Jaap van Zweden on goal of new music: ‘If there’s no future, there’s no past’

Jaap van Zweden, music director of the New York Philharmonic, will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 12-15 in a program that consists of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn with baritone Christian Gerhaher and Lumina by Nina Shekhar. 

The work was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic as part of its Project 19, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women suffrage, by premiering 19 works by women composers. He spoke recently to Experience CSO about his upcoming guest conducting engagement at Orchestra Hall.

How did the idea for this concert’s programming come together?

We wanted a variety of music, and it’s extremely important to reflect the time we’re living in. Nina’s piece was part of our programming festival in New York, and I really wanted to bring it to Chicago audiences. And Gerhaher is a formidable singer whom I’ve never worked with before. And then we finish with Beethoven, which is always a challenge.

But you’ve performed it many times, and the audience has heard it many times. How do you keep it fresh?

It is a challenge, but I look forward to it. We’ll find new roads to walk.

Tell me more about the Project 19 festival in New York.

Nina was one of the first ones we commissioned, and we took it on tour to Europe. It has really been received well, nationally and internationally. If you commission 19 pieces, there are always some that will stand out. I particularly like this piece, so I’m trying to be an ambassador for her.

In the last few years, orchestras seem to be making more of a commitment to new music. Are listeners coming along with you?

My organization, the New York Philharmonic, has championed new music for all of its history. For New York audiences, it’s quite normal. Something like Project 19 had never been done, with so many composers. But worldwide, we realize that we cannot live without new music. There’s so much talent in the world writing for orchestra. It’s so important to keep promoting them, because if there’s no future, then there’s no past.

Before you became a conductor, you spent a long time as concertmaster of the Concertgebouw. How did playing in an orchestra inform your conducting?

I had an 18-year master class, but I didn’t know it was a master class. When you’re in front of the orchestra, you are who you are, but I know what it is to be on the other side. I’ve seen it from both sides. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it’s difficult.

Can you give an example of when it’s difficult?

When I hear that something’s not right, and I don’t give up on it. The tone of how you speak to them is very important. It’s not just what you say but also how you say it. And facial expressions. A look can change the mood onstage.

This is your last season as music director of the New York Philharmonic. In general terms, how do you know when it’s the right time to take a music directorship and when it’s the right time to leave?

It’s an instinct. I never conduct by instinct — I’m always prepared, 110 percent — but leaving is also a family decision, and I do what my instinct tells me. I want to leave on the high end. I don’t want to spend one minute too long.

Do you have a plan for slowing down?

I do have a busy season in 2024, but in 2025, it starts to slow down, and I can spend more time at home. But I’m about to become music director of the Seoul Philharmonic, and I maintain relationships with other orchestras. The fact that they want me back is very important.

And what about your relationship with the Chicago Symphony?

It’s been like a 25-year honeymoon. The last time was after the pandemic, I think, when we did Mahler 6. It’s a great orchestra, a great city, a fantastic audience, and I’m always happy to come back.