‘With this orchestra you can dive into the depths’: Jaap van Zweden becomes chief conductor in Paris

The twist came surprisingly and suddenly, conductor Jaap van Zweden acknowledged on Monday afternoon on the telephone from the Tonhalle in Zurich, on tour with ‘his’ Hong Kong Philharmonic. It is almost 24 hours before the Orchester Philharmonique de Radio France will reveal that the Dutchman is the new one musical director in Paris. Van Zweden signs a five-year contract as of September 2026. The season before – when his Finnish predecessor Mikko Franck leaves after a decade – he already undertakes a foreign tour with the French broadcasting orchestra.

“In mid-November, only about three months ago, I conducted the musicians for the first time,” says Van Zweden. “We played John Adams and Gustav Mahler. A wonderful chemistry developed that week. Their sound reminded me of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I didn’t know they were looking for a new chef. After our concert – I heard later – musicians walked out en masse to management to tell them that they would like to see me in that position.”

This enthusiasm also surprised Jean-Marc Bador, the director of the Orchester Philharmonique de Radio France. “The days after the concert, my phone and computer were full of apps and emails from my musicians. “This was the best week we have ever had with a conductor,” was the gist of their messages. There was already a shortlist of candidates, but it quickly became clear that as far as the orchestra was concerned, only one name needed to be included, that of Jaap van Zweden.”

Passing the fire

More than a month after the concerts in mid-November – before the end of the year – the musical wedding had already been completed. Van Zweden will retire this fall as chief of the New York Philharmonic and Hong Kong. Last month, he started as music director at the Seoul Philharmonic. The Paris orchestra fits perfectly into Van Zweden’s career: in recent years he has always led one orchestra that he could build up (Hong Kong and Seoul) and one top orchestra where he could harvest and expand (New York and soon Radio France).

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“My heart beats for contemporary music,” says Van Zweden. “In New York we gave about twenty composition assignments per season. As Gustav Mahler once said: ‘Tradition is the passing of the fire, not the veneration of the ashes.’ New pieces are the lifeblood of what we call classical music. And the Orchester Phiharmonique de Radio France leads dance in France in that respect with between twenty and thirty world premieres per season. I immediately felt that love for that repertoire when we saw it in November First Violin Concerto by John Adams did. That piece is extremely difficult, and not only for the violinist, but the musicians threw themselves into it with heart and soul. They possess the qualities to bring to life the demanding world of new music. They also know their classics. I like working in such a limitless universe.”

Over the past 35 years, the Orchester Philharmonique de Radio France has had only three chief conductors. The Pole Marek Janowski (1989-2000) trained the French in the great German tradition, the South Korean Myung-Whun Chung (2000-2015) worked on the flexibility of the orchestra and the Finn Mikko Franck (2015-2025) introduced both together.

Pliable and curious

“I think I can add some colors to the sound,” says Van Zweden. “With a company as flexible and curious as Orchester Philharmonique de Radio France, you can also dive into the deep. Then, contrary to tradition, you don’t start the strings with a down stroke, but an up stroke. Tradition is not a law set in stone, but must remain alive and mobile. In that sense, a top orchestra must want to reinvent itself every day. I sense that mood in Paris.”

After more than a decade as chief conductor in America and Asia, he again felt the need to lead an orchestra in Europe. “On the one hand, Paris offers me the opportunity to be at home more in the coming years, but I also longed to immerse myself again in European orchestral culture. I noticed this as a guest conductor with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig or Staatkapelle Berlin. Nothing to the detriment of America and Asia, but at such moments I notice how deep the classical DNA runs in these European ensembles, and in myself.”

Nevertheless, Van Zweden continues to work in America, as a guest in New York and Chicago, among others. And he will soon bring what he learned there with him to his French orchestra. He introduced New York to Dutch music and championed a young generation of American composers. “I am looking forward to delving into the French repertoire – old and new.”

He laughs: “Dallas, Hong Kong, New York, Seoul and now Paris again. It has become quite a hobby that has gotten out of hand, conducting.”

Jaap van Zweden conducts his Hong Kong Philharmonic on Saturday, March 2 at a quarter past eight in De Doelen in Rotterdam. Info: dedoelen.nl