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Jaap van Zweden, New York Phil Maestro, Takes Podium in Seoul

In New York, Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s music director, is preparing to say goodbye: Farewell concerts under the banner “Celebrate Jaap!” are planned over the next few months before his brief, pandemic-interrupted tenure ends this summer.

But in Seoul, where van Zweden officially began a five-year term as the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director this month, a new chapter is taking shape. Last week he led sold-out performances of Beethoven and Mahler with the ensemble, his first concerts as music director.

“We had this feeling of trying to go to the next level,” van Zweden said in an interview from Seoul.

Van Zweden was greeted as a celebrity, his face plastered on advertisements that declared the start of a new era. Fans snapped photos in front of his portrait in the lobby of the Seoul Arts Center. His inaugural concerts drew high-profile figures in culture and politics, including the mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, who appointed van Zweden, and the former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak.

It helped that van Zweden was appearing with the young pianist Yunchan Lim, a sensation in his native South Korea. Lim, who has been described as classical music’s answer to K-pop, joined van Zweden and the orchestra for Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. Then van Zweden led a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, earning an extended ovation.

It was a fresh start for van Zweden, 63, a Dutch conductor with a reputation as a hard-charging maestro, who arrived in New York in 2018. His time at the New York Philharmonic was interrupted by the pandemic, which strained his relationship with the orchestra.

In 2021, he made the surprise announcement that he would depart New York, saying the pandemic had made him rethink his life and priorities. His six-year tenure will be the shortest of any Philharmonic music director since Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor who led the orchestra for six seasons in the 1970s. Van Zweden has been praised for helping to usher the orchestra into the rebuilt David Geffen Hall, but he received mixed reviews as a conductor, facing questions about whether he had the star power needed for the job.

While the Seoul Philharmonic is among Asia’s most prominent ensembles, it has struggled in recent years with financial problems and management woes. Van Zweden’s predecessor, the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, stepped down in 2022 after three years.

Van Zweden said he was drawn to the Seoul Philharmonic because of the opportunity to rebuild the orchestra. He faced a similar challenge, he said, at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has been music director for 12 years. (He steps down this season.)

He was also drawn to the cultural offerings in Seoul, he said.

“You can see that this whole art scene in South Korea is exploding, and it’s wonderful to be part of that,” he said.

Son Eun-kyung, the chief executive of the Seoul Philharmonic, wrote in an email that van Zweden would help the orchestra reach its full potential.

“I can definitely feel that the sound of the orchestra is definitely improving,” she said. “This is the combined result of the passion and enthusiasm of the music director and orchestra members.”

In Seoul, audience members were generally positive about the start of van Zweden’s tenure.

Kim Young-shin, who frequently attends concerts by the orchestra, said the musicians seemed to be responding to van Zweden, though she said they would need more time to reach “perfect harmony with one another.”

Bae Jin-woo, 24, was impressed by van Zweden’s rendition of a Tchaikovsky symphony last year. He said he had initially worried that van Zweden would struggle to adjust to Korean culture, but “tonight’s concert was so great that I don’t think I need to worry about such things.”

Van Zweden said his post-New York Philharmonic career would include his commitments in Seoul as well as a music directorship at a European ensemble. He declined to provide details but said the appointment would be announced soon.

He said he was eager to take the Seoul Philharmonic on tour to the United States, Europe and other parts of Asia. He also would like to record all of Mahler’s symphonies with the orchestra and would like to perform more music by Korean composers.

Van Zweden, who conducted five programs with the Seoul Philharmonic last year, said he had long felt a connection to South Korea. An early teacher, the violinist Hyo Kang, is from Seoul; Kang has recently attended a few of his former student’s concerts.

Van Zweden is also impressed by the work ethic of the orchestra’s musicians.

“It’s a very open orchestra — the ego is not so big that you run into problematic situations,” he said. “They are willing to have a wonderful journey together.”

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