He’s just launched the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s landmark 45th season and is now taking on the New York Phil for five years. Music director Jaap van Zweden talks about his exciting balancing act

There is an unmistakable intensity about Jaap van Zweden. The 57-year-old Amsterdam-born musician, who has been lauded for raising the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra to new heights since he became its music director in 2012, conducts with animated, purposeful motion and a fierce presence that demands the attention of every member of the audience and orchestra alike.

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The maestro’s passion for his craft is even more apparent when we meet in the lobby lounge of The Peninsula, where he’s sitting with piercing gaze and hands clasped. 

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Above Photography: Michaela Giles/Hong Kong Tatler

We’re just across the road from the Cultural Centre, the location of the more than 150 concerts the orchestra performs during its annual 44-week season, chatting about his year ahead. And what a year it will be.

Going to America 

Following in the footsteps of such renowned masters as Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini and his very own mentor, Leonard Bernstein, Van Zweden this month takes up his five-year appointment as music director of the prestigious New York Philharmonic, its 26th—while continuing his commitment to the Hong Kong orchestra, which is celebrating its 45th season with one of its most impressive programmes.

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“I remember the days when all the big maestros were conducting the New York Philharmonic; it’s a very strange feeling that now I’m their music director,” says Van Zweden, who attended the city’s Juilliard School (while living in “the smallest room ever in Spanish Harlem”) after winning the prestigious Oskar Back National Violin Competition in the Netherlands at the age of 15. “What has stayed the same is the quality of music-making.”

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Above Photo: Cheung Wai-lok/Hong Kong Philharmonic

His inaugural season includes five world premieres, two new music series, original operas and classics by composers from Mozart to Brahms and Stravinsky.

Hong Kong is home

Despite the undertaking, Van Zweden remains as committed to—and even more ambitious for—the Hong Kong Phil. “I’m as dedicated to Hong Kong as I was before,” he says, adding that he’ll definitely continue to spend the stipulated 14 weeks per year, “if not more,” in the city.

“It still feels like a very strong honeymoon. We’ve put a lot of seeds in the ground and we’re celebrating wonderful successes.” They have been resounding ones, ranging from a five-country European tour to a critically acclaimed four-year project on Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen—including a recording of the Ring cycle to be released later this year—which Van Zweden rates as one of his proudest achievements with the orchestra.

Starting with a bang

Building on those milestones, a star-studded programme has been curated in celebration of the orchestra’s landmark 45th season, which opened on August 31 with the formidable American-Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz. The season features more than 50 top-tier collaborators and 150 performances showcasing everything from Mahler symphonies to contemporary works.

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Above Photo: Cheung Wai-lok/Hong Kong Philharmonic

For Van Zweden, however, his sights are set ever higher. “To be recognised in your own city is one thing; to be recognised worldwide is the next thing,” he says, impassioned as he details his hopes for the orchestra to tour “further outside of this city,” expand its repertoire (“more Wagner”), nourish local talent and give back to the community. “I’ve always wanted to make the Hong Kong Philharmonic into a world-famous orchestra that will shine over the city and be its first-class ambassadors.”

All in the family

With such lofty ambitions, it’s clear Van Zweden’s love affair with the city is far from over. He tells of attending a wedding of two orchestra members recently.

“Whoever works with us—from the office, orchestra, backstage people—everybody was invited. It moves me tremendously to see what a family this orchestra is and how they care for each other. It’s our strongest backbone.” His austere exterior visibly softens. “I’m already old, but when I’m going to be a very old man, sitting in my chair, with some grandchildren around me and I think back on Hong Kong, this is the thing that will touch me the most.” 

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