Mu­sic is food for the soul, and that’s more im­por­tant now than ever

Jaap van Zwe­den

BBC Music Magazine - - Jaap Van Zweden - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: VIRGILE SI­MON BER­TRAND

‘ABBC Ra­dio 4’s James Naugh­tie f lies to Hong Kong to meet con­duc­tor Jaap van Zwe­den and to wit­ness the com­ple­tion of his Ring cy­cle record­ings with the Hong Kong Phil­har­monic mu­si­cian has to wake up every morn­ing and ask a ques­tion. What can I learn to­day? Not what can I do bet­ter, but what can I learn?’

I meet Jaap van Zwe­den in Hong Kong, the morn­ing af­ter Göt­ter­däm­merung, the con­clu­sion of his Wag­ner Ring cy­cle recorded by Naxos in con­cert per­for­mances by the Hong Kong Phil­har­monic. And he ap­pears rest­less.

In fact, rest­less­ness is his sig­na­ture as a con­duc­tor. It’s prob­a­bly why he’s renowned as a hard taskmas­ter by his mu­si­cians, but per­haps also ex­plains why he’s start­ing his first sea­son as mu­sic direc­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic while keep­ing one foot in Hong Kong, an orches­tra that, over the last eight years, he’s taken to a whole new level.

Van Zwe­den talks about en­ergy a good deal. It pulses around him. ‘I’m tough on my­self. I re­ally am,’ he says. It’s a sen­tence that seems to ring true as he be­gins to ex­plain the dis­ci­pline he ex­pects from an orches­tra.

‘Yes, you have to be tough. If some­thing’s not work­ing well, I want to know why it is not work­ing. That search is the key­stone of my life. I al­ways want to know why, and then how to fix it. Some­thing ter­ri­ble that you see – es­pe­cially, I think, with young con­duc­tors – is when a con­duc­tor just stops the orches­tra and says “play it again”. And that’s it! With­out ask­ing why and then fix­ing it. That’s not right. When a phrase is not work­ing with the cel­los or the vi­o­lins, it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to know why. So I like to find out why cer­tain things are not work­ing. Then we have to dis­cuss why. If you can’t do that, then the orches­tra will be think­ing about you: “there we are, we’ve got an­other one!”’

And so wit­ness­ing his Wag­ner is to re­alise the ex­tent to which he’s made him­self a mas­ter of de­tail. Göt­ter­däm­merung showed his tex­tures to be metic­u­lously lay­ered, and at

al­most every point in the opera his pac­ing seemed per­fectly judged. There was vir­tu­ally no drama on stage – a de­ci­sion had clearly been made to con­cen­trate on the fi­nal record­ing. But Naxos – whose head­quar­ters are in Hong Kong, and for whom the cli­max of this four-year record­ing project is an im­por­tant moment – have now got them­selves a com­plete con­cert-hall Ring that many Wag­ne­r­i­ans will want in their col­lec­tion.

For Van Zwe­den him­self, now 57, this Ring has been a proud achieve­ment be­cause he be­lieves, with con­sid­er­able jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, that it has taken the orches­tra into an en­tirely dif­fer­ent sphere. ‘It gives the mu­si­cians con­fi­dence,’ he says. ‘We have taken a huge step up. If I hear the orches­tra now I can say that it’s in a dif­fer­ent league. Maybe they don’t re­alise that yet. That is good – I want to keep them hun­gry.’

He tells me how he feeds that hunger, and his ap­proach to the Ring. For Göt­ter­däm­merung he im­ported two Euro­pean choirs – one from Ger­many and one from Latvia – in part be­cause he said he wanted to give the Asian play­ers in the orches­tra (the ma­jor­ity) the flavour of a Euro­pean sen­si­bil­ity to Wag­ner. He re­veals a good deal about his think­ing, and how he ap­proached the Ring project with some play­ers who had never tack­led Wag­ner on this scale be­fore.

‘For my mu­si­cians it was im­por­tant that they un­der­stood not just the story but the world be­hind the words. We worked re­ally hard on that. I talked as if we were read­ing a book: this is where that sen­tence fits, and so on. We con­cen­trated on the ar­chi­tec­ture of the piece first.’

And then the sound. ‘What mat­ters are not only the notes but what’s be­tween the notes. So how do we cre­ate our own acous­tic for this mu­sic? Stretch­ing our­selves in how we use the bow­ing arm, for ex­am­ple, be­comes very im­por­tant, as does de­cid­ing where the wind should take a breath. All these things are im­por­tant be­cause you must never lose those long lines. They are built up by the small de­tails. A long line sur­vives if you have worked out the small de­tails. But only then, if you are con­fi­dent about how to fix de­tails in a long line, will it turn out right. Oth­er­wise it’s just a long line and noth­ing hap­pens. I started with the thought that when the singer has to take a breath we have to breathe with them. Not all the time, but at least we know when the singers are tak­ing a breath.’

