Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee

The time is near for a change of guard at the New York Philharmonic. Alan Gilbert, the excellent and inquisitive music director since 2009, will give up his post at the end of the current season. His successor, Jaap van Zweden, takes over next year. But there Van Zweden was on Thursday, overseeing an inconclusive preview of coming attractions.

The maestro, originally from Amsterdam, is without question a successful, well-routined professional. He has led the Dallas Symphony since 2008, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic since 2012. Still, it would be something of an exaggeration to claim that he exerts big-time world-class magnetism on the podium. In any case, we will know more about his special qualifications soon.

On this not-particularly-festive occasion, he oversaw generally speedy, sometimes frantic, clean and business-like performances of Wagner’s Lohengrin prelude and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. In between he carefully accompanied Cynthia Phelps, the splendid first viola player of the local band, in Unearth, Release, a new, almost hummable concerto by Julia Adolphe (born 1988). The results seemed more notable for competence than for inspiration. The Philharmonic future still looks fuzzy.

In this context, the introspective Wagner bit, 11 minutes long, suggested expendable throat-clearing. The Tchaikovsky symphony emerged fast, clean and frantic if not fabulous. Van Zweden seemed content to keep things moving. If he harboured strikingly original ideas about these challenges, he kept them to himself. The orchestra followed his propulsive beat with admirable agility, not to mention essential cohesion.

Adolphe’s 20-minute contribution provided a pleasant contrast to the familiar milestones on display. Bright and breezy at first, then meditative, it made fine use of Phelps’s lush tone and virtuosic technique, even early on when it neglected the orchestral role in the punctuating process. Call the dialogue uneven.

Incidental intelligence: not all of Van Zweden’ s worthwhile achievements involve baton-waving. In 1997 he and his wife created a project that uses music to help families of children with autism. Citing good Mozartean whimsy, they call this the Papageno Foundation.


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