both the orchestra’s Player’s and Artistic Committees. Slipped Disc has removed the quotes from its own quotation of that press release, which seems rather disingenuous.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Not disingenous at all. It’s our editorial practice not to publish all the hymns-and-roses quotges in press releases, any more than we publish tributes by Chinese Communist pety in support of its chairman.

      • HKmusician says:

        And yet, you DID include other quotes. So why not include those from the committees that represent the musicians themselves, since that is relevant to the header that you gave this “breaking news”? Wouldn’t those be more relevant?

        • JV says:

          The quotes from those committees could only have been positive, otherwise they would not have included them in the official press release. So, they are rather meaningless (hence no point for NL to republish). The VOTE, on the other hand, was at least indicative of something.

  • fflambeau says:

    Unfortunately, music directors these days, in the main, are not chosen and retained for their musical abilities but for their financial “leadership”.

    I thought Van Zweden was a disaster from the beginnings in NYC but high profile music leaders are pretty much either gone now or not interested in NYC.

  • fflambeau says:

    The New York Philharmonic, in my view, is behind these American orchestras (in no particular order): The Met Opera orchestra; the Philadelphia Orchestra; The Boston Symphony Orchestra; The Cleveland Orchestra; The Chicago Symphony Orchestra; The Seattle Symphony Orchestra; The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; The Los Angeles Philharmonic. It is on the fringe of being a top 10 group now. Gone are its days of dominance.

    • Alexandria says:

      Come on, while that’s a popular thing to say just as saying how great the met orchestra is, its simply not true. Seattle? San Fran? Lol.
      Have you heard the met orchestra in Carnegie lately? Talk about fringe.
      Don’t always believe what you read in biased reviews. Go listen on YouTube.

      • fflambeau says:

        Yes, San Francisco is ahead of the NYPhilharmonic, Alexandria. You may recall that the NYP’s composer in residence, Esa-Pekka Salonen, was much coveted for the position as its music director, but he went to San Francisco instead. That should tell you something. They have boatloads of money (Silicon Valley is nearby), its a far more beautiful and liveable city and so on. Jaap is reputedly the 4th pick on the list for the Philharmonic, that’s not doing well in recruitment. Dausgaard in Seattle is also very, very good and this is their third excellent conductor in a row; one of the most innovative groups in America. In fact, what is striking is the emergence of West Coast orchestras at the top of the pack: better living conditions, lots of money, and increasing (not decreasing) populations.

  • Vittorio Parisi says:

    I can speak only for myself but if I should only sense that the majority of the players involved with my job would prefer to get another conductor I could not renew for 2 days, not for 2 years!

  • M2N2K says:

    The statement looks like a compromise deal to me: “we are giving you two more years because you are losing most of these two to the pandemic and because we need some time to find a decent replacement anyway, but we are making sure that you are not remaining at the artistic helm any longer than that by giving you a ‘laureate’ title that sounds nice but does not mean very much”.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is also simply possible that the NY job happens to be more consuming than forseen (thinking of the period of reburbishment of the hall), and that two time-consuming orchestras restrict opportunities of guest engagements elsewhere.

      • M2N2K says:

        That is an extremely unlikely explanation. Nothing can be less “consuming” than not conducting any concerts at all for at least ten months and probably very little for a while after that. Besides, if he expects to suddenly become awfully busy after next year and during the “refurbishment” of the Geffen, then it makes no sense for him to be extending his contract in HK for two additional years when he is so sure to be inundated with all those irresistibly tempting guest conducting offers as you apparently believe will rain on him from everywhere.

  • Edoardo Saccenti says:

    these are (almost) always marriage of convenience, no love involved…

  • sabrinensis says:

    He’s an awful conductor but a career in conducting entails much more than merely handling the baton well. And that is really a shame. It is difficult to think of a less deserving executant.