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Conductor Jaap van Zweden shares his vision for Seoul Philharmonic

Dutch conductor to focus on introducing new music, Korean composers

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra's incoming music director Jaap van Zweden conducts the orchestra at the SPO's New Year Concert at Lotte Concert Hall, in Seoul, Jan. 13. (SPO)
The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra's incoming music director Jaap van Zweden conducts the orchestra at the SPO's New Year Concert at Lotte Concert Hall, in Seoul, Jan. 13. (SPO)

Just three days before the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra's New Year's Concerts on Jan. 12 and 13, the Seoul city orchestra’s incoming music director Jaap van Zweden arrived in Seoul, some six months earlier than scheduled.

Van Zweden stepped in for Osmo Vanska, SPO’s music director until 2022, who was unable to conduct the concerts due to an unexpected fall the previous month.

“I pray for Vanska’s fast recovery. For me, I was able to get to know the orchestra members six months earlier (than scheduled), and I feel happy and lucky to have the extra six months,” the maestro told the reporters on Tuesday.

After two days of intensive rehearsals with the orchestra, van Zweden, currently the music director of the New York Philharmonic, gave a sneak peek into the future sound of the Seoul orchestra when he officially takes the baton in January 2024 for his five-year term. Last week’s performances were met with applauds of excitement and anticipation.

During a press conference on Tuesday that took place at the SPO rehearsal room at Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, the Dutch conductor shared his vision and plans for the orchestra, among providing opportunities to local talents and discovering new music.

“It’s our obligation to give a lot of composers chances," van Zweden said.

After a year of exploring local talents in 2023, the music director will launch a program that introduces Korean composers and musicians. Around 30 percent of the programming of new music will be dedicated to Korean composers, he said.

The 62-year-old conductor noted that many Asian artists that he has met throughout his career, his teacher Kang Hyo, in particular, motivated him to choose the SPO.

Van Zweden, then 16, met Kang Hyo, a South Korean violinist who teaches at The Julliard School. He said Kang is the most influential teacher who played a big role in his life: He learned from Kang work ethics and disciplines that have formed him as a musician. The sense of closeness to his teacher extended to other Koreans and Asians.

“At the New York Philharmonic, I met a lot of Korean players. So coming here and working with a Korean orchestra almost feels like coming home a little bit," he said. "Also, the big part of the future of classical music is in the East and that’s the reason for me to go to Hong Kong 11 years ago."

Since 2012, he has been leading the Hong Kong Philharmonic, which was named Gramophone’s 2019 Orchestra of the Year. He also serves as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, a post he will hold through the 2023–2024 season.

In addition to bringing in the top maestro, the orchestra funded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government is set to hire new orchestra members for the first time in eight years.

Son Eun-kyung, the orchestra's CEO, told reporters Tuesday that ultimately the most important thing for the orchestra members is the music and that the first step has been taken by bringing the music director who will lead them, and the next step would be to focus on hiring new members.

She also added that she received many positive comments from the orchestra members after their first meeting with van Zweden, who has a reputation for being a hard-charging music director. "They were nervous, but after the first meeting they told me they are happy because ultimately, what they want is to make the best sound," Son said.

"I've never fired a player in my conducting career and I am going to keep it that way until I stop. In that sense, making everybody better, not firing them, is what I think leadership is," van Zweden said. "At the same time, we need always to reach for the highest and so if people say that I can be tough at the rehearsals, it is never personal ever but rather it is only to serve the music."

The maestro said that he believes a great orchestra should be able to "paint" in different styles and with different colors, since players often have to switch from one composer one week to another the next week.

"I want to see how we (the SPO) can work on all these different colors for the future. In fact, we need to be like a chameleon," he added.

Van Zweden is a violinist who, at the age of 19, became the youngest-ever concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, leading the orchestra for 17 years. He became a conductor at 38 and since then, he has worked with leading orchestras around the world as a guest conductor, including the Orchestre de Paris, Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra and more.

He also served as the chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (2005-2013), Royal Flanders Orchestra (2008-2011) and music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (2008-2018).