By Brian Wise

Cynthia Phelps pauses to consider the uncertainties facing the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra she joined as principal violist in 1992, and which in the past 12 months has seen more upheaval than at any other point in her quarter-century tenure.

“It’s both daunting and exciting, terrifying but thrilling,” she says. “The players chose Jaap van Zweden. We’ve liked what we’ve seen, what we’ve worked with. We’ve seen and worked with Deborah Borda. I think we need to hold onto that and look toward working together.”

Phelps of course, refers to the two individuals whose arrival will profoundly shake up the current order. One is Deborah Borda, the transformative president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2000 who stunned the music business in March by announcing her return to the orchestra she ran in the 1990s. The other is Jaap van Zweden, a stocky, 57-year-old Dutchman who is in his tenth and final season as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra—a tenure defined by soaring playing standards and moments of friction.

The return of Borda, a 67-year-old native New Yorker, appears to have halted a recent exodus of senior executives that threatened to derail plans for a much-needed renovation of David Geffen Hall, the New York Phil’s home. The project, which is expected to cost at least $500 million, will displace the ensemble for two seasons, starting as soon as 2019. Where it will perform during the renovation—and how it will maintain its Lincoln Center–focused audience in the process—remains to be seen.

“I do feel a little bit of trepidation about the hall renovation,” admits Carter Brey, principal cellist since 1996. “Any time you remove the comfort level of a known venue for a subscription audience, you’re going to lose people. But perhaps it will freshen people’s perception of us, as a cultural institution tied to the city.”

“This orchestra can turn in an excellent performance of a piece like the Mahler Second Symphony or the late Tchaikovsky symphonies with minimal guidance from the podium. It’s a double-edged sword for conductors.”

—Carter Brey

Indeed, in a metropolis that takes pride in being a global center of theater, fashion, dining, and visual art, the New York Philharmonic is, to some extent, treated as an afterthought. The New Yorker and the New York Times published columns last spring praising the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the latter publication calling it the “most important orchestra in the world.” In van Zweden, New York won’t be getting a youthful, Spanish-speaking celebrity figure, in the mold of Los Angeles’ Gustavo Dudamel, but rather a hard-driving, European kapellmeister. But cultural relevancy can be shaped by several factors. New York Phil string players believe that if the orchestra delivers more visceral excitement and unanimity onstage, the word will get out. Some also hope for a renewed focus on masterworks by Brahms and Schumann, Mahler and Strauss, which they feel have been neglected.

“We’ve not had as much meat-and-potatoes repertoire as maybe we should have had,” says Phelps. “We’ve gone through so many phases as an orchestra. We’ve gone through a pretty heavy phase of presenting a lot of new music, which has been great. I think it would be nice to get back to some of the core repertoire.”

Sheryl Staples, principal associate concertmaster, echoes this point. “We really did want a music director who could nurture our core repertoire,” she says.

Brey calls the late-Romantic repertoire “our stock in trade,” but frames the matter somewhat differently. What the New York Phil needs, he maintains, is a conductor who can jolt the ensemble from its interpretive comfort zone. “This orchestra can turn in an excellent performance of a piece like the Mahler Second Symphony or the late Tchaikovsky symphonies with minimal guidance from the podium,” he says. “It’s a double-edged sword for conductors, because they’re presented with a ready-made high level of performance with which to work and it can be difficult to divert the orchestra from that.”

Van Zweden’s predecessor, Alan Gilbert, made new and lesser-known music a higher priority during his eight-year tenure, reinstating the composer-in-residence position (now held by Esa-Pekka Salonen), launching the Contact! series, and developing the NY Phil Biennial—initiatives that are, for now, expected to continue. For Gilbert’s final subscription program in June, called “A Concert for Unity,” he invited 22 extra musicians from 19 countries—in a pointed response to the Trump Administration’s proposed travel ban—to perform Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The Wynton Marsalis Quartet opened the second of the three concerts with a jazz set.

The past eight years has also brought more popular-minded projects, such as last winter’s Tchaikovsky Festival led by Semyon Bychkov, and a growing focus on film music. Still, some observers worry that van Zweden’s arrival signals a retreat to a more staid approach, a concern that his Dallas track record doesn’t entirely negate.

Phelps isn’t troubled by this question. Last October, she and the young composer Julia Adolphe traveled to Dallas to meet with van Zweden backstage at the Meyerson Symphony Center. Joined by a rehearsal pianist, they worked through Adolphe’s Dark Sand, Sifting Light, a 20-minute viola concerto that van Zweden would conduct in New York the following month. “It was just getting familiar and asking questions,” she says, noting that the conductor zeroed in on technical and stylistic matters.

