Maestro Jaap van Zweden conducts the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. (Jeffrey Porter / Dallas…)
When discussing the rapid rise of Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, there's inevitable mention of maestros such as Georg Solti and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
As the concertmaster of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for 16 years (and the youngest in its history), Van Zweden learned conducting 4 feet away from many of the greats of the age. And it was Leonard Bernstein who encouraged Van Zweden, the current music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, to first take up the baton during a rehearsal Bernstein led years ago of Mahler's First Symphony.
Still, if you ask Van Zweden, 50, for any dominant influence in his conducting career, it's no musician he cites, curiously enough, but a concert hall — the Concertgebouw, where he started performing violin at age 9.
"I don't care what hall I am at in the world, but I want the sound of the Concertgebouw in a way," says Van Zweden, speaking from his home in Amsterdam. "The acoustic is always in my system. It's like a beautiful instrument."
It's that same sonic warmth that Van Zweden hopes to duplicate at New York's Carnegie Hall. On Wednesday, as part of the inaugural Spring for Music festival, Van Zweden leads the Dallas Symphony in the oratorio "August 4, 1964" by American composer Steven Stucky. For the weeklong festival, which spotlights innovative programming from seven North American orchestras, the Dallas Symphony program is eagerly awaited, with Van Zweden himself being a major draw.
The itinerant Dutchman has become much in demand for his viscerally exciting and exacting brand of music-making. Although an injured shoulder forced him to cancel last weekend's engagement with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Van Zweden has upcoming debuts with the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic and has become a definite favorite of musicians, subscribers and critics in Chicago and Dallas. "Perhaps no guest conductor in recent years has connected with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its audience as impressively as Jaap van Zweden," wrote Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein in an October 2010 review.
In 2007, the Dallas Symphony hired Van Zweden as music director based on a single engagement with the orchestra. But the gamble has appeared to pay off lavishly. "The orchestra is playing at a more consistently high level than I can remember," says longtime Dallas Symphony principal clarinetist Greg Raden.
"We did a fantastic concert recently with Wagner's 'Liebestod' and I found out afterward that this was Van Zweden's first time conducting the Wagner and you wouldn't know it," Raden says. "I think he's still learning and evolving. You have no doubt that there's no other place where he'd rather be at the moment."
As someone who came to conducting relatively late — in his mid-30s — Van Zweden describes his career trajectory this way: "I always say that the road to heaven is more beautiful than heaven itself." Although a rotator cuff injury from last year remains a lingering issue, it's understood that his shoulder will have recuperated in time for the upcoming Carnegie concert. "I have learned to conduct a little bit differently, out of that little problem," Van Zweden says. "I always learn something. That's the road we are on."
According to orchestra musicians who are close to the conductor, Van Zweden studies music eight hours daily with relatively little time for sleep. He doesn't smoke or drink and dedicates whatever little time off he has to his family, which includes an autistic son.
"I think being prepared onstage isn't just knowing your part, it's a way of living," Van Zweden says. "If you're an honest musician, orchestras can smell that from miles."
That intensity Van Zweden learned as a young violinist. Although he has retired playing the violin, Van Zweden is indebted to his early training at New York's Juilliard School, particularly for his exposure to the ultra-competitive environment of American conservatories.
Along with the Dallas Symphony, Van Zweden continues as music director of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra. And he frequently champions Dutch composers, past and present. Yet the works of American composers play an increasingly important role in his repertoire. The Stucky oratorio "August 4, 1964," which premiered in Dallas in 2008, was commissioned to celebrate the birth centennial of Lyndon Baines Johnson. It conflates memories of the civil rights movement and Vietnam.
"I have a little bit of both American and European worlds," Van Zweden says. "I think it's a combination I like very much."