Conductor Jaap van Zweden chats with Christopher Morley ahead of a visit from the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
Mention the name Hilversum to anyone of a certain age and they will go all misty-eyed and start talking about the good old days of steam radio.
While we waited for those valve-engorged wooden-cased mains-connected monsters to warm up (sometimes you had to thump them on the side) a good way of passing the time was to look at all the exotic names of faraway radio stations from foreign parts on the dial: Tromso, Stavanger, Monte Carlo. Beromunster and indeed Hilversum.
This charming little Dutch town to the south of Amsterdam is still an important broadcasting and media hub, home as it is to the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and several other broadcasting ensembles: a 60-strong chamber orchestra, a choir, and the famous Metropole light orchestra.
A total of 340 musicians all work within the impressive Music Centre building, which has administrative offices and rehearsal rooms within its walls.
A fortnight ago I was present at an enthralling rehearsal of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony which the NRPO was undertaking in an acoustically-streamlined hall – with business-class aeroplane seats donated by Royal Dutch Airlines dotted quirkily around the floor-space for casual listeners such as myself.
Pride of place on the walls of this room is devoted to a poster of the orchestra’s last visit to Symphony Hall, when on consecutive evenings it performed the fifth symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, followed by their respective sixths the next night.
So they return to Birmingham in good heart, as their music director Jaap van Zweden tells me in his busy office immediately after the rehearsal.
After an interesting discussion about the order of the inner movements in Mahler Six – during which I reminisce about a dinner-party conversation-stopping friendly argument over it I had with Sir Simon Rattle after a CBSO performance in Frankfurt years ago – I ask Jaap about the character of his two orchestras (the other one is the renowned Dallas Symphony Orchestra).
How does he go about moulding the sound he has inherited from his predecessors until he has made it his own?
“Well, first of all you know there is a history there, and there is a lot of respect for that history,” he replies. “At the same time I bring my own sound, and I bring my own timing and my own way of working.
“I think it’s very important that every day when you are going on stage that you respect the so-called ‘group soul’ of an orchestra, and you have to respect in the same way what kind of a sound they produce.
“Now it’s always important that you know how to mix your sound and their sound, especially in the beginning. And then slowly the orchestra can get the sound which I really find ideal.
“But that takes a few years. If they can convince me with their thoughts and I can convince them with mine and we can meet in the middle, that’s a very important moment in a relationship between an orchestra and a conductor.”
So will Jaap’s two orchestras eventually have the same sound, even though they are an Atlantic Ocean apart?
“Well, it will come close, probably,” he says after a long pause. ”But you cannot change characters, and I don’t want to because they are beautiful in themselves, and they can exist next to each other.
“If you want to put so much pressure on an orchestra that you only want to do your sound, your thing and your timing, and everything my way, then it is dangerous that you can create a multi-media sound, all the same all over the world.
“That’s not what we want. I think we want to hear American orchestras, we want to hear English orchestras, we want to hear Dutch orchestras and German orchestras.
“That’s fine, that’s beautiful in itself.”
I ask if Jaap brings a different personality to the Netherlands Phil from that he brings to Dallas.
“No, I’m always the same. I don’t change, because I don’t know how to do that. I am who I am. I know exactly when I’m in front of an orchestra what I want to hear. Of course I change that every day. I’m not inflexible, I don’t think that I know everything every day, every hour: that’s fine with me. But when we are working, I know in which direction I’d like to go.”
Having discussed Mahler, we go on to discuss Bruckner, a composer with whom the Dutch have a close affinity, and I remember some wonderful Bruckner performances Jaap has conducted with the CBSO in Symphony Hall.
“I like very much the orchestra and the hall, which is quite similar to Dallas (the Meyerson Hall, designed, like Symphony Hall, by the late Russell Johnson).
“It’s a tremendous orchestra. I think it’s one of the jewels in the crown of English musical life.”
English music features quite prominently in the NRPO programming. Perhaps surprisingly, they have already released a CD of Elgar’s The Music Makers, and their current season features works by Tippett (A Child of our Time), Vaughan Williams (including his rarely-performed Christmas cantata Hodie), Walton, Elgar, Bax, Thomas Ades, Delius (Mark Elder conducting) and Britten (including the Sinfonia da Requiem and the War Requiem).
Interestingly, the programming is decided not by the orchestral management and music director, but by a panel of the 20 or so political and religious groups who have statutory influence in Netherlands Radio, as Kees Dijk, manager of the NRPO and the Radio Chamber Philharmonic explains.
He also tells me of the NRPO’s interesting idea of appointing a student assistant conductor who learns on the job in exchange for minimal remuneration (the current one was certainly much in evidence during the rehearsal, consulting scores and generally listening).
And then we return to more important matters: the demolishing of an Indonesian “rice-table” in a comfy and cosy restaurant (baby, it was cold outside) in one of Hilversum’s most elegant suburbs.
* Jaap van Zweden conducts the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra at Symphony Hall on March 2 (7.30pm). The programme includes Prokofiev Piano Concerto no.3 (soloist Simon Trpceski) and Rachmaninov Symphony no.2. Details on 0121 780 3333.