It’s fate: Jaap van Zweden takes Beethoven’s mighty Fifth to exalted heights

Conductor Jaap van Zweden has long embraced Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 as a signature work. It anchored his first release — on Decca in 2018 — as music director of the New York Philharmonic. In 2017, he chose Beethoven’s Fifth to mark his podium debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Furthermore, NY Phil leadership reportedly was so impressed in 2012 by his conducting of this work that his performance sealed the deal to make van Zweden the orchestra’s 26th music director, the latest in an august lineage consisting of Theodore Thomas (1871-91), Gustav Mahler (1909-11) and Leonard Bernstein (1958-69).

Coincidentally, in 1842, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was the first work the NY Phil ever performed, and since then, each music director over the decades, from Walter Damrosch to Kurt Masur, has left his own distinct stamp on that orchestra’s interpretations.

When van Zweden returns to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts Oct. 12-15, he will close the program with Beethoven’s Fifth. It promises to be an occasion. “From his early career as the youngest concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, to his orchestra-building efforts at the Dallas Symphony that garnered him Musical America’s 2012 Conductor of the Year, Jaap van Zweden has breathed new life into the standard core repertoire and made the audience sit up and listen with excited anticipation,” wrote Truman Wang for the Classical Voice.

“What an exciting, yet nuanced, reading of the Beethoven Fifth! From the famous opening ‘fate’ motif, the listener was treated to a thrilling roller-coaster ride of light and darkness, purposeful and suspenseful, lyrical and dramatic ... this was arguably the finest account of the Beethoven Fifth since Carlos Kleiber’s legendary DG recording.”

Writing for Classical Voice North America, critic David Patrick Stearns believes the best is yet to come from van Zweden: “Now that he has hit the magic age of 60 — when conductors become great because they stop caring what others think of them — his best work is no doubt ahead of him.”

Over on Instagram, the podcast Switched on Pop, helmed by musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding for New York magazine’s Vulture vertical, created a whimsical homage to Beethoven’s Fifth, set to words from van Zweden. “It’s like you are watching TV, and I want to go to another channel. Exactly what happens between the first and second movement — it’s a completely different program!”

Riffing on van Zweden’s analysis, the podcast host adds: "Continuing his analogy, it’s like the first movement is set to pro wrestling. And then the second movement arrives, switching and getting Bob Ross’ ‘The Joy of Painting.’ ”

And now cue the fate motif from the Fifth itself — four notes that changed the world.