Last September marked the beginning of a new era at the New York Philharmonic with the arrival of Jaap van Zweden as Music Director. Since then, New Yorkers have had many opportunities to meet Jaap—through his interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, as well as performances attended by more than 100,000 enthusiastic concertgoers. These included the service professionals and community volunteers whom Music Director and Orchestra invited to Phil the Hall, low-cost concerts that concluded with the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. That music, set to that text, the maestro explained to the audience, is about “bringing the community together,” which also is “what we are doing here tonight.”
Bringing New Yorkers together is also the point of the Annual Free Memorial Day Concert, Presented by the Stephen and Anna-Maria Kellen Foundation, which Jaap van Zweden led last month, as well as the Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks, Presented by Didi and Oscar Schafer. His inaugural Philharmonic season culminates this month when he leads the beloved series for the first time. Why was doing this important to him?
“To be in your own hall is always a wonderful experience, of course, but to play outside, to be in nature, with not just a few hundred people but with thousands and thousands of people, is a very inspiring environment,” he explains.
This is not the Dutchman’s first experience in New York, of course, nor even in the city’s parks. When he lived here as a violin student at Juilliard, he recalls, “We had a team that played soccer every Sunday. Like New York itself, it was a mixture of Europeans, Americans, Latinos, and more. It was fantastic, and I am still in contact with some of the players. And it was a wonderful environment — the park is a place to relax, a place to enjoy each other—and now I am going back and I am conducting my New York Philharmonic orchestra. It makes me so proud.”
The parks performances will be enriched by a rapport with the Philharmonic players built over almost 100 concerts. “The music-making with these musicians is so incredible, so strong,” he says. “Talent by talent, this is an unbelievable orchestra. They are always prepared. Day in, day out, they are so eager to give their best. Being part of an orchestra is not just a job; it is giving your life for music and for your public. That’s where the Philharmonic stands out.”
Jaap van Zweden has a philosophy of programming for the Philharmonic’s concerts for the community: “The repertoire should be very diverse—it should be like a very good meal, with all kinds of different flavors—but at the same time we want to bring our core business to the people. Underestimating your public is the worst thing you can do.”
“Everyone knows the standards New Yorkers demand,” he continues. “We feel we are the best, and we want to fight for it and want to work for it. This is something I really like. And the strange thing is that while everybody here is going about their lives on their own, at the same time we all take care of each other. That combination is nothing less than a miracle in life. We live together. We are a community. We love each other.
“But there are so many people here that it’s very hard to meet everybody you want to meet,” he adds. “These concerts make it possible for the Philharmonic to get to know as many people as we can. In fact, it’s an opportunity to see what kind of town New York actually is. At Phil the Hall we had an enormously new audience, with so much diversity and so many communities. It was a great moment for me and for the New York Philharmonic.”
That is also what the Concerts in the Parks are about: “We want everybody to know that, wherever we come from and whoever we are, we all can enjoy the NY Phil as our orchestra.”
Monica Parks is the Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.