You were appointed concertmaster at the Concertgebouw aged 18. What were the challenges of taking on that role so young?

When you are very young, you can make an enormous number of mistakes. At that age you are supposed to start to go out with girls, and have a great time with friends. But I came to an orchestra with years of tradition who play, week in week out, with only the greatest conductors. That was a youth’s adventure for me! A big step, but an incredible school at the same time. One of the challenges was that I needed to really learn the repertoire – and every week. It was a big challenge.

How did your violin career help prepare you for a career in conducting?

The strange thing is I did not prepare at all as a conductor in those years. It was only when Bernstein asked me to come in front of an orchestra. He was conducting the Concertgebouw and he wanted me to do some of Mahler One – the first movement – so he could go into the hall and listen to it. I said, “Lenny, I never conducted,” and he said, “just do it, just do it”. So I did it. And he said, “that was pretty bad but I really think you should take it seriously and go for it.” I started step by step to learn it. But he was the person who taught me how to do it.

Jaap van ZwedenJaap van Zweden. Photo © Marco Borggreve

You were appointed with the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2012. Were their traditions very different from Europe or the USA?

I think every orchestra has its own soul and its own DNA and history. This is a very young orchestra. The big orchestras I’m working with, they have a much older history – and that is sometimes great – but a young orchestra is open to new and different ideas. They were very open about all the input I gave them. I think the orchestra is playing at an incredible level at the moment.

Your new recordings of the Ring Cycle are a massive, ambitious project. How challenging was it for the orchestra?

Before we began the Ring Cycle I started to really work hard with the musicians, and so we built it up over a few years. It was a big change for them, but they took to it very quickly and the amount of rehearsals and the intensity came very naturally. So that was a wonderful thing.

What are the pleasures of doing a concert recording as opposed to a staged version?

You can completely concentrate on the music when you do a recording, that is a great thing. We are now going to do Walküre next season in Beijing and then the States in collaboration with the Salzburger Festspiele, so I’m really looking forward to that as well.

Your Wotan in the recordings, German bass-baritone Matthias Goerne, has a strong background in Lieder, what do you think he brought to the role as a result?

First of all, he is one of the most musical people I have ever worked with. Another important aspect is the German language, and his understanding of the language in the opera, is enormous. I worked with him for many years and we gave many concerts. I knew he would pull off this Wotan on the highest level, and he did. I’m very happy that we made this choice and that he chose to do this with us.

Australian tenor Stuart Skelton was your Siegmund. How have you got to know him?

Stuart is an enormous singer, he’s one of the top, top, top in the world at the moment. I’ve had a relationship with him for many years, he’s sung with me many times. He’s a native of Australia but he’s a world star. Australia must be extremely proud of this man.

Was there anything new you learned about the cycle through this project?

I learned so much, mostly during the rehearsals. I learned when you are sucked into this world of Wagner, it’s very hard to not fall in love with it. It’s also very hard to pull yourself out. It took me a few days to come down to Earth after the last Siegfried, and go to other orchestras and do different programmes. When you are addicted to Wagner, you are addicted to a world of magic which is just beyond belief.

What have been the biggest pleasures for you in putting together the Cycle?

Working with these singers – and great singers they are – is so inspirational. Having them with us, we all realise that our instruments are coming from the voice. You become a better player by working with singers, a better orchestra by playing operas. That has been a tremendous thing for us, and a tremendous pleasure.

You’re performing Mahler in Melbourne and Sydney. Did the orchestra have much of a Mahler tradition before you arrived?

They had some tradition – Edo de Waart did some Mahler with them. I brought some tradition with me because I was able to work with Bernstein and Haitink. After my violin career, I started conducting Mahler symphonies. The European and the Dutch tradition combining with their tradition is something I really enjoy. I did some Mahler with the New York Philharmonic and that was the same. Although New York has a huge tradition with Mahler, and Hong Kong has a very short tradition, it’s still a tradition. It’s wonderful to meet in the middle and
see how they respond to my tradition. It’s giving and taking – it’s beautiful.

Having worked with Bernstein, how did it feel to then be appointed as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic?

Well, of course it’s a big step. I don’t think there is another orchestra more famous than this orchestra, and it was a wonderful opportunity to make music with them. I’m stepping in big shoes. It’s very inspiring and at the same time the responsibility is big. There are a lot of aspects to this appointment, but it is of course a dream, I would say, for any conductor to go there.

What inspired you and your wife Aaltje to start the Papageno Foundation?

We have a son who is autistic and we were looking all over the world to help him. In the beginning, the first six, seven years, we were quite desperate. Finally we came to people who felt music therapy would be a great asset. He actually learnt how to speak because of children’s songs. They would sing German songs for him, and then they would take out one word, and then finally after a long time, they would encourage him to say the word and then they would finish the song. After he did that for the first time, we stretched him to two words, and then three words, and then in a few years’ time, he learned to speak.

So music played an enormous role in our lives, not only onstage, but also to get our son talking. I was talking a little bit about this on the radio and television and a lot of people were really interested. And so we thought then that we would have to start a foundation and help these people. We opened a house, and now on a daily basis we have 60 to 80 children and 15 young adults, all learning how to live on their own. We are really happy that we are able to do this. It’s a wonderful thing this foundation, and it’s going really well.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on May 4 and Sydney Opera House on May 5