A 60th birthday would normally be cause for extensive celebration, but Jaap van Zweden stuck to the rules for his on December 12. Having returned to his hometown of Amsterdam, where local laws prohibit a gathering of more than two people who don’t live in the same home, the music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HK Phil) enjoyed a low-key dinner at home with his immediate family. “What can you do?” he says drily. “A party with just two people wouldn’t have been very interesting.”
Despite almost a full year of concert cancellations and disrupted programming, the Dutch conductor and violinist, who has led the HK Phil since 2012, had at least one thing to celebrate in 2020. In October, he was awarded Hong Kong’s Silver Bauhinia Star, an accolade given to those who have rendered distinguished service to the Hong Kong community or their profession, in recognition of his efforts in pushing the orchestra to new heights on the international stage.
The award came as encouragement to Van Zweden after a dispiriting season marked not only by silent auditoriums but also the quarantine of the entire orchestra after one member contracted Covid-19. Nevertheless, he feels a prevailing sense of duty and purpose as he continues to promote the orchestra in Hong Kong. “We need to be mentally strong to overcome a huge number of disappointments,” he says via Zoom. “We’ve been trying to be the best ambassadors for classical music and for Hong Kong.”
Compared to New York, Vienna and other European cities, Hong Kong isn’t usually a place one associates with classical music. The New York Philharmonic, where Van Zweden simultaneously serves as music director, has existed for 179 years, whereas the HK Phil, originally called the Sino-British Orchestra, is less than a century old. Van Zweden saw the HK Phil’s potential when its chairman, Liu Yuen-sung, invited him to lead after attending his concerts in the US and the Netherlands.
“Every orchestra has its own voice, its own DNA,” Van Zweden says. “Compared to the other century-old American and European orchestras, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s youth comes with dynamism and enthusiasm. Our musicians still feel butterflies in their stomachs when they visit other places.”
In the HK Phil, Van Zweden found an unjaded group of musicians who were willing to try new and unconventional things. “We do the classical, of course,” he says. “But we simultaneously work closely with Hong Kong composers with an Eastern musical style and cultural background. We are also very much into new music which is composed by a living composer.” The HK Phil also breaks away from traditional orchestral performances. “We do outdoor concerts such as our annual Swire Symphony Under the Stars concert at the Central harbourfront. We do concerts for handicapped children at special schools,” says Van Zweden, himself the father of a child with autism. With his wife, Aaltje van Zweden, he founded the Papageno Foundation in 1997 to help children with autism through music therapy.