Jaap van Zweden’s Brief, Fraught Time Atop the New York Philharmonic

On a balmy spring morning, after a breakfast of coffee and plain yogurt at a luxury Manhattan hotel, Jaap van Zweden grabbed his bag of conducting batons and scores by Mozart and Gubaidulina and set out for Lincoln Center through the wilds of Central Park.

“I love the air, I love the trees,” he said. “Everybody can do whatever they want here. This is freedom, absolute freedom.”

Van Zweden, 63, will leave the New York Philharmonic this summer after six seasons as its music director, the shortest tenure of any maestro since Pierre Boulez, the eminent French composer and conductor who led the Philharmonic in the 1970s. Van Zweden helped the orchestra emerge from the turbulence of the pandemic; shepherded it through a trying, nomadic season when its home, David Geffen Hall, was undergoing a $550 million renovation; and led the orchestra when it reopened the sparkling, reimagined hall ahead of schedule, to the delight of musicians and audiences.

But throughout his tenure, van Zweden, an intense, exacting maestro from Amsterdam, faced persistent questions about whether he had the star power, creative drive and strong connection to New York needed to lead the Philharmonic.

During the pandemic, he spent more than a year at home in the Netherlands, which fractured his nascent relationship with the ensemble. And in 2021, he announced that he would step down from his post, far earlier than many people expected.

Van Zweden said he felt no other Philharmonic music director had faced such profound challenges.

“We had to start all over again,” he said. “I feel like we are still in the process of getting to know each other.”

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