The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why couldn’t the New York Philharmonic find an American conductor? Meet Dutchman Jaap van Sweden, its next music director. Plus, Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen, is NEXT SUNDAY — NOT TODAY — and tonight’s concert of new music by UW-Madison professor Les Thimmig has been CANCELLED | January 31, 2016

ALERT 1: The Sunday Afternoon Live performance by the Wisconsin Brass Quintet at the Chazen Museum of Art is NEXT SUNDAY, NOT TODAY. The Ear apologizes for the mistake.

 ALERT 2: Tonight’s concert of new music for woodwinds and piano by UW-Madison professor Les Thimmig and pianist Jessica Johnson has been CANCELLED.

By Jacob Stockinger

This week the New York Philharmonic announced its next music director and conductor who will succeed Alan Gilbert, starting in 2018.

He is Jaap van Sweden (below, in a photo by Todd Heiser for The New York Times , a 55-year-old Dutchman, acclaimed for his technical prowess, who now is the music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

Jaap van Sweden CR Todd Heisler NYT

There are a lot of stories The Ear could link to.

Here is a short summary from NPR (National Public Radio) with audio clips of his conducting:

But he found the coverage by the New York Times quite comprehensive and, on balance, fair.

It featured a main news story with some important feature elements, including the critical acclaim van Sweden received for conducting music by Gustav Mahler and Ludwig van Beethoven. (Below, you can see van Sweden conducting the New York Philharmonic in 2014 in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times).

Jaap van Sweden conducting the NY PHIL cr Horiyuki Ito NYT

And it also featured a column or commentary by senior classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, who spoke in Madison on the occasion of the centennial of the Pro Arte Quartet that was held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Overall, Tommasini’s notebook entry is a fine and insightful piece, even if it gets tiring to hear Tommasini climb up on his high horse and whine yet again about the neglect of new music and contemporary composers – which does not seem fully justified based on the record of this particular conductor.

Tommasini – who himself was trained as a composer — clearly would have preferred former Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below) as the new music director and conductor. Hmmm – could they be friends?

Esa Pekka Salonen

For his part, it may sound provincial but The Ear is more concerned that the very same symphony orchestra that made history in American culture for hiring the first American-born and American-trained maestro – Leonard Bernstein (below), who also just happened to put Jaap van Sweden on the path to a conducting career – is once again turning to Europe rather to the many fine conducting talents in this country.

Leonard Bernstein CR Jack Mitchell

Why was no American conductor chosen. One who comes to mind is Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (below top) and the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil who is also a Bernstein protege. And then there is David Robertson of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia(below bottom).

Seems odd that Marin Alsop is good enough for Brazil and David Robertson is good enough for Australia — but not for New York?

The Ear wants to ask the Philharmonic’s board of directors: Do you really find all American conductors to be that inferior to Jaap van Sweden?

Maybe there were practical considerations — salary, contracts, availability, refusals — that made hiring an American conductor impossible. But the stories suggest that the choice of van Sweden was made early on and the fix seemed in. Too bad. It still seems like a great opportunity that was lost.

Marin Alsop big

David Robertson

You can decide for yourself.

Here is the news story by Michael Cooper:

And here is Tommasini’s column:

Do you know the work of Jaap van Sweden?

Have you heard him in live or recorded performances?

What do you think?

Here is a sample of Jaap van Sweden conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Leave your opinion in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Another point: what happens to Alan Gilbert now? Wasn’t the scuttlebutt that he resigned hoping to move on to Berlin (but they chose someone else).

    He has done a fabulous job in NYC and is not only a native New Yorker, but his mom and dad both either played or are still playing in the orchestra. He’s been very innovative too and he’s young (only about 48).

    Any word on Gilbert’s future course Ear? The Met?

    Comment by fflambeau — January 31, 2016 @ 7:40 pm

  2. I agree pretty much with your analysis here. Sad that the NY Philharmonic did not choose an American (although van Sweden studied at Julliard apparently). To me, this looks like a short-term pick before they change again.

    I know almost nothing about this conductor so his selection is a big surprise. His background is pretty thin for taking over a major position like this. Alsop would have been a fantastic choice but let’s face it, New York is probably not the place to be for innovation in classical music. The West Coast is (with LA; San Francisco; and Seattle having terrific orchestras and great leaders). Hence, perhaps, this reach.

    I’m surprised that New York didn’t go for someone with a better background, more international connections and yet someone familiar with America. To me, if Alsop was not available, I would have gone after Manfred Honeck who is in Pittsburgh. He has blue blood ties to Europe (his brother is Rainer Honeck of the Vienna Philharmonic) lots of experience there (at a higher level than van Sweden) and has many distinguished performances and recordings, and has been in Pittsburgh for 10 years (where he is esteemed). I believe they are about the same age too.

    Alas, I was not able to read any of the New York Times pieces (I’m not a subscriber and have used up my # of allotted reads for the month). One thing I don’t recall seeing in your column, is that apparently van Sweden is having problems with members of the orchestra in Dallas. See

    Maybe that wouldn’t hurt in normal situations, but this selection looks like a real reach to begin with.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 31, 2016 @ 7:51 am

    • Good comments.
      Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, and another Leonard Bernstein protege, would also have been a great American choice. But maybe he wasn’t interested.
      The problems you mention are referred to in The New York Times stories.
      It is discussed in the context of the members of the New York Philharmonic having the reputation of being difficult to work with.
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 31, 2016 @ 8:42 am

      • I believe another of the major problems the NY Philharmonic has is that they are either undergoing major renovations or moving their concert hall. That is probably also discussed in those articles. I suspect van Sweden is a “temporary fix” unless he shows the ability to sell CD’s and bring in audiences (which could happen).

        But they could have struck out in the same direction they did when they hired Bernstein and they did not. I believe NYCity is now NOT the leader it once was in classical music: look to MTT in San Francisco, to LA, to Boston, to Philly and to Chicago instead. I would guess that van Sweden was way down on their list of people to hire and that they were turned down by many top contenders. Agree that MTT has an almost ideal situation now in San Francisco and likely would not have wanted this job/and or turned it down.

        Comment by fflambeau — January 31, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

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