Why Jaap Van Zweden is quitting New York

Why Jaap Van Zweden is quitting New York


norman lebrecht

September 16, 2021

The Dutch music director’s decision to leave the New York Philharmonic after a single term has not been given a specific cause, apart from the inconveniences of Covid, but the writing has long been on the wall.

Jaap said this to the musicians: ‘While I love the NY Philharmonic and look forward to continuing as Music Director over the next three seasons, so much has changed because of COVID, including thoughts about my own future, my life, and my family.  I came to the New York Philharmonic as your Music Director, excited about working with you and committed to ensuring that you get the great home you deserve.  As you know, the completely transformed David Geffen Hall will now open in Fall 2022, almost two years ahead of schedule, thanks in large part to our supportive Board of Directors, to Deborah Borda’s leadership, and to Lincoln Center. 

 In life, I think timing is critical: it’s important to know when to say yes and when to move on.  With that thought in mind, my inner voice tells me the time is right to conclude my tenure as Music Director at the end of the 2023-24 season.  As I move on, I look forward to returning to conduct this great orchestra for years to come, just not as its Music Director.

Deborah Borda told the musicians: ‘The pandemic has changed all our worlds, so I recognize and respect the very personal decision Jaap has made about his future. It is important that he continues as our partner, working together towards the re-opening of our home — the “new” David Geffen Hall.  Jaap’s willingness to extend his contract by an additional year (through the 23/24 season) provides us the time and space to run a search process that is thoughtful and elegant.  I know I speak for musicians, board, and staff in expressing our deepest thanks to Jaap.  This period of the last 18 months will no doubt be recorded as not only one of the most challenging eras in the Philharmonic’s 180-year history but will also be remembered as a time of resilience, creativity, and promise. ‘

Now let’s pick that apart.

By releasing the information just before Yom Kippur, when parts of New York shut down it seems both sides were keen to bury the news. The orchestra, signally, issued no press release, just background briefing. They want to get this out of the way before the season starts.

The background? Jaap was hired by Borda’s predecessor, who vanished soon after like the snows of yesteryear. Although he personally lured Borda to take the job, the mood music never rose much above Muzak. Covid changed everything. Jaap was not seen in New York for a year, nor was he missed. His decision to leave is both honorable and correct, giving the players time to agree which of Borda’s candidates they prefer.

The whole episode leaves no discernible mark on New York’s cultural life. Jaap was the wrong hire (we wrote at the time). Best for both sides to quit while they are ahead. Jaap has also given up his other long-haul job with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He becomes instantly available for the hometown vacancy at the Concertgebouw. Watch this spot.

New York, for its part, needs a bigger personality, and can afford the right one.

We’ll discuss who that will be after reading the tealeaves. UPDATE: Read the tealeaves here.




  • Guglhupf says:

    He is vastly overrated. NY Phil can and should do better.

  • V. Lind says:

    Which parts of New York were shut down?

  • J Barcelo says:

    With Borda it’s pretty obvious: the Dude.

    • Stephen C says:

      i wonder if the Dude or someone equivalent to the Dude 10 years ago? She is also the head of a committee to advance female conductors. Is the newly available Mirga the leading candidate?

    • Monty Earleman says:

      Why would he EVER leave LA??? And, for NY???!!! This isn’t 1970!

    • Novagerio says:

      Barceló: if one does the simple math, then yes…

    • MWnyc says:

      He may not want to leave L.A. I think he’s a better fit with that orchestra than the NY Phil, he’s very committed to his educational initiatives in L.A., and they can pay him as much as NY can.

    • anon. says:

      If their choice has anything to do with LA it would be one of the women whom Borda worked with, Mirga or Mälkki. As for Dudamel, there isn’t a better or more suitable orchestral post for him than the one he already has.

  • Stephen Gould says:

    Good riddance. The best concerts I heard when Jaap! was at the NYPhil was when he wasn’t conducting – Bychkov, Salonen, Eschenbach.

    Too much the martinet.

    • Neil B. says:

      I’m not sure if these were the same concerts I heard with NY Phil in the last few years: Bychkov doing Berio’s Sinfonia/Strauss Alpensinfonie, Salonen doing a new music program, and Eschenbach doing Bruckner 9th. They were all solid concerts, but Jaap’s Shostakovich 7th was truly remarkable, and the tension never wavered from start to end.

    • ruben Greenberg says:

      Maybe it’s time for Bychkov to get a major orchestra, which could be the NY Philharmonic.