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini later commended van Zweden for drawing “sensitive, confident and colorful playing from the Philharmonic.”

Beyond repertoire choices, string players say they feel a strong rapport with van Zweden because he served for 17 years as concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. “He’s been exactly where we are,” says Staples. “He knows what that life is like, he knows what we need, and he’s got a tremendous amount of energy that he brings to the podium.”

Brey says the conductor has asked rear-stand players to play more assertively. “What he means is for people to take a proactive approach,” he says, “to play with more presence in the backs of sections, more physical involvement, more intense engagement with the string and phrase shapes. The ultimate effect would be to create a more even string sound.” That strategy, Brey adds, “creates more of a feedback loop from front to back.”

CarterBrey_Stephanie-Berger

New York Phil principal cellist Carter Brey. Photo by Stephanie Berger

New York has historically lacked the kind of clear, corporate string identity that has characterized other top American orchestras. George Szell brought a chamber-like precision to the Cleveland Orchestra from 1946 to 1970, and Eugene Ormandy took the Philadelphia Orchestra to new heights of opulence from 1938 to 1980. In the post–Leonard Bernstein era, New York’s interpretive pendulum has swung more widely, from brash sound concepts (Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel) to mellower, more rounded ones (Kurt Masur, Gilbert).

“I do think Jaap will spend a lot of time concentrating on this,” Phelps says of the string sound. “It’s been very obvious in the time he spent with us that he wants something very specific from the strings and he knows how to ask for it. One of the most important things is the attention paid to both speed and pressure of bow placement, and that it’s uniform. That’s everything.”

Perhaps just as crucial is how van Zweden manages personnel changes. Concertmaster Frank Huang is one of 27 musicians that Gilbert hired, along with five other violinists, one violist, three cellists, and five double-bassists (accounting for more than half of the bass section). The orchestra is currently seeking a new assistant principal viola, a key position in a section that has not changed significantly since the 1980s and early ’90s. Early this year, Huang, Staples, Phelps, and Brey formed the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, an ensemble that is expected to tour and forge its own identity apart from its parent organization.

Scott Cantrell, the retired classical-music critic of the Dallas Morning News, believes that van Zweden made his mark on Dallas both as a “brutal taskmaster” and as an ace talent scout. “It was a good orchestra before, but not a distinguished one,” Cantrell tells Strings. “A combination of an enforcement of great discipline—particularly with his understanding of string technique—and bringing in some excellent new players has made an amazing change.” Cantrell adds, “You may agree or disagree with one of Jaap’s performances but there’s never a note on automatic pilot.”

In late 2014, the Dallas Morning News published an explosive 2,000-word story about musicians’ concerns with van Zweden’s increasingly “abrasive style” and his use of fear and intimidation to get results. Ken Krause, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Professional Musicians Association, told the newspaper at the time that musicians were “extraordinarily uncomfortable with the work environment, and they feel at times like they’re being browbeaten excessively in rehearsals by the music director.” The report described one player being demoted minutes before going onstage. Most players declined to comment.

The acrimony faded from public notice, however, and it became clear that van Zweden is skilled at charming donors and board members. Tax filings show that in 2013 he earned $5.1 million—the highest pay of any American conductor in recent history—the result of a gift earmarked for a signing bonus. A Philharmonic spokesman told the New York Times that van Zweden’s New York salary would be in line with what Alan Gilbert earned, which was $1.75 million in 2013. (Borda received $1.7 million during the 2014 calendar year, making her the top-paid executive in the orchestra field.)

“The real interesting question is how he and Deborah Borda, who are both very strong personalities, to put it mildly, will get on,” says Cantrell. “It could be a wonderful relationship or it could be positively explosive.”

Indeed, after Gilbert alluded in exit interviews last June to lacking strong in-house champions for his artistic agenda, van Zweden will need an ally to help advance his ideas. And Borda will need a fundraising partner as she grapples with a deficit that goes back to the 2001–02 season, and an endowment that has declined since her last tenure. In June, the organization filled the key post of vice president of artistic planning, poaching Isaac Thompson from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

In an email, Thompson says he will be “constantly seeking out the intersections between the artistic and social imperative.” However this is interpreted, the question of what the orchestra plays will be just as crucial as how it plays in the years ahead.

Concertmaster Huang hopes that van Zweden’s brand of discipline will bring urgency to the stage. “I want the orchestra to sound as good as he does, and I want people to be captivated by our performances,” says Huang. “The challenge is to make the audience fall in love with this language and that’s not always easy to do.”

And a renovated hall? “If the new hall is done well, that first concert will be spectacular,” Huang says. “I’m already excited about that.” 

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