Violinist turned maestro Jaap van Zweden to lead New York Philharmonic

Van Zweden during a farewell concert in Amsterdam in 2011.
Van Zweden during a farewell concert in Amsterdam in 2011.PHOTO: EPA

NEW YORK (AFP) - The New York Philharmonic on Wednesday named Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden as its next music director, tapping a violinist known for his mastery of classic fare.

The 55-year-old, who now leads the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, will take the helm of the most prestigious North American orchestra starting with the 2018-19 season.

Van Zweden said it took him "one minute" to decide to accept the offer and described New York as the "centre of the world" for music.

"I have this feeling that this is the biggest box of diamonds and every conductor who is taking that stage has the ongoing task to shape these diamonds and let them shine as good as he can," he told a news conference at the Philharmonic's home at Lincoln Centre.

Van Zweden succeeds the retiring Alan Gilbert, an American who has pursued both classic and modern works and has been active in initiatives to expand the Philharmonic's audience through international cooperation and technology.

The Dutch conductor will become the 26th music director of the New York Philharmonic, following in the footsteps of greats such as Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez and Kurt Masur.

Van Zweden owes his conducting career in no small part to Bernstein.

As a violinist, Van Zweden at age 18 became the youngest concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.

Bernstein was conducting the Concertgebouw on a tour of Europe in the late 1980s when the legendary maestro declared at a rehearsal of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 that he wanted to listen from the audience's perspective.

Bernstein handed the baton to Van Zweden despite the violinist's protests that he had never conducted.

Bernstein "came back and said, 'That was pretty bad, but I saw something there and I would like to take it very seriously,'" Van Zweden said.

Van Zweden said that his relative late start as a conductor gave him an advantage as he can easily relate to the musicians.

Van Zweden has earned a reputation as an exacting conductor able to deliver refined performances of classic repertoire by the great composers such as Beethoven, Mahler and Mozart.

The conductor, however, said he hoped to strike a balance and was also enthusiastic about modern fare.

"I think that everything stands or falls in life with balance," he said.

Van Zweden said it was a "luxury" to be able to work with living composers in the audience who can offer guidance.

"The problem is for us conductors, and the orchestras, we cannot ask Beethoven how he wanted his symphonies," he said.

Van Zweden said that he would leave his position one year early in Dallas, as it would be awkward to lead two orchestras in the same country.

But he said he will keep his position in Hong Kong, where he began in 2012, explaining he was eager to carry out plans despite the vast distance from New York.

Van Zweden, who made his New York Philharmonic debut in 2012, will return in the coming season for a number of concerts before he formally takes his role.

Van Zweden's selection ends a prolonged search that has turned into a classical version of musical chairs among the world's prestigious orchestras.

Simon Rattle last year was named music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, moving from the Berlin Philharmonic which after initial deadlock tapped Kirill Petrenko.

Andris Nelsons, a dynamic 37-year-old Latvian who has won acclaim at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had been considered a frontrunner in New York until he was selected last year as music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, making another commitment impossible.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish composer who long led the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had also been seen as a leading contender for the Big Apple job but has said he wants to focus on his own work instead of conducting.