Honorary University Fellow (2021)
It is important to set goals in life, but whatever you do, make sure you love what you do – this is what Mr Jaap van Zweden, a world-famous conductor, says about one of his guiding principles. Throughout his career in music, first as a violinist and then later as a conductor, Mr van Zweden has followed this piece of advice and his passion for music, and his pursuit of perfection has led to great success on the international stage.
Born in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Mr van Zweden was brought up in a musical household. His pianist father, who continues to perform to this day, encouraged him to pick up the violin when he was six years old, and so began his formal musical journey.
The young Mr van Zweden showed a clear talent for music and the violin, and in 1977 he won the prestigious National Oskar Back Violin Competition in the Netherlands, which allowed him to go on and attend the famous Julliard School in New York City in the USA. He flourished under the guidance of legendary musicians such as Dorothy DeLay, and aged 19 he returned to the Netherlands to become the youngest-ever concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The appointment demonstrated not only his undeniable talent but also his fledgling leadership skills in the orchestral world.
After 16 years as concertmaster, Mr van Zweden put down his violin and picked up the baton, shifting his attention to the position at the heart of the orchestra. Since the mid-1990s, he has conducted many of the world’s finest orchestras, either as Chief Conductor and Musical Director or as a guest conductor, and the long list includes the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic.
However, he has not looked back after moving to Hong Kong in 2012 to take up the role of Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HK Phil). Over the years he has helped the orchestra reach the highest level, and in 2019, HK Phil was named Orchestra of the Year at the Gramophone Classical Music Awards, which are dubbed the “Oscars of classical music”. The HK Phil is the first Asian orchestra to receive this prestigious international award. He takes great pride in the fact that Hong Kong now has one of the top orchestras in the world, and he hopes that the musical and cultural aspects of the city can become as well-known globally as the business and horse racing sides of the financial hub.
Mr van Zweden believes that the orchestra is a true ambassador of Hong Kong, and in 2020 the Government acknowledged the vital role he has played, as he was awarded the Silver Bauhinia Star for his significant contributions to the development of the HK Phil and classical music in the territory. His work has also been widely recognised in other countries, and he was named Conductor of the Year by Musical America in 2012 and awarded the prestigious Concertgebouw Prize in 2020.
Of his many achievements, Mr van Zweden regards the HK Phil’s first-ever performance of complete four parts of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Hong Kong as a personal highlight, but he is also particularly proud of the level that the orchestra has reached off the back of years of hard work, as they have fought hard to stay at the top through the relentless cycle of practice and performance for the orchestra’s various programmes.
While music in the formal orchestral setting has dominated much of his life, Mr van Zweden and his wife Aaltje have also dedicated themselves to supporting the families of children with autism, with musical therapy playing a prominent role.
In 1997, they established the Papageno Foundation, and today, the Foundation’s team of 35 music therapists provide in-house music therapy to children with autism in the Netherlands, enabling them to develop connections and social behaviour through music, and it has helped a huge number of families over the past 20-plus years. While the Foundation already runs one home, they are opening another soon, and they hope to open even more in the future. This will provide even more support to families and those with autism in the wider community.
With his wealth of experience and expertise within the world of music, which has helped to establish Hong Kong as one of the beating hearts of the musical world, Mr van Zweden will truly be an invaluable asset to the younger generation of gifted musicians at HKBU, as well as the community as a whole.