When he be­gan the project, he searched for scores from Bayreuth and the New York Met to check bow­ing marks. ‘I looked at them, and then made changes. I wanted to see them, be­cause I like tra­di­tion. Why would I be so ar­ro­gant to think that if there are great or­ches­tras I shouldn’t study them? And if I want to make changes, well I have to un­der­stand the tra­di­tion first.

‘Look at your parts, I say to them. There has to be a rea­son why you do ev­ery­thing. Even look­ing at the Bayreuth and the Met scores we might want change the bow­ing be­cause it needs to stay alive. Tra­di­tion is not some­thing that you look at like an old paint­ing, and that’s it. You need to look at some­thing first and then dare to change it. That’s how it evolves.’

His cast in­cludes ex­pe­ri­enced Wag­ne­r­i­ans. Eric Half­var­son’s Ha­gen, such an im­por­tant el­e­ment of the cli­mac­tic opera in the cy­cle, was a dark and pow­er­ful pres­ence, but the Brünnhilde of Gun-brit Bark­min par­tic­u­larly caught the char­ac­ter of the per­for­mance.

‘I used to say that the most dif­fi­cult thing in life is to be­come who you are,’

Van Zwe­den says. ‘That can be a life­time search. I al­ways say that the road to heaven is more beau­ti­ful than heaven it­self. But I felt yes­ter­day that Gun-brit had be­come Brünnhilde. She got it. I think one of

‘I used to say that the most di cult thing in life is to be­come who you are’

the great things is that you can only be­come some­thing you want. You have it in your­self to be­come that per­son. But it’s tough.’

It’s clear in Hong Kong (where, as in main­land China, Wag­ner evenings are a rar­ity) that the out­come of this project has proved a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for the orches­tra. Hav­ing moulded it in his own im­age – mak­ing dif­fi­cult early de­ci­sions, like the re­place­ment of the orches­tra’s con­cert­mas­ter – he has them play­ing for him in the way he wants. Talk­ing to some of the singers af­ter­wards, it was ob­vi­ous that they be­lieved the at­ten­tion to de­tail and the sheer power that the play­ers could muster when it was re­quired had lifted their per­for­mances.

And as for the op­eras them­selves, Van Zwe­den – raised in the Nether­lands, and a co-leader of the Con­cert­ge­bouw when he was only 18 – has seen the four-year jour­ney to Brünnhilde’s moun­tain-top as thor­oughly nec­es­sary. It’s mu­sic that he has known since his youth and he ar­gues that it has never been more vi­tal.

‘The Ring is about power. How to use it or mis­use it. We’re liv­ing in a time when there are a lot of ques­tions about power. So I think it is very im­por­tant at this moment. Some­thing that peo­ple need more than any­thing else at this time is to go and see that an orches­tra is still play­ing. If you go to any kind of art – a gallery or a mu­seum or the theatre – I think it is food for the soul that’s more im­por­tant than ever. And if peo­ple thought more like that, we would be more needed than ever.’

Now, with more plans for Hong Kong and the orches­tra he be­lieves he’s lifted up, he’s plan­ning the New York part of his life, promis­ing more new mu­sic from com­posers who are too lit­tle known.

But while we talk about the shape of his mu­si­cal life, things sud­denly be­come in­ti­mate. One of his chil­dren – Ben­jamin, who’s 26 – is se­verely autis­tic and as a con­se­quence Van Zwe­den and his wife have es­tab­lished a foun­da­tion in the Nether­lands where thou­sands of chil­dren re­ceive ther­apy and, as he puts it, hope.

‘We have a lot of chil­dren who don’t speak. So we started with mu­si­cal in­stru­ments to con­nect with them.

The big next step for them is to learn an in­stru­ment. Why? Be­cause it needs so much brain­work and the brain is a mus­cle that needs to be trained – never for­get that. You can’t imag­ine the ex­pe­ri­ence of mak­ing mu­sic if you haven’t done it. It doesn’t mat­ter if you are good or not. The in­volve­ment mat­ters. The use of the brain.’

And so, af­ter the Ring, how is that brain? ‘To con­duct a piece like this – it’s not a feel­ing of power, it’s a pow­er­ful feel­ing. There’s a dif­fer­ence. To be part of this huge thing and to re­lease that power is ex­tra­or­di­nary, but at the end you feel hum­ble that you are able to be a part of this un­be­liev­able mu­sic.

‘What I should do is just take this mu­sic and show it to the pub­lic – and say, look at this! This is what it’s all about.’ Göt­ter­däm­merung is re­leased on Naxos on 9 Oc­to­ber and will be re­viewed next is­sue

West Side sto­ries: Van Zwe­den leads the New York Phil­har­monic in Prokofiev’s Sym­phony No. 5 at David Geffen Hall ear­lier this year

Go­ing for gold:‘The Ring is about power – how to use or mis­use it’

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