The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New York Times critic David Allen is a role model of how to prepare for listening to a new and unknown conductor | August 7, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Many people were taken off guard when in January the New York Philharmonic named Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden (below) as its new music director — the highest paid conductor in the U.S.

Jaap van Sweden CR Todd Heisler NYT

The Ear certainly was.

And so was the New York Times critic David Allen.

But rather than wait to go hear van Zweden live, Allen plunged into van Zweden’s discography. The many recordings gave him a very good idea of what the conductor’s strengths and weaknesses are.

It took Allen some 52 hours of listening to do his due diligence and get a comprehensive background and preparation.

But the conclusions he reaches about van Zweden (below, in a photo by Washington of The New York Times) in contemporary repertoire as well as in classic works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, among others, are illuminating.

You can hear Jaap van Sweden conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in what seems to The Ear an energetic and forceful interpretation of the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Jaap van Zweden CR Ruby Washington NYTImes

Here is a link. You can judge for yourself what the public can look forward to:

What do you think of Allen’s assessment?

Does it seem fair? Biased?

Does it make you look forward to hearing van Zweden?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. It’s not a secret that the conductor that the NY Philharmonic really wanted was Esa-Pekka Salonen. He is their composer in residence and is former Conductor of the LA Philharmonic (and still emeritus conductor there).

    Alex Ross of the New Yorker wrote this about him:

    “The Salonen era in L.A. may mark a turning point in the recent history of classical music in America. It is a story not of an individual magically imprinting his personality on an institution – what Salonen has called the “empty hype” of conductor worship – but of an individual and an institution bringing out unforeseen capabilities in each other, and thereby proving how much life remains in the orchestra itself, at once the most conservative and the most powerful of musical organisms.”

    He is also a composer and has indicated he wants to spend more time on composing. Note what he said about the “empty hype” of conductor worship.

    True, with most conductors, but I do think a very select few individuals have actually made a terrific difference. One was Carlos Kleiber, who turned the Berlin Philharmonic down for its chief job! No less a conductor than Leonard Bernstein has said that he was the best (after Bernstein, of course). Kleiber preferred high paying, short gigs to being tied to a job (maybe smart and he could get those high paying gigs anyways because he was so good).

    In America, I think the greatest conductor we have ever had was in Boston, not NYC. His name: Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky.

    Not only was he a brilliant conductor, a brilliant man for selling tickets/putting the BSO in sound finances, he did so many outstanding things that were firsts. He really championed American composers and contemporary music (including Howard Hanson, Ravel, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Randall Thompson, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, with Bernstein himself as soloist in his “Age of Anxiety” symphony); he discovered Mario Lanza; he advanced Leonard Bernstein’s career (Bernstein was given a pair of golden cuff links by Mr. K. and he wore them whenever he conducted for the rest of his life); and he played a key role in developing the famous summer sessions of the BSO at Tanglewood (the musical hall there bears his name).

    Yes, it’s largely true about the “empty hype” of conductors, but once in a while a truly exceptional conductor does emerge. I doubt that Mr. van Zweden is in that select class, but only time will tell.

    Comment by fflambeau — August 7, 2016 @ 10:04 pm

  2. I heard Von Sweden conduct the CSO a few years ago with my friend, Tom Neujahr at Symphony Center. I remember discussing with Tom that the CSO ought to get him under contract because Ricardo Muti’s retirement can’t be too far off. He made the CSO sound better than usual.

    Comment by John Rinehart — August 7, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

    • Actually, I think Manfred Honeck might be holding out for that job: Chicago is just as good an orchestra, and it has fewer problems than in NYC. Remember that in NYC they are redoing their concert hall and it won’t be done for a while.

      Yes, Muti is getting old: he’s 75.

      I suspect there are lots of better conductors out there than Van Zweden and that NYC took him on as a kind of stopgap conductor.

      Comment by fflambeau — August 7, 2016 @ 8:47 pm

  3. I thought David Allen’s article was tough but fair.

    Surprisingly tough considering most of the fluff written for newcomers. That’s NOT a good omen for the incoming conductor.

    Allen immersed himself in van Zweden’s discography and did so for a couple of other rumored candidates.

    His conclusions:

    “Undertaking this same immersive exercise with the other candidates rumored for the Philharmonic position would result in a more fulsome endorsement. Direct comparisons in works they, too, have recorded are not flattering for Mr. van Zweden: Mr. Honeck’s Beethoven Fifth and Seventh, his Mahler Third and his Tchaikovsky Fifth (all with Pittsburgh) all display a far broader musical imagination. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Rite” (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) has more intensity and greater shock value, his Mahler Sixth (with the Philharmonia) a surer sense of structure.”


    Comment by fflambeau — August 7, 2016 @ 2:56 am

  4. “Perhaps most frustrating is a pervasive lack of charm or humor. Any spontaneity tends to sound, paradoxically, thoroughly rehearsed.” David Allen

    That likely will be fatal in NYC.

    I think this was a reach by the New York Philharmonic and Manfred Honeck from Pittsburgh would have been a much better choice (something pretty much acknowledged in the linked article). Certainly the Dutchman could not have been their first choice, or perhaps even their second. I think the person they wanted is the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra who likely turned New York down.

    Nor does van Zweden’s repertory seem very strong or vast (it looks pretty much like the standard German repertory with a few Dutch composers thrown in).

    What we will likely see is the effort by the New York press and others (and this is maybe an opening salvo, although it is far more critical than a booster piece) to turn this man into a star. For after all, if he is the highest paid conductor in the USA, doesn’t he have to be a bona fide star?

    I think New Yorker’s will miss Allan Gilbert very much; he’s in a completely different class than their new conductor, who might be just a caretaker kind of conductor for a few years and no more.

    Comment by fflambeau — August 7, 2016 @ 2:47 am

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