Stupid music director tricks, part the 11,347th

Those handful of us in the orchestra blogging community can always count on some conductor, somewhere, doing or saying something really dumb to rescue us from having nothing to write about. Our latest benefactor is Jaap van Zweden, music director of the Dallas Symphony:

Conductor Jaap van Zweden has won international praise for elevating the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to what he contends is one of the 10 best in the country. It is, he says, “50 percent better” than when he seized the baton in 2008.

Modest as well as good.

But entering his seventh season, the relationship between the renowned maestro and his 93-member ensemble is one of growing, even chaotic dissonance. At issue: what some call van Zweden’s abrasive style.

Ken Krause, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Professional Musicians Association, cites a crescendo of complaints rising for “a couple of years now, especially so the last several months.”

“The musicians have been telling me they’re extraordinarily uncomfortable with the work environment, and they feel at times like they’re being browbeaten excessively in rehearsals by the music director,” Krause says.

The Dutch conductor says that he can be tough but that his mandate is to make the orchestra better. Nothing more.

“When you’re not playing well, you’re not playing well. And if I am the messenger of that, well, then, of course, I will be disliked by some people. But I am always honest, with myself and others,” van Zweden said during a lengthy interview earlier this month.

He would be the very first person I’ve ever met who was “always honest,” whether with himself or others. It’s a little like saying that some of his best friends are German; probably means he doesn’t like the Germans very much. It certainly suggests that he’s clueless about himself, as well as other people.

Krause counters by saying: “We don’t shy from high expectations. We have that for ourselves. So, it doesn’t require tactics of fear and intimidation on the part of the music director to get us to do our best work. That sums up where the rub is for us. Nobody’s complaining that he expects too much of us; it’s how he’s going about it.”

Numerous senior players discussed their feelings but asked not to be quoted for publication, electing instead to let Krause do the talking.

Sounds a little as if the music director is going after… the older musicians, doesn’t it?

Van Zweden’s boss, orchestra president and CEO Jonathan Martin, supports him unequivocally. Martin, who took charge two years ago, says he and van Zweden share a mission of elevating the DSO from what he calls its former “regional” standing to that of a national, even international powerhouse. And if feathers get ruffled, so be it.

“Because Jaap and I have an obligation and a mandate from the board of directors to improve this organization, not everyone is going to agree with it or find it a comfortable place to be,” Martin says.

Still, van Zweden expressed disappointment that musicians have veered outside “the circle” to air their concerns.

“An orchestra is a chain, a family chain,” the conductor says. “When you have things to discuss with each other, you do that in the circle, and now look what happens. These days, they don’t do it, they call the press. For me, this is the first time in 16 years of conducting that I am confronted with this”… “I was brought up in Europe in a Spartan way,” he says. “I can be extraordinarily tough on stage and then we walk off the stage and we go out for dinner, if you want to. There is a difference in being on stage and off stage. It’s an incredibly tough competition among the really big and great orchestras. If you want to become one of the really big orchestras, you need to sacrifice — hours, family time, and that’s not always easy.”

Most music directors, in my experience, understand that orchestras are workplaces and not “families.” And most understand that being “incredibly tough on stage” and then having a pleasant meal with the same musicians that the conductor was raking over the coals 30 minutes before is a fantasy. Does he really not understand that the power differential between him and the musicians he criticizes – and can fire – is far too great for “things” to be “discussed with each other?”

It sounds very much as if van Zweden can dish it out, but that he can’t take it.



About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • When and how did the culture of the nation and of music change such that a dominating and occasionally abrasive conductor would suffer scolding in the press.

    In the early and mid 20th century it might seem that all the great conductors were tyrants. Szell was famously given “carte blanche” (his choice of words, I believe) to manage manage the musicians as he saw fit. And he did. I think there is also an interesting story of him scolding and berating the audience for their inatention. Would a music director survive an incident like that today.

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