  • phf655 says:

    ‘New York, for its part, needs a bigger personality, and can afford the right one’. I agree, but the ‘bigger personalities’ haven’t been interested in the job. Supposedly the position was at one time offered to Muti and to Salonen and both turned it down. The last ‘bigger personality’ was Bernstein, who assumed the position in 1958, but I can’t go back in a time machine to tell if the 41 year old Bernstein, who had devoted most of his early years to composition, would have fit that description.
    And who are the bigger personalities today. Rattle? Thielemann, whose politics will go over like poison in New York? Supposedly the management has been interested in Honeck, a fine conductor, but I’m not sure if he fits the bill.

  • JoshG says:

    “It’s a musician’s impeccable sense of timing”, Borda said. “You just have to respect it.”

    It’s the executive director’s impeccable sense of turd-polishing. You just have to respect it.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Jaap van Sweden certainly wasn’t in the same league as the conductors Norman mentioned in his 2016 article. Mirga’s stock has risen and female conductors are now much more commonplace than in 2016, meaning that 50% of the human race will now be considered as well.

    However I think the music director will need to be a robust character, but also one with great communication skills.

  • Mock Mahler says:

    Hmm, Norman. Perhaps you slipped with that ‘reading the tealeaves’ metaphor for your much-vaunted insider status.

  • Patrick says:

    Simon Rattle, New York is calling.

  • Jasper says:

    Why not Yannick Nézet-Séguin? Someone of such prodigious talents can easily handle three jobs, viz., the Met, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the NY Phil. (Putting my snark on.)


  • mel says:

    I’m sorry, Norman, but the “pick this apart” thing feels like something better suited for the Daily Mail than a proper music blog. As much as we all appreciate and respect Yom Kippur, NYC does NOT shut down — including nearly all of my Jewish friends. Jaap was not seen in NYC for a year. Huh? C-O-V-I-D?

    Sure, a “bigger” name could parachute into this position, and serve it extremely well! But there is no reason to besmirch him and to mischaracterise the environment, even if you don’t like him for either his programming or his conducting!

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    I was never a fan and did not want him conducting in my hall.

    But you have to admire how he was able to weasel $5 million from donors in Dallas.

    That might be his crowning achievement.

  • BigSir says:

    The Dude is a much better fit to NYC. Gatti would be a good choice, but it would never happen. Gergiev has never had a post in the states.

  • Jack Rance says:

    It’ll probably be Mirga.

    • Brian says:

      If they went with a woman, I’d put my money on Susanna Mälkki. She’s conducting in NY in January and is a more experienced hand. The crusty NY Phil board and many musicians long for authority figures, i.e. those with age and experience.

      I also wouldn’t count Dudamel out. He’s leading a series of Schumann-focused concerts in the spring. If he makes a strong impression, it could put him in the running.

      • Sisko24 says:

        I’ve heard Ms. Mälkki conduct in NY and with the NYPhil a few times. She always was impressive. She could be a fine fit for the orchestra.

      • Ernest says:

        Borda won’t appoint a woman. This is the last big decision for her, and she will want to define her legacy more broadly than girl girl girl. She has, besides, already done plenty to advance women.

        But who? There are no stars around.

        • John Borstlap says:

          It’s wrong for women to conduct an orchestra. It does not look very becoming especially when they get pregnant.


  • fflambeau says:

    Jaap was always a lightweight replacement (4th choice, maybe?) until Geffen Hall was completed. I look forward to seeing Manfred Honeck in either NYC or Chicago (preferred). Note that NYC might still be a great place to live but musically speaking career-wise it is a mistake: overtaken in classical music by Boston in the East; Chicago in the Midwest; and LA in the West.

    • Sidelius says:

      How can you not also include Philadelphia, Cleveland, and even Cincinnati and San Francisco? All to me are now at least a notch above NY, the first two of course have been forever!

    • John Borstlap says:


      Curious that so many so-called music lovers on this website simply have no ears.

  • debuschubertussy says:

    NY Philharmonic has been losing ground to other major US orchestras over the last couple decades. When I lived in NYC, I was personally so much more excited to see visiting American orchestras such as Philly and Cleveland instead of NY Phil. And going to see and hear the LA Phil live in Disney Hall is an experience unlike anything the NY Phil can put forward. I don’t what can turn it around for the NY Phil at this point.

