Trouble ahead for Jaap in Hong Kong

Trouble ahead for Jaap in Hong Kong


norman lebrecht

June 08, 2020

The Hong Kong Philharmonic rolled out its next season today, much of it conducted by music director Jaap Van Zweden.

Behind the scenes, trouble brews. Before lockdown we hear that the musicians held a vote on the music director and came down 60-40 against renewing his contract. It is not clear if the vote was advisory or binding.

Despite the vote, we understand Van Zweden has been offered a new contract up to 2024.

We contacted the orchestra management for a comment and were told: ‘We will announce about the music director later this year.’ They blanked the question on the musicians’ vote.

Jaap Van Zweden is also music director of the New York Philharmonic.



  • sam says:

    With so many top tier conductors finding themselves all of a sudden unemployed, every music director better make good with their orchestra, now!

    (Then again, the same could be said of all non-principal orchestral players, they better make good with their music director, now that orchestras are reduced to playing chamber music.)

  • Its a surprise for me I thought he was more popular. But if he will be free of his duties from Hong Kong, it will be an opportunity for the supporters of Van Zweden to back him for a candidature for the Concertgebouw.

  • John Borstlap says:

    That would surprise me, thinking of v Zweden’s great successes with the orchestra and especially his Ring cyclus for Naxos. He has done a great job, I read everywhere, with bringing the HK Phil to the high level of today. Why would the players dismiss their own achievement? The information seems unreliable to me.

    • Bill says:

      Enough people voted for Trump against their own self-interest to get him elected. Stupidity evidently isn’t a uniquely American condition, if these numbers are as reported.

    • Pang says:

      Anyone working in the industry knows he is one of the most abusive conductors in history. The ring you mentioned alone was filled with enough abuse to get this vote. Reach out to just about anyone in the orchestra and let the stories flow.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Abusive? Another word for demanding?

        The times for abusing conductors has long since past:

      • Simon says:

        Have to agree with you, as a long-time Hong Kong resident I hear these stories regularly. It’s also overly-optimistic to imply that the HK Phil are world-class or close to it: they’re a pretty good band but that’s it

      • annnon says:

        1) Indeed his reputation preceeds him, the Dallas players complaining to the press already years ago.

        2) As for Hong Kong, there are a couple of clips on youtube of JvZ being condescending to and berating his soloists and principal players during a recording sessions of the Ring, chiding them like dull students.

        It’s already intolerable to be a prickly and unpleasant task-master in private, it takes it to a whole new level to record it on camera for posterity to publicly embarrass musicians.

        3) From what I understand, he doesn’t dare bully the NYPhil, Chicago, Concertgebouw, and least of all Berlin, which engaged him twice out of necessity (someone bigger cancelled the last minute), but never invited him back on his own merit because of lack of talent.

        4) What the local music critic say also has an effect on his behavior: The Berlin and NY critics were/are less than impressed with his handling of the core repertoire. The Dallas and HK critics were/are over the moon.

        The perception of lack of talent cuts both ways.

        • John Borstlap says:

          What people have to say about v Zweden’s lack of talent is nonsensical, they don’t have ears (a common affliction in music life). I have attended quite some live concerts with vZweden which were, all of them, excellent and some of them spectacular (I particularly remember a concert with the RCO). I have his early Brahms symphony box which belongs to the very best ever, especially nr IV which is a marvel. vZweden’s 2011 concert performance of Parsifal in the Concertgebouw has entered legendary status. The slandering of Berlin and NY critics is beneath concempt, should never be taken seriously, mean low-level people all of them – failed musicians hungry for revenge. They are the tone-deaf sharks in the pond, the parasites hoping for ego vindication.

          The smallmindedness of illiterate people with their sour and silly protests is sickening.

          This is an early recording of Brahms IV (2002), before his wider international fame, with the Netherlands Philharmonic, a good but not a top orchestra:

          This is his Parsifal performance in the Concertgebouw with the Dutch Radio Philharmonic, next to the RCO the best orchestra in the country:

          1st act:

          2nd act:

          3rd act:

          People who complain about ‘lack of talent’ should consult their GP to have their aural trackt cleaned.

          • RW2013 says:

            Has he programmed any of your music in the near future Borsty?

          • John Borstlap says:

            How I would love to say something about this…. but I’m not allowed.


