The music that you’re listening to is Gustav Mahler’s 4th symphony, second movement, played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. And that, right there, the violinist — is Jaap van Zweden. He was only 19 when he became the concertmaster, the first violinist, of the Concertgebouw. It’s the most prestigious orchestra in the Netherlands. He was 27 when this recording was made. That was the year van Zweden decided to quit his concertmaster position to conduct full time.
And this week, the 47-year-old Dutchman debuts as the new music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
For that Deutsche Grammophon recording of Mahler’s 4th, the Concertgebouw was conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In 1980, Bernstein encouraged van Zweden to take over a concert rehearsal of Mahler’s 1st symphony, and later encouraged him to consider conducting as a career. Van Zweden says that Bernstein could take an orchestra to another level – in an hour. It was his reputation, his drive and his respect that influenced musicians.
VAN ZWEDEN: That’s what I learned actually from him. That, first of all, you need to have respect for the orchestra and their own sound. And at the same time, you can put your own sound in the orchestra.
For months now, Dallasites have seen van Zweden’s face glowering at them from banners and billboards all over town. In person, he’s actually charming. He grins easily. But his bald head and his Van Dyke beard emphasize his steel blue eyes. With his short, stocky frame, the overall impression is of focus and drive.
VAN ZWEDEN: One of the questions which I get a lot is, ‘Is it possible to become truly one of the great orchestras of America?’ Of course it is possible. But you have to earn that. Not just for one concert, not just for one week, but for every week, every month, every year. You have to work for that.
Van Zweden is much better known in Europe than in America. In Europe, he has guest conducted with the London Philharmonic, the Munich Philharmonic, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and the National Orchestra of France. He has conducted in Hong Kong, Japan and Australia. He is currently the music director of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and the principal conductor of the Royal Flanders Philharmonic. But his home base will remain Amsterdam with his wife, Aaltje, and their four children.
One of the van Zweden children is autistic. The couple has created the Papageno Foundation to encourage music therapy for autistic children. Van Zweden believes that music provides a shared emotional experience. It’s a way of talking together that gets past speech and around autism.
VAN ZWEDEN: Autistic children, if you talk to them, it’s not easy to make contact, especially eye contact. And when I’m talking about eye contract, it’s contact from heart to heart. And music therapy is helping a lot with that. It’s a big step forward for autistic children to achieve, finally, a human, heart-to-heart contact.
For his Dallas debut, van Zweden has chosen a Mozart piano concerto, to be performed with Emanuel Ax, and another Mahler symphony, the 5th. It’s a traditional showpiece, one that requires a great deal from an orchestra. It’s also part of his push for more German music in the symphony’s repertoire — including pieces from the Second Viennese School of Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. And the Mahler is a bit of Van Zweden’s hometown. Mahler conducted in Amsterdam, the city has long had a Mahler festival, a significant musical tradition around Mahler.
The 5th symphony announces itself with a well-known trumpet fanfare. But what follows it Mahler himself called a funeral procession. It’s a melancholy work. The third movement, though, was made famous, one might say inescapable, by the 1971 Luchino Visconti movie, Death in Venice. And it has been claimed — by some — to be a love letter from Mahler to his wife, Alma.
Van Zweden just wants to re-route the mail.
VAN ZWEDEN: Well, the orchestra can see it as a love letter from me to them [Laughs]