Cover Jaap van Zweden directs both the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic (Photo: Michaela Giles for Tatler Hong Kong)

Jaap van Zweden takes stock and stays hopeful after a crushing year for the performing arts

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.”

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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.

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The HK Phil has grown in scope over the years, collaborating with Opera Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Arts Festival and international stars, such as pianist Lang Lang and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Beginning in 2015, the HK Phil took up a four-year project to perform and record The Ring Cycle. Composed by Richard Wagner, the mammoth 1857 work, comprising four operas, is notorious for its complexity and length. “It was very challenging, but the HK Phil did it so well that it has put itself among the world’s top orchestras,” Van Zweden says. One opera was presented each year and the recordings, released by classical music distributor Naxos, garnered the Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award in 2019, making the HK Phil the first Asian orchestra to receive the prize.

A year ago, when the pandemic began to put the brakes on performing arts worldwide, a new challenge arose. With social distancing measures in place for the city, the orchestra postponed or cancelled dozens of concerts, and programming is no more guaranteed in the new season. Last month, artists such as Argentinian conductor Mariano Chiacchiarini and even Van Zweden himself, who returned to Amsterdam for Christmas, decided not to travel to Hong Kong for their new year concerts given the fourth wave of Covid-19 cases in the city.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic’s youth comes with dynamism and enthusiasm
Jaap Van Zweden

The most difficult moment was when bass clarinet player Lorenzo Antonio Iosco tested positive for Covid-19 last October. The entire orchestra was placed into a quarantine camp for 14 days, while Iosco, suffering with symptoms, underwent treatment at Princess Margaret Hospital. Unlike other performing artists who may be able to rehearse online, the HK Phil’s rehearsals are only possible in a performance hall.

After Iosco recovered, the orchestra resumed live rehearsals and concerts with Plexiglas dividers between musicians, which was a challenge, Iosco recalls. “In terms of acoustics, sound projection and ensemble, it took some time to get used to,” he says. “Another problem was performing without an audience: every musician knows how important and exciting it is to play for a live audience.”

However, he adds: “Thanks to technology, classical music can go on by recording and streaming online. As Jaap always says, adapting fast is always the key to success and one of the characteristics of this orchestra is adapting to challenges.”

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There are advantages to digital performances. At the live-streamed Swire Symphony Under the Stars concert on December 12, audience members were invited to submit photos of their loved ones, which were used to create a video set to the orchestra’s music. The concert ended with a rendition of Cantopop crooner Roman Tam’s song Below the Lion Rock, used as the theme for the former TV show of the same name and often referred to as Hong Kong’s unofficial anthem for its theme of unity.

As Van Zweden and his team stand on the precipice of a new season, the music director is now challenged with creating a programme with any sense of certainty in a constantly shifting landscape. “Can we, for instance, start the concerts with a chorus when we know that singing carries risk?” he asks. Despite the possibility of another decimated season, the HK Phil has a range of concerts in the pipeline for 2021—local jazz; collaborations with the Hong Kong Ballet; takes on Mozart, Schumann and Bruckner; and an online concert of Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, known for his work for Studio Ghibli, conducting his music.

However disheartening the last year was, the scope of Van Zweden’s plans for the orchestra has not diminished.

“We have very big plans to go to Europe, America and the Silk Road,” he says. “But we are dependent on when this is all over. Think about The Rolling Stones: they went on world tours year after year, because when you go somewhere, people love you, but then they forget about you. So, you need to come back all the time, and then after a certain number of years, everybody knows who you are. The world needs to know that HK Phil is one of the great assets of Hong Kong.

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