    • john Kelly says:

      The orchestra is great, it’s the hall they play in that makes them sound less than great. Hearing them occasionally in Carnegie Hall confirms this for me. They sound incredible in there and the string sound is as good as the BSO (and that’s saying something)

      • Stephen Tomchik says:

        I share your view of both the orchestra and the hall. I have heard the orchestra twice, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (decent but no Concertgebouw) where their sound suffused the hall, and in Geffen Hall just before the COVID shutdown. There the sound never left the stage. It was like listening to an old mono LP.

        • john Kelly says:

          It was like listening to a remastered 78 (except no bass response at all)……and I have limited hope that it will be much better after the renovation. But they’re doing the right things in moving the orchestra further into the hall. Let’s see. The good news is there’s so much music in NY that even if the NYPO didn’t exist, the usual Carnegie Hall season is more than adequate.

    • MacroV says:

      It’s not fair to compare the Philharmonic to the visiting orchestras coming to Carnegie Hall. Those groups come once a year at most, with a program all polished to the nines and intended to be their annual muscle flexing. If the Philharmonic made annual stops in Cleveland, Philly, or Chicago, they would do the same thing (maybe they should).

  • Patrick Gillot says:

    Van Zweden did an amazing job in Hong Kong. When it comes to the New York Philharmonic, they unfortunately cannot be placed at the top of the US orchestras any more.

      • Anonymous says:

        Proof of what? Jaap may be a great violinist and musician, but he is an amateur conductor. Oh, but he helped prop up your struggling career, so no wonder the laudatory praise.

        • John Borstlap says:

          His rendering of Bruckner and Wagner is applauded everywhere in the musical world by discerning (!) ears. To be able to get the long arches of that kind of music requires the greatest musical skills, also technically – without technique you can do nothing with such musical spaces. His recent CD box with the Ring is very impressive – when you realize that the orchestra had never done the Ring, the result is breathtaking (Naxos). Etc. etc… but of course, there will always be protests from under the rock.

          • Hong Konger says:

            He did good with the Ring. But if you go to his usual concerts it is all coming from the same mould – lightning speed, no soul – just makes audience feel highly excited. Well, good for Hong Kong market though.

          • V. Lind says:

            Not fair to the HK audiences when I lived there. But in those days the HK Phil was led by the uminous Yip Wing-sie, whose outreach to young people was a good as any I have ever seen.

          • Nick2 says:

            I think you have the wrong Orchestra! Yip Wing-Sie was never in charge of the HK Philharmonic. She was only Assistant Conductor during a couple of years of Kenneth Schermerhorn’s tenure in the mid-1980s.

            On the other hand she has been an excellent conductor of the second orchestra, the HK Sinfonietta since its inception. And yes, she is wonderful with young people’s concerts.

  • sam says:

    Let’s face it, straight white males have little place in the landscape of today’s American orchestras, given the unavoidable double mandates of #metoo and #blacklivesmatter, especially in the face of the fact that Americans simply do not care about classical music and abandons it like an old rag during times of crisis as covid vividly demonstrates:

    1) No way, no how, Borda was not going to get the NYP’s (and the Big Seven’s) first woman music director in history as part of her legacy.

    2) All the NYT and New Yorker care about is an uncritical running tally of how many women and minority composers are played each season and how many women and minority conductors are engaged. They say JvZ is uninspired in the standard repertoire. If JvZ were not a white male, they would praise the same performances as “just as good”.

    3) Chicago, however the Board is besotted with Muti, will not renew with a 81 year old straight white male. Nelsons has no need for Boston, with Leipzig safely in his corner. FWM is in Ohio, so it matters even less.

    Any European with any leads in Europe would be idiotic to hang around in the States when the opportunities are so much better at home. Alan Gilbert went back to Europe. Simon Rattle went back to Europe.

    Is this JvZ’s grand plot to angle for Concertgebouw?

    Too cynical; but he certainly won’t say no if they offered.

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      If the RCO asks him to come he will come. After he’s experience with Haitink and Chailly inside the orchestra it would be fantastic for him to be musical director.

    • John Borstlap says:

      JvZw is not interested in the KCO. The players are marvellous but the leadership is lousy – Dutch people.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        We have plenty proof of that. But still.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Libor Pesek – who worked for some 14 years in Holland – told me once: ‘In the beginning you are hailed as their saint, and after you have settled-down, they put a knife in your back.’ In such small country, you must be a visiting conductor and not stay, let alone if you are Dutch yourself. Another (famous) conductor once told me: ‘Holland is just too difficult’. Meant was: the people’s mentality, not the players of which most are wonderful.

