Beginning in the fall of this year, the New York Philharmonic will be celebrating a century of women in this country having the right to vote. The orchestra’s upcoming Project 19 series. built around works by nineteen contemporary female composers, features an intriguing list including but not limited to Sarah Kirkland Snider, Joan LaBarbara and Paola Prestini. Last night at Lincoln Center, in a conversation with Philharmonic President Deborah Borda, Musical Director Jaap van Zweden enthused about the advantages of working with them. “We can come close, but we can never know what Brahms wanted,” he mused. But engaging with a composer willing to tweak the music to make it more orchestra-friendly pays big dividends, he reminded.
Anybody who doubts van Zweden’s commitment to new music “Didn’t research enough about my past,” he chuckled. In his tenure with the Dallas Symphony, he earned a reputation for programming old Germanic warhorses. “We had to fill the hall,” he groused. “Whenever I had to do a contemporary piece, I had to fight for it.”
Those battles began after the 2008 market crash and continued, and he made no secret how happy he is that these battles are over. Van Zweden comes with the reputation for being a very straight shooter, a rarity in a world that so often stands on ceremony and where candor can get you in a lot of trouble. Mozart in the Jungle may be a stupid soap opera, but the intrigue is real.
Van Zweden’s advocacy for living composers dates back to his days leading the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. With weekly broadcasts, there was a constant need for new material: standard repertoire from centuries past runs out fast.
Borda confided that the Philharmonic had never played a piece by Philip Glass until van Zweden came aboard – an acknowledgment that was as painful as it should have been. And both she and van Zweden whooped it up – well, kind of whooped it up – about how last month’s performances of Julia Wolfe’s epic, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire-themed cantata sold out so quickly.
In her tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Borda landed Gustavo Dudamel, and she seems to have similar faith in van Zweden. Like Dudamel, he comes across as more of a bon vivant than obsessive music geek. “Sing with your brain, think with your heart,” seems to be his guiding principle, a mantra he shared with a somewhat starstruck music student in the crowd. That would make sense, considering that van Zweden was inspired to take up the violin after being present at his pianist father’s many jams with fiddlers who dazzled him with their Hungarian Romany songs.
Asked how the orchestra’s programming is conceived, he made no secret of how it’s a group effort, and that “there are requests.” Nonetheless, the orchestra members are consulted and number among those putting in requests, he assured.
In about an hour worth of banter and then audience Q&A, van Zweden also touched on the legacy of Gustav Mahler, his distant predecessor as Musical Director at the Philharmonic, whose work will be feted both here and in Holland next year. He and Borda reassured the crowd that the imminent replacement for the former Avery Fisher Hall would be built to accommodate the Philharmonic’s schedule, not the other way around, “Because we don’t want to lose you.” And he beamed about the orchestra’s Phil the Hall program next month, a series of hourlong concerts with five-dollar tickets, which were first offered to New York City first responders. These shows aren’t just pops fluff either: there’s Beethoven, and Bernstein, and even Steven Stucky on the bill.
The next classical music event at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on April 18 at 7:30 PM with the Castalian String Quartet playing works by Britten and Schubert. These free shows fill up fast; getting to the space early is always a good idea.