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Gone in a Six-Year Flash: Farewell to the New York Phil’s Maestro

Gone in a Six-Year Flash: Farewell to the New York Phil’s Maestro

Jaap, we hardly knew ye.

On Thursday at David Geffen Hall, Jaap van Zweden, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducted a lean, driven rendition of Mahler’s sprawling Second Symphony. After two more performances through Saturday, he will leave his Lincoln Center podium, a mere six years after stepping onto it.

No Philharmonic artistic leader has been less present in front of its players and audience since Mahler himself, who died two years into his tenure, in 1911. There was barely enough time to meet van Zweden, let alone get a full sense of him, as man or maestro.

He had no signature initiatives, and his choice of works revealed little personal stamp. His interpretations of the classics only occasionally relaxed from a tense punchiness. And though I wasn’t always displeased after hearing him lead a program, I was never inspired to return and hear it again.

The period of van Zweden’s tenure has been hugely consequential for the Philharmonic. There was the orchestra’s survival through the extended pandemic lockdown, the renovation of its home at Geffen Hall and a flood of music by composers beyond the usual roster of white men of the distant past.

But van Zweden, 63, has seemed more a participant in all this than a leader. When he was preparing to start in New York, he expressed enthusiasm about bringing back Deborah Borda, an industry legend, as chief executive. Having such a strong, visionary administrative partner, though, ended up making this feel more like Borda’s era than van Zweden’s.

The pandemic arrived during his second season. Van Zweden, a Dutch-born violinist who came to conducting late, spent more than a year at home in the Netherlands and seemed absent from the orchestra, even by the social-distanced norms of that videoconferencing era.

The long break allowed him and the Philharmonic to take stock. Both sides seem to have recognized the fit wasn’t right, though there was more than a hint of euphemism when he announced, back in 2021, that he would be leaving and said a major reason was to spend more time in Europe with his family. Less than a year later, he took a job in Seoul.

Van Zweden’s final months have been shadowed by resurfaced sexual misconduct allegations within the players’ ranks, grabbing attention from what should have been his victory lap. But his lame-duck status was cemented a year ago, when the celebrity conductor Gustavo Dudamel, as outgoing as van Zweden is reserved, was announced as his successor and the orchestra could barely resist starting to turn the page.

Yet even Dudamel may well be daunted by the position. When you’re the conductor of, say, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which van Zweden built from good to excellent in the decade before he came to the Philharmonic, you’re a city’s high-culture star.

In New York, though, the orchestra and its maestro must compete with the mighty Metropolitan Opera next door and the world-class ensembles cycling through Carnegie Hall — to say nothing of the rest of a crowded cultural scene. Oh, and the ghost of Leonard Bernstein still hovers, reminding everyone that you’re not bringing the Philharmonic nearly as much charismatic glamour as he did in the 1960s.

It’s an irresistible but perhaps impossible job, and van Zweden didn’t summon the artistry or creativity to define himself within it. He was hired by the Philharmonic to repeat what he did in Dallas, this time with a higher-end starting point: to enforce rigorous standards and gleaming intensity in time-honored favorites, whipping the orchestra’s Beethoven and Bruckner into shape.

As usual with the Philharmonic’s post-Bernstein selections, choosing van Zweden and his martinet forcefulness embodied an “opposite of the last guy” ethos — in this case, Alan Gilbert, who had pushed for unconventional programming and more easygoing music-making. When van Zweden was about to begin, Cynthia Phelps, the principal viola, told Strings magazine, “We’ve not had as much meat-and-potatoes repertoire as maybe we should have had.”

Translation: Things had gotten a little too interesting under Gilbert, and a sizable contingent of players wanted a swing back toward tradition.

That was a dubious recipe for success. And, in any case, van Zweden didn’t consistently bring the coruscating Brahms and Shostakovich that was hoped for. Surprisingly, for a conductor hardly known for contemporary music, some of his most memorable performances were of modern pieces and premieres, which by all accounts he took on with honorable conscientiousness, and which he tended to lead with sensitivity.

The precise moodiness he brought out of David Lang’s one-act opera “prisoner of the state” comes to mind, as does John Adams’s “My Father Knew Charles Ives,” glistening under his baton. There were brooding renditions of Julius Eastman’s crushing “Symphony No. II” and, a few weeks ago, Sofia Gubaidulina’s darkly obsessive viola concerto.

In the classics, though, van Zweden often seemed to be imitating the blazing style of Georg Solti at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s and ’80s: crashing louds; fierce fasts; clenched-fist control over phrasing; a sense of the conductor’s foot firmly on the orchestra’s accelerator.

But if van Zweden could produce some of Solti’s hard-edged glint, he and the Philharmonic struggled to conjure the Chicagoans’ awesome radiance and cliffhanger tension. The results in New York could be tightly played and precisely detailed — as in the Mahler on Thursday — but looming larger in memory are the likes of van Zweden’s harried Beethoven Ninth, a dully pummeling “Rite of Spring,” a “Pines of Rome” unsubtle even by “Pines of Rome” standards, a charmless trudge through Copland’s Third Symphony, a briskly unmoving Mozart Requiem.

His selections from music of the past were unusually narrow, without quirks or depth. Two years ago, when the Philharmonic gave its first performances of the little-done 12th Symphony of Shostakovich, whose work is a good match for van Zweden’s style, it was led by someone else. Van Zweden was not in New York long enough to offer more than a scattering of even composers he specializes in; the Second this week was just the fourth of Mahler’s nine symphonies he has conducted here.

With a pair of vocal soloists and a hundred-strong choir, a big orchestra, an organ and church-style bells, the Second, nearly an hour and a half long and nicknamed the “Resurrection,” is one of classical music’s all-purpose big-event pieces. Bernstein brought it out for occasions both celebratory (his thousandth Philharmonic performance) and mournful (after John F. Kennedy Jr.’s assassination). The conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has scheduled it for his final program with the San Francisco Symphony, a year from now.

On Thursday, the piece was clean, clear, excellently played and efficiently managed, with van Zweden coolly relishing each swoop up to another blasting climax. The textures respected Mahler’s passion for transparency: the flute audible through the strings, the harps palpable amid the brasses. Ekaterina Gubanova sang “Urlicht,” the great alto aria, with melting tone, and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller’s soprano, rich but not heavy, soared with the mellow New York Philharmonic Chorus in the grand finale.

The warm ovation raised the question: Had the pandemic not derailed him, would van Zweden have eventually settled in with the Philharmonic, and with New York?

Many doubted from the start that an artist known primarily for strict rehearsal discipline in chestnuts would have the sweeping vision to guide a major orchestra into the future. But sometimes music directors take a while to jell. At the Cleveland Orchestra, it was six years or so before Franz Welser-Möst and the players found a real groove; when he leaves in 2027, it will be after a quarter-century.

At Geffen Hall of late, there have been glimpses of what might have been. In October, the phrasing in Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony felt less rigidly manicured than elegantly sculpted, the muscle leavened with naturalness. Van Zweden has been a courteous concerto accompanist, and in January, with the pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, a soloist of patrician grace, Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto glowed, surging forward without feeling pressed.

Finally, the music was breathing.

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