      • Concertgebouw79 says:

        Last year there were rumors about a poll inside the orchestra. I don’t know if it was sharp but he was not on the top of the list but I have no doubts that he will continue to be guest. Anyway the RCO has already a musical director even if it’s not official it’s Ivan Fischer.

    • john Kelly says:

      Simon Rattle never “went back to Europe” from the States. He was only ever a guest here………..he DID go “back to Europe” (fog in channel, continent cut off) from the UK. Most American conductors spend a lot of time in Europe (David Zinman? Leonard Slatkin? Andrew Litton? Alan Gilbert as you say). Straight, gay, male, female, Trans, I don’t care, I just want a conductor who is a real talent………….not so many of those…..

  • Gustavo says:

    Welcome home!

  • John Borstlap says:

    In case there would exist some doubt as to Van Zweden’s standard as a musician, as a conductor, as a personality, one should carefully listen to this:




    The reason why he was absent from NY is obvious: there were no flights, due to covid measures. How can you build-up a strong relationship in hard times under such circumstances? And then, how much more is there to come in terms of virus hardships? Intercontinental travelling has become much less secure from now onwards.

    The suggestion that he is ‘not good enough’ for a ‘superb’ orchestra as the NY Phil seems, to say the least, prejudiced and unfounded.

    • Anonymous says:

      Prejudiced? In your previous comments, you insulted many of your own contemporaries. Please, spare us the hypocrisy. And why don’t you be honest about your motivations and your friendship with the man, which obviously has blinded you to the “conductor’s” rather obvious shortcomings.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It’s not true, he can be really honest with people, for instance he often reassures me I won’t be fired & yet I’ve to endure criticism all the time.


      • John Borstlap says:

        Some people have brains that only work one way. That’s why they are anonymous.

  • mary says:

    He just came to realize, as all conductors who pass through NY do, sooner than later, that New York is just not worth it:

    Not the hassle, not the meager pay (for God’s sake, he got paid $5 million in Dallas), not the NY attitude, not the NY critics, not the lack of resources, not the mediocre hall, not the irrelevance of the NY classical scene even within the US much less in the world….

    • leo grinhauz says:

      right on, Mary. The big lie that is NYC.

    • Anon says:

      “not the irrelevance of the NY classical scene even within the US much less in the world”
      -Nearly every internationally recognized musician and group comes to NY or aspires to, every single year.

      • john Kelly says:

        Absolutely. NYC is the greatest city in the world even though it’s still hard to find parking on the street………….

        • Tamino says:

          that definition is subjective, but greatest city? Maybe in the 1990s, if you had the money.

          Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Zurich, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and many others today have greater quality of life than NY. NY stinks and is very noisy. The public infrastructure is crumbling.

        • Stuart says:

          Just not sure that (greatest city in the world) is true anymore. NYC hasn’t changed as much as LA or SF in the last couple of years, but it is a less welcoming place in which to live or visit. I worked in the city for a decade (2000’s) and have no desire to visit any time soon.

    • Sidelius says:

      This is a while back, but a good illustration of that is Kurt Masur, who had them playing better than they had in a long time, but was still abruptly let go when he was willing to continue. Not enough charisma, swagger, etc., you see…

    • Sidelius says:

      This is a while back, but a good example of this is Kurt Masur, who had them playing better than they had for a long time but was abruptly let go when he would have stayed. Apparently not enough charisma…

  • erich says:

    My runes say Mäkelä will get the Concertgebouw.

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      Not yet for the 5 next years. He just start to work as musical director at Oslo and Paris. Both orchestras were clever to hire him very quickly. He made his debuts with the RCO few months after signing contracts for those orchestras. But he will continue to come as guest conductor there’s no doubts.

  • Concertgebouw79 says:

    Maybe it’s a sign that he will be the next musical director of the RCO or maybe not… I’am not sure that he’s very popular inside the orchestra. If the RCO members want him they will act very quickly.

  • leo grinhauz says:

    NY will take this opportunity to hire someone more aligned with the current zeitgeist. Certainly not little Jaap. Also, the next one will take even LESS money than this dude. You’ll see.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Since the Zeitgeist is entirely destructive for classical music, listening to its whispering would be the orchestra’s undoing.

  • Nijinsky says:

    Who ever said he wanted to or had to stay there longer than an Interim!? With this orchestra that regularly sounds like someone is hitting tightly inflated sports equipment against a wall and there’s such a great rebound….

    They are so well trained one only has to press a button.

    I’m sure there’s someone that can stand there with such a posture that they create another rebounding SNAP, which we have in the other great “American,” megalopolis or two or more…..

