In 2008, two little-known European conductors took over two American orchestras. Pittsburgh got Manfred Honeck, from Austria; Dallas got Jaap van Zweden, from the Netherlands; and both got rapturous reviews. When Honeck brought Pittsburgh to the Kennedy Center in 2009, I thought the plaudits were well-deserved. But I had not heard van Zweden until he came to Washington to make his debut leading the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night.
Van Zweden is a compact figure on the podium. The photos I’d seen of him didn’t capture his solid physicality, nor does a still image convey his nervous, quivering energy. He’s one of those controllers who doesn’t let a detail pass unconducted, and to my ear, the orchestra wasn’t entirely buying it, at least for part of the program.
It’s said that the best way for a conductor to start working with a new orchestra is to teach its members a piece they’ve never played, and van Zweden has one in his portfolio: the “Cyrano de Bergerac” overture by the Dutch composer Johan Wagenaar. Wagenaar is obscure, but not contemporary; the piece’s exuberant opening brought Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” to mind, but that opera wasn’t debuted until six years later. It’s plain to the ear that they lived at the same time. “Cyrano” is steeped in rich post-romantic melody without, perhaps, Strauss’s sheer fantastic powers of invention. Still, it’s an appealing piece.
The rest of the program was almost too familiar, and in Beethoven’s first piano concerto, the dip in energy was palpable. The orchestra’s playing reflected none of van Zweden’s intensity; indeed, it sounded a little anemic. And pianist Andreas Haefliger, although his wiry, graying hair made him look like the love child of Beethoven and Gustavo Dudamel, was laid-back, as well.
This concerto is usually something of a touchstone for me, but this performance, all affect and slowness and Deep Feeling, made me question whether I still loved it. Haefliger is very capable, but I felt that he was slightly missing his marks, and efforts to give the music transparency and room to breathe only served to make it drag.
Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony hardly lacks for performance opportunities here — the NSO last played it two years ago — and it felt a little off-kilter, too, when it started, with a few missteps from one of the horns in the famous Fate theme. That wasn’t intentional, of course, but the off-kilter quality may well have been. Van Zweden kept the piece slightly unmoored, swirling and eddying uncertainly rather than pounding out its assertions. The blowsiness of the opening carried over into the wind theme, which evoked cocktail-bar music and the theme from “The Pink Panther.”
Observing all this with a critical ear, it took me a while to realize that I was intrigued, and what’s more, the orchestra sounded a lot more involved, too. The aha moment came with the third movement, with its wild pizzicati. Van Zweden inflated and deflated the sound with his hands, creating a manic, neurotic dream state that connected the dots between Tchaikovsky and some of his 20th-century successors, Prokofiev foremost among them. The manic intensity carried over into the fourth movement: very fast, very chaotic, with the statement of Fate less ponderous than overanxious to reassert itself. A sense of neurosis is not at all out of place in this music, and the players responded to the idea with a new fierceness. It was certainly a strong, and distinctive, point of view. I’d be curious to know whether the energy from this final movement will carry over and animate the opening sections of the next two performances.
The program repeats on Saturday; on Friday, the Beethoven will be replaced by a “Beyond the Score” presentation about the Tchaikovsky, called “Pure Melodrama?”