Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s hard-hitting music director, announced on Wednesday that he would leave his position at the end of the 2023-24 season, saying the pandemic had prompted him to reconsider his life and priorities.
Van Zweden, 60, said in an interview that the upheaval of the pandemic had led him to reconsider his relationship with the orchestra, which he has led since 2018, as well as with his family, which he rarely saw during his globe. – trotting days before the Covid crisis. He said he felt it would be the right moment to move on, with the orchestra set to return to the newly renovated David Geffen Hall next autumn, a year and a half ahead of schedule.
“It’s not out of frustration, it’s not out of anger, it’s not out of a difficult situation,” he said. “It’s just of freedom.”
His announcement comes when the Philharmonic faces a series of challenges that have only become more complicated as it tries to recover from the pandemic: the orchestra is homeless this season, playing at venues around the city while its long-standing home is under construction , and hopes to make a triumphant return to a transformed hall next season.
Van Sweden’s tenure has not been without criticism. Although he has been praised for maintaining high artistic standards, he has also faced the question of whether he has the star power and creative energy needed to lead the Philharmonic, one of the world’s best ensembles, in a moment of challenge. and changes.
The pandemic hit as he settled into the job. He spent much of the last 18 months in Holland, his homeland, as Covid-19 washed through New York, and the orchestra endured one of the most serious crises in its history.
Van Zweden’s six – year period will be the shortest of any Philharmonic music director since Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor who led the orchestra for six seasons in the 1970s. Van Zweden said he had planned to leave in 2023, when his first contract was due to expire. But Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the Philharmonic, persuaded him to add a year to give the orchestra more time to settle down in the hall and search for a successor.
In an interview, Borda van Zweden called for a “fantastic partner” and said she would work closely with the orchestra’s players to find a replacement.
“It’s a musician’s impeccable sense of timing,” she said of van Sweden’s decision. “You just have to respect that.”
Van Zweden, whose name is pronounced Yahp van ZVAY-den, joined the Philharmonic from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where he was credited with reviving a flapping ensemble. At one point, he was America’s highest paid conductor, earning more than $ 5 million in a single season.
In New York, he was almost immediately faced with concerns that he would be too focused on the standard repertoire instead of fighting for new works. But with Borda as a partner, he emphasized highlighting new composers in a prominent way and helped lead Project 19, an ambitious effort to commission works by women to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Last year, he directed the premiere of Tania León’s “Stride,” which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
Critics took to praising van Zweden’s adventurous spirit, while also saying that his exaggeration could get out of hand in sometimes blatant performances of symphonic standards.
Anthony Tommasini, chief classicist of classical music for The New York Times, praised van Sweden’s embrace of new music in a review in 2019. “Mr. van Zweden has surprised me by fighting for these initiatives,” he wrote. “It is in the standard repertoire. , which should be his selling point, that his record is more mixed. “
Then, in the middle of his second season as music director, the pandemic hit. The orchestra was forced to cancel more than 100 concerts, including the entire 2020-21 season, and impose painful budget cuts. It lost more than $ 21 million in revenue.
Van Zweden described the pandemic as a personal turning point. For several months he was isolated from the players of the Philharmonic and only kept in touch via occasional Zoom calls. The cancellation of concerts and major tours prevented him from continuing to develop a relationship with the musicians, he said.
“Building a relationship as a music director with an orchestra is almost like a daily experience every hour, and during this period when you are not with them, you sometimes feel a little helpless that you can not have this deep connection through music. ,” he said . “It was all removed.”
He also felt powerless when he saw the orchestra reduce its administrative staff by 40 percent in order to survive.
“You feel like a lot of damage is happening and you can’t do anything,” he said. “A lot has happened and there is a lot of pain.”
Van Zweden was freed from an intense performance plan during the lockdown in the Netherlands and underwent something of a transformation. At one point, he became infected with Covid. He started focusing on his health and lost about 70 kilos. He tried to compose and listened to more popular music, including Frank Sinatra, Van Halen and Lady Gaga.
He spent more time with his family, including his wife, father, children and grandchildren. He also put new energy into his foundation, which is focused on using music to help families of children with autism.
“It changed me a lot as a person a lot,” he said. “And when you go through a very intense time as a person, your vision changes completely.”
A ban on European travelers in the United States left van Zweden isolated from the orchestra: he was stuck abroad while the Philharmonic launched a series of pop-up concerts around the city, struggling with questions about its future.
He finally reached New York in March to record programs for the NYPhil + subscription streaming service. But in April, when the Philharmonic returned, after 400 days, to its first indoor concert for a live audience, he was absent. He said he did not take the podium because the concert was originally planned with a guest conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
“Every time I could have been here, I would have been here,” he said. “Let it be clear.”
He and Borda talked about his desire to resign over the summer, and he informed her of his decision in late August. He told the orchestra’s players during a rehearsal Wednesday afternoon ahead of their opening concert on Friday.
Van Zweden said he was not sure what he would do next, but did not rule out leading another ensemble. His contract with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra is also expected to expire in 2024, at which point he says he will step down there as well.
He said he had not imagined continuing the top job at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, which has been looking for a music director since 2018. Van Zweden, who is also a violinist, started on the eminent ensemble that called him concertmaster when he var 19.
For now, he said, he is focused on reopening Geffen Hall, which is in the midst of a $ 550 million renovation. The Philharmonic accelerated the slowly delayed renovation of the hall during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the orchestra will perform at a number of other venues this season, including Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall.
“It will probably be one of the highlights of my life to open this hall,” he said. By staying in what should be the new neck first two seasons, he will be able to help acousticians when fine-tuning the space.
On Friday, he opens the new season at Tully with a concert called “From Silence to Celebration.” It begins with a performance of Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” an embracing work that van Zweden said would have particular resonance amid the pandemic.
But he added that he did not yet know what it would be like to return to live indoor performances with the Philharmonic.
“The experience is there,” he said. “It will be weird, but it will be.”