          • Raff says:

            Come on, John. Everyone knows that you are always kissing up to Jaap and defending him because he is the only one who will give you commissions. In fact, your most recent orchestra work (Feierliche Abendmusik/Solemn Night Music) was a grossly overpaid co-commission from Jaap via the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic when Jaap was chief of Dallas. And rumour has it that your only current commission is again from Jaap and the Hong Kong Philharmonic!

          • John Borstlap says:

            What’s wrong with such things, I wonder. Jealousy? Spite? With all due respect, but this is a very stupid comment, as usual born from ignorance. But the background of how JvZw deals with new music is interesting in itself and worth a thought. The fact is, that contrary to the silly insinuations of this comment, it is the other way around: it was me that first discovered J’s talents and attitude towards new music, his interest followed after that. He is one of the very few conductors around who takes contemporary music seriously, and discusses the music thoroughly with the composer before rehearsels. I know of him that he even travelled to an old collegue of mine at his home to be sure to get through a very complex score, spending much time on preparations.

            Compare that with the much more common attitude of conductors, including the famous ones: if asked by the management, they go through a new piece quickly at rehearsels, without much preparation, and as soon as the notes are more or less in place they think all work is done, so that they can spend most of the (expensive) rehearsel time to polish Ravel’s Bolero or Beethoven VII. Because nobody knows the new piece, they can get away with bad lousy performances, but in the repertoire pieces (that every player can play in his sleep) it is the conductor who shines. Not so Jaap van Zweden. I think this is something to be seen as an example, instead of those vain ego trippers who only have contempt for anything they had not known before.

            Also J’s taste in contemporary music is entirely eclectic, and chosen on the basis of how he feels about the music and whether he can do something with it. I think that he only is not much interested in sonic art, for obvious reasons – there, work is indeed done when the notes are more or less in place, or not, it does not make much difference.

            In a time when conductors are, in general, conspicuously ill-informed about new music and so many of them simply don’t want to have anything to do with it, since their interest stops at the limits of their careerism, it seems to me that conductors like JvZ should be appreciated for such an attitude.

        • Felix T says:

          “he doesn’t dare bully the NYPhil,”

          Try that same vote in America.

  • MacroV says:

    Maybe JvZ might want to distance himself from the Chinese strangling of what’s left of Hong Kong’s democracy.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Would be very regrettable for the orchestra, which includes many non-Chinese players, it is an international orchestra not an ‘ethnic Chinese orchestra’.

  • Nick2 says:

    van Zweden has worked near miracles with that orchestra. I find it more than strange that the musicians would be asked to take a vote on his contract extension just before they were supposed to leave on a key tour to Japan and South Korea.

    I hope they also ask themselves who would do better for them given the special circumstances Hong Kong finds itself in. More important may be how attractive the orchestra’s own future’ might be to other major conductors. Although covid19 has been pretty well controlled, it is still likely to play havoc with next season’s programmes. Then there are the months of protests. These may have died down temporarily because of the passage of the recent law and China’s promise of a crack down, but they are not going to go away. If they continue and the Hong Kong government does nothing about the population’s underlying grievances, the effect on business confidence could become very serious. Major corporations could easily start to relocate elsewhere in the region.

    The HK Phil gets a large amount of its budget from the government which is facing a major recession. It also receives about US$1.5 million annually from the Swire Trust. The Swire Group owns the majority stake in Cathay Pacifc and many property ventures. Its profits are likely to be disastrous this year. Will that affect the HK Phil grant?

    Another big question mark in the future will be the UK government’s stated aim of offering up to 3 million Hong Kong residents virtual residency in the UK. That would spell the end of Hong Kong as we have known it for many decades.

    The Phil’s Principal Guest Long Yu is no answer. First he’s not nearly good enough and second he already controls China’s 3 major orchestras. Until the territory’s future is far more certain and stable, I cannot see any major conductor finding the post attractive.

    • John Borstlap says:


      It is incomprehensible that the Chinese government does not want to keep HK as it was, because in that form it offers the best not only for the HK people but also for mainland China.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Let us see the facts: there is no future for Hong-Kong. Thus, there is no need of a HK Phil.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That remains to be seen. 1) also under direct Chinese government, the HK Phil can simply continue its activities because they are not politically engaged, their work is artistic; 2) a simple direct ‘invasion’ of HK would seriously damage China’s standing and interests all over the world, revealing its dictatorial intentions.

