Jaap van Zweden’s Last Stand

The Dutch maestro takes a victory lap before departing for the New York Philharmonic, as the Dallas Symphony begins one of the most important seasons in its history.


In February 16, 2006, a 45- year-old Dutch conductor was set to take the podium in front of an American orchestra for the first time in a decade. He was one of many guest conductors brought through the Meyerson that year, as the Dallas Symphony searched for a new musical director. But the chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra was not really considered a candidate for the job. Many of the musicians onstage were unfamiliar with the young maestro, and the audience struggled to pronounce the name printed in the program.

But after that night, after the fireball from Amsterdam took the baton and set the DSO ablaze, the city would not soon forget the name Jaap van Zweden.

“Sell the farm, mortgage the children, cancel the cruise,” the Dallas Morning News’ Scott Cantrell wrote in his review. “Do what you have to do to get to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this weekend. You’ll see the familiar faces onstage. But something miraculous has happened: the DSO is playing like one of the world’s greatest orchestras.”

That kind of praise would continue to be heaped on van Zweden throughout his time as the DSO’s musical director, a tenure that will come to a close after his 10th and final season with the orchestra, which kicks off this month. From the start, the musicians in the orchestra could sense that van Zweden was something different.

“It was pretty apparent, almost immediately, that he could change an orchestra’s sound very quickly,” says principal percussionist Doug Howard. “Most of us had never heard of him before, and I really don’t think that he was high on their list of candidates. But he came in and—and we started talking it up. There were a number of us—I was one of them—who spoke to the people on the search committee.”

What van Zweden did with the orchestra is difficult to pin down. Music making is an abstract art, not an exact science. The DSO musicians speak to the attention he paid to the strings—the way that van Zweden, a violin prodigy, offered advice on bowing or encouraged volume from the back rows of the string section. Others talk about his ability to articulate precisely what he expected from various players during specific moments of a piece of music. Then there was his unrelenting work ethic, which alternatively inspired and frustrated some of the members of the orchestra. Read full article.