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Conductor chokes Philadelphia Orchestra, evades prosecution…until now

Just the facts, ma’am. Last night. Philadelphia Orchestra. Tschaikovsky 4th Symphony. The conductor: Jaap van Zweden.

Van Zweden is here for his 3rd subscription series that I have heard, and the time has not been kind to him. On his first appearance here (that I noticed) I was favorable, though most put him on a very long list for the potential conductor post for the PhilOrch for which Yannick Nezet-Seguin later was hired.

The results with the orchestra are. very. not. legato. where. it. needs to be. legato. Of course, the PhilOrch is noted for its sound, which basically has a lot of fire and sweep, tenderness when needed, connected and sometimes maybe a little too much so, especially in Tschaikovsky. The PhilOrch sound can be really corny, especially in the Rachmanoff style overkill of the orchestra programmer Jeremy. Think of the bad pictures painted by Rubens now hanging in the Barnes Museum where all the ladies have oh-so-pink cheeks and rotundity.  (Barnes was showing how a great artist can be crass, there are good Rubenses in there, too.)

Van Zweden seemingly wanted to avoid that problem, and he was definitely successful.

Here’s how he did it. Control, baby, control. The arms can swing and sway, but they actually don’t seem to be able to go above his eyebrows, and mostly they hover tensely from his collarbone to his elbow. The left hand/arm can occasionally go a little above head height if he is having a flight of excitement, but mostly it is stern and stiff.  I only saw his right hand hand/arm go over his head, slightly, once, and to do that he had to bend backward at the waist, his torso won’t bend backwards, too much hump.

When both arms are raised, his head is even more sharply in trouble through jutting out. How? through tension in the front-of-the-chest arm muscles, the major and minor pectoralis and the intercostal rib muscles. He is slumped with tension, in other words. Bend over and pick up a stool with a lot of bound strength, like the stool weighed a few hundred pounds, and you will see how it feels, keep the tension, set the stool down, and try to stand up and wave your arms like seaweed.

Now you are Jaap van Zweden, and if you stay down there with muscles, the connective tissue will take over and institutionalize the forward head and the hump.

The head goes more sharply forward when his arms are raised. It is an interesting contradiction, the loose arms and shoulders at some points and the very slumped tight chest still. When he wants the music to flow, he waves his arms like seaweed but there is always the oh-so-damaging tight torso and neck.

The music suffers. The orchestra doesn’t look all that happy. I asked around a bit and discovered that van Zweden likes to bust on people, being very direct about their transgressions.

Sort of like a bad 4th grade teacher, he doesn’t let the group play. (Sorry, all you ISTJ’s out there.) It seems he is constantly shushing, hand in their faces, and the constricted sound is part of that technique. His favorite expressive gesture, hunching and putting his palm in the orchestra’s face, plays out especially uncomfortably with the winds.

The years are not kind to him. A moderately talented band conductor now comes to mind, one whose rhythm is intensely interested in the beat of the bass drum, 4 square in the key of Bb to the end.


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