    • Anon says:

      Why do you think Long Yu is not good enough?
      He regularly guest conducts some of the best orchestras in the world.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    It’s not rocket science. Zweden takes second rate orchestras and turns them first rate by making players’ lives miserable if they don’t play like first-rate musicians. The musicians are grateful to be better, but now that they’re better they’d also like to be happier and they can’t be happier if Zweden is still in town.

    In New York he finally met his match, and if he can change his tune, they’ll make his life miserable before he can make their’s.

    • John Borstlap says:

      What a load of miserable nonsense – arm chair psychology based upon assumptions, not upon knowledge or understanding.

      Every conductor who is demanding, is ‘difficult’ for players. Good players appreciate being lift above their inital level, spoiled immature players resent it. In an age where democratic emancipation of minorities, underdogs, gays, forgotten communities, women, farm animals and criminals leads to an understandable focus upon maltreatment, such sensitivities easily result in widespread ‘right to be offended’, and before you know it, reasonable limitations of justified objections transcend into the paranoia of authority anxiety.

      If a teacher in a classroom explains something, it can now happen that pupils protest with ‘Who do you think you are to make such claims?’ In the same way, conductors who insist on right ensemble playing or fine tuning of chords can be accused of grave abuse of power. The relationship between conductor and players is – for the duration of rehearsels and concerts – an authorative one, not because conductors are bullies, but because that is in the nature of the construction of orchestral music making. Players who can’t deal with a irritated word when they bleep and squeek a note, should do something else.

      • Farm Animal says:

        “”” In an age where democratic emancipation of minorities, underdogs, gays, forgotten communities, women, farm animals and criminals leads to an understandable focus upon maltreatment, such sensitivities easily result in widespread ‘right to be offended’, and before you know it, reasonable limitations of justified objections transcend into the paranoia of authority anxiety.”””””

        Thanks for clearing that up. We know who and what we are talking to now.

        • John Borstlap says:

          It’s important to state that JB is a vegetarian, because of his concerns about the treatment of farm animals. I can’t even get a ham sandwich here!


  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:



  • HKmusician says:

    Two things: this vote among (most) members of the orchestra was about a year ago. This is not breaking news. Secondly, it was an unofficial, advisory vote. Both the fact that it happened and that it was somewhat (but not significantly) not in favor is actually par for the course in our industry. I state all this as a member.

  • Edgar Self says:

    One of Karajan’s tests of a conductor was to make a third-rate orchestra sound like a second-rate orchestra. Van Zweden conducts like a micro-manager; I haven’t seen him in rehearsal, but I know some musicians who will not perform with him again.

    Given tthe state of affairs in Hong Kong, he might be glad to get shut of the job.

    The Concertgebouw’s record of treating former conductors and concertmasters … even Haigtink! … doesn’t guarantee Van Zweden a shot at its musical directorship. They coould do worse, and have done so.

  • Edgar Self says:

    “Show me a happy orchestra, and I’ll show you a bad conductor.” — Fritz Reiner

  • Edgar Self says:

    Just so, John. I wib’t ask what kind of thermometer. That’s why I said Abbado and Kleiber der Junger smile too much. Who are they smiling for, at, and why?

    Even Dudamel learned to conduct with his mouth closed, and Bernstein when not a foot off the floor. Not for them the controlled restraint of Yampolsky, Haitink, Boehm, Boulez, Mravinsky, Tintner, Richard Strauss, to name but a few, whatever their abilities. No Beechamesque jollifications or Walterian kindly veneer for them. It’s a serious business.

    “Conducting is the last bastion of quackery outside the medical profession.” — Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich

  • Edgar Self says:

    To Bill above re the Trump vote. He got 3,000,000 fewer votes than his opponent but won the deciding elctoral vote due to Constitutional vagaries of the Electoral College, which has led to renewed calls for irs abolition as having out-lived its intent.

    Many are trying to see that doesn’t happen again, with help from a virus, a civil rights crisis, and Trump himself. Many are asking if this is the best we can do. Whether it is or not, the answer will put us a good deal forrader.

    The choice, as often, is between bad or worse, in our worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time. I put faith in the third alternative, that you can’t fool all the people all the time. The quotations are from Kennedy, Churchill, and Lincoln.

  • David Eaton says:

    Some conductors can be talented and bullies. Szell certainly had talent but also made some enemies.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The impatient outbursts of conductors are always fully open for inspection, while players’ subtle – or not so subtle – shananigans are not.