Bruckner Triumphs in Dutch Hands
A big question in classical music circles is whether Jaap van Zweden, the new music director of the New York Philharmonic, got the job because of his musical talent or because he brought a few very rich donors with him from his last gig in Dallas.
I decided to check it out myself and attended this week’s concert at Davies Hall where the Dutchman was leading the San Francisco Symphony in Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony.
Although the Dutch are particularly associated with the music of Gustav Mahler, they also have a strong affinity for the music of Bruckner. In Amsterdam, Mahler and Bruckner grow from the same pot.
Van Zweden learned his Bruckner from a master when he was concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra during the 80s.
The orchestra’s music director at the time was Bernard Haitink, one of the great Brucknerians of our time.
Judging from the fabulous performance of the Bruckner symphony that he led in San Francisco, the dynamic Dutchman learned his lessons well during his years at Haitink’s side.
Even van Zweden’s conducting technique borrows heavily from Haitink, particularly the use of the left hand to signal expressiveness and intensity of feeling.
All the key elements of great Bruckner conducting were in place in San Francisco. Van Zweden had the forward thrust and propulsion of the music just right. Bruckner always is on a journey and the music must reflect this.
There are a series of sharp turns in the music and van Zweden was able to negotiate these like you would negotiate sharp turns on a mountain pass with a super sports car.
There is much big sound in Bruckner’s music and the conductor must be able to control the brass, keeping it from becoming blarey and bombastic without losing its force and glory.
The SFS principal trumpet often gives me a headache. He didn’t last night because van Zweden kept him and his brass colleagues in check during the music’s many climaxes.
Most important of all, van Zweden allows Bruckner’s music to breathe; let it happen, so to speak, so it can work its magic spell on us. A colleague in San Francisco writes that van Zweden lets ‘Bruckner be Bruckner’.
The Dutch maestro does not jump up and down on the podium, trying to force the music where it doesn’t want to go. Rather, he is like a traffic cop who uses a minimum of signals to direct and guide the natural flow of Bruckner’s music.
Some critics sneer at what they call van Zweden’s imperious manner and no-nonsense approach. The ‘anti-authoritarians’ don’t like him. But they pay off on results, not style, and the results last evening were simply stupendous.
Van Zweden gave us true Bruckner in the Amsterdam tradition. I have never heard the San Francisco players sound better.
On the basis of this one performance alone—and, of course, that’s not enough data points to make a final judgment--I would rank van Zweden with the very top Bruckner conductors in the world right now.
Bruckner’s Fifth is not great Bruckner, mind you. It is a way station on the journey to his true masterpieces--the Seventh, Eight and Ninth Symphonies. But there are glories nonetheless and the second movement, the Adagio, is particularly gorgeous. Clearly it is the work of a great genius.
It is a wonder that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has not made van Zweden its chief conductor by now. Certainly their last chief, Daniele Gatti, couldn’t hold a candle to van Zweden in Bruckner—nor could Mariss Jansons to be honest.
There is something peculiar about the Dutch. When Haitink came up, they didn’t fully appreciate the enormous talents of the local boy from Amsterdam, also a violinist, because he was one of them. It wasn’t until foreigners cried ‘Bravo’ that the Dutch really took notice.
We have the same thing with van Zweden. People in the Netherlands looked down their noses at van Zweden, also from Amsterdam, until the New York Philharmonic offered him the music directorship.
Now they are all on board with ‘Our Jaap’. My guess is that before long he will take over in Amsterdam.
How he gets from New York to Amsterdam though is anyone’s guess but I am sure somehow he will make the journey.
In the meanwhile, if van Zweden did bring rich donors from Dallas to New York, so much the better for the New Yorkers. They are the big winners!