    I just wonder whether it’s the brass, the sustaining power of the winds, the bowing arms of the strings, the percussion or the acoustics.

    • Nijinsky says:

      Sorry about this terribly sarcastic trolling caricature of the New York Phil. Under Leonard Bernstein it was a truly inspiring orchestra with its own character; but outside of him and apart from Allan Gilbert, it has the tendency to hire foreign European conductors, a little akin to the Lolita story. And it makes the orchestra appear a bit garish, and how much of that is image? There are American conductors that are overlooked, who might go better with the orchestra’s character.

  • msc says:

    I can see Sokhiev, Shani, P. Jarvi, Ono, and Orozco-Estrada all being possibilities, although I do not much like the latter’s work.

  • John Kelly says:

    I have been underwhelmed with Jaap’s conducting. Sort of a Dutch Alan Gilbert. As was written by SD when he was hired he is not really the right person for the NYPO. He is a good conductor, no doubt, but not the sort of “big personality” that the NYPO audience wants. I fully expect Dudamel (who is the right kind of personality, though to my mind not a great conductor) to come to NY………….

    • John Borstlap says:

      The comparison with Gilbert is truly hilarious – the GiIbert who has no idea who Brahms was and sprinkled unrelated dissonances over NY’s audiences who hoped for some consolation after surviving the rush hour.

  • metooiscomingforyou says:

    Wonder if he makes it all the way to 2023……

  • Eyal Braun says:

    Since Bernstein left the NYPO, the orchestra seems to struggle to maintain its place as one of the leading orchestras in the world- or even in the US. whenever I am in New York- I fisrt look at the Carnegie Hall site to see what it offers before I look at the NYPO site.

    I think Zweden will be the next music director of the RCO, as the Dutch orchestra also struggles to find a new musical director for a number of years now. I have never heard him “live” .

  • Fenway says:

    Jaap would be perfect for the San Antonio Symphony.

  • Fenway says:

    Jaap would be perfect for the San Antonio Symphony

  • Jemimah says:

    Mr Borstlap: Your characterization of Alan Gilbert’s Philharmonic tenure would be “truly hilarious” if it weren’t so foolish. Unless you’ve sat IN the hall yourself, you can’t be aware that the tonal quality of the Philharmonic has deteriorated substantially under van Sweden’s watch. A steady diet of Brahms, Shostakovich, and more Brahms doesn’t do much for an orchestra’s palette – there is just a little more to being a music director than that, don’t you think?

  • Jasper says:

    George Szell is reputed to have called the NY Phil “Murder Incorporated.”


  • Hong Konger says:

    An audience from HK here. His music is just crap. Only brutality, over-speed to all passages without soul. Worse than Gergiev. Sometimes it works for fast movements but generally I have had enough. You clap hard just because of the elevated adrenaline level. Still going to his concert this season only due to the desire for live music.

  • Duurp Von Sweetin says:

    Bye bye Alan Gilbert! I mean Jaap. You’ll be….. Missed…..

  • Nicholas Ennos says:

    He must be sad leaving such a free and democratic place as present day New York

  • Just a Hunch says:

    Maybe, just maybe the musicians themselves via their artistic committee fired him? These announcements are always about PR, professionalism, and the goal of not ruining someone’s career. My money is on: he was canned by the musicians.

  • Franco David says:

    With all due respect to the opinions of all the experts on symphony conductors and conducting who have posted comments here, it would be great if you could take part in a blind listening test where you could hear and critique several of the orchestras and conductors being discussed. I’d be willing to bet that after doing so, you would realize how ridiculous many of the comments have been about this topic.

  • Art Ford says:

    Johanna Orphea Harmonia is long shot but she is by far the best choice if NY Phil is willing to take a leap into the unknown. Pluses: the only female conductor-composer; a commanding presence and a ravishing beauty; near virtuoso pianist; knows tonal harmony inside out; star on the podium. But negatives unfortunately overwhelming: despises modern culture; not enough experience with major orchestras; considered , even by admirers, arrogant and polarizing; age of 27? is much too young, though evidence she is actually 25. Too much we don’t know about her. Saw her in Dallas guest role performing her Rondo for Piano and orchestra. Audience delirious with enthusiasm.

  • seung kim says:

    Mazur,Gilber,Zweden were not right pick-up for NYP the other word it was mistake.Now I found a guy Teodor Currdntzis who I felt is entertainer beyond classical conductor in this era needed.As Esa Pekka Salonen Dudamel, Debora Borda may make it with NYP.