For classical-music fans, especially followers of the New York Philharmonic, Feb. 13 will be a big day. That’s when the orchestra announces its first season under music director Jaap van Zweden and unveils initiatives that will be launched during his tenure.
“We are in the middle of planning and negotiating,” he said. “But the process in itself has already been an enormous joy for me, to work with the team here, with the people of the New York Philharmonic, to put a season together that is absolutely thrilling for me, and I hope for our public and for everybody, actually.”
Ahead of that announcement, van Zweden will lead performances with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where he’s concluding his 10-year run as music director; the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Antwerp, Paris and Toulouse, France, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he’s a longtime favorite.
The program for his CSO concerts Dec. 14-16 and 19, features two anchors of the symphonic repertoire: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Denis Kozhukhin as soloist and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. In addition, van Zweden asked to conduct something by Richard Wagner, and he and the orchestra settled on the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin. “I think it is a phenomenal [Wagner] tradition you have there, so that little Wagner opening was one of my wishes,” he said.
In his new post, the Dutch-born maestro wants to build on the “tradition of innovation, which is in the DNA of the New York Philharmonic,” while maintaining and improving the quality of the ensemble’s playing.
One area of particular interest is what van Zweden foresees for new music at the orchestra. Such offerings were prominently showcased under former music director Alan Gilbert, who led the development of two series devoted to contemporary music: CONTACT!, introduced in 2009, and the NY PHIL BIENNIAL, which occurred in 2014 and 2016. Other such projects included daring semi-staged performances of György Ligeti’s absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre in May 2010 that sold out and drew ecstatic reviews.
Van Zweden made a point of saying that new music will continue: “Maybe a little bit different than what was done before, but we want to keep a great relationship with a lot of fantastic composers.” In September, audiences got a taste of what direction contemporary music might take under van Zweden, when as music-director designate, he opened the Philharmonic’s 2017-18 season with a program that paired Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and the New York premiere of Philip Glass’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.
It was the Philharmonic’s first performance of a concert work by the minimalist pioneer, who recently marked his 80th birthday. “It was an important night for Mr. Glass, and for the Philharmonic, and an encouraging signal from Mr. van Zweden, not generally known for contemporary music, that he won’t stint it during his tenure,” wrote music critic Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times.
In October, leaders of Lincoln Center and the N.Y. Phil announced that they were scrapping a $500-million plan for a gut renovation of David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fischer Hall) and seeking simpler, less-expensive ways to improve the orchestra’s long-challenged home. “This is also a work in progress,” van Zweden said. “We are looking a renovation which is different than was first thought — much more minor than major. It will take several years, but I think the plan [will] keep us in our hall and at the same time will try to maximize the [existing] acoustics.”
Even with his demanding duties in New York and with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, where he will remain as music director, van Zweden plans to continue his guest conducting, though on a “slimmed-down” basis. He wants to maintain the “very dear friendships” he has with many orchestras, including the CSO.
Van Zweden first led the orchestra in 2008, and since then, has returned almost annually. “I’m such an incredible fan of Maestro [Riccardo] Muti that I cannot wait to go back every time and see the orchestra in top shape,” he said. “For us guest conductors, it’s always such a luxury to go an orchestra with such a great maestro who keeps his orchestra in tip-top shape.”
During his stay in Chicago, van Zweden also will lead a rehearsal of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the CSO’s training ensemble. “I always love to make time for them,” he said. “That’s so important to see how the young ones are developing into great musicians.”