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The woman behind the maestro: Together and yet apart #Aaltje from Sweden

Aaltje van Buuren enjoys her busy life. She is the wife of successful star conductor Jaap van Zweden. She dedicates her charm and energy worldwide to non-profit organisations that improve the daily lives of autistic children. Music and art are forces that run like a thread through everything she touches.

The family can be seen on television every week in a seven-part series around Jaap's successes. The maestro's life is described and discussed in newspapers and magazines. The Papageno Foundation, which Jaap and Aaltje set up together after their autistic Benjamin was born, even gets royal attention. Everywhere in the photos, next to the famous conductor is a beautiful woman with half-long hair in elegant dresses and a charming appearance: Aaltje van Buuren. What does a life next to a maestro look like?

I am sitting in brasserie KEYZER in Amsterdam right next to the Concertgebouw. It is an overcast Friday in February. Aaltje van Buuren arrives a few minutes later on her bike. She enters, puts aside her leather jacket and orders an espresso. When she sits down, she immediately looks at her mobile phone. She is actually too busy, she says, yet she takes the time for this conversation.


Aaltje could hide behind Jaap and live a good life as a mother of four children from her husband's success. Yet she chooses to go her own way. Why?

'In life, it's about being happy, otherwise you get stuck. Happiness certainly doesn't depend on money. It is a process. Everyone will have opportunities in their own lives that will make them face choices. One's own will will determine the path,' says Aaltje. A lock of hair covers her right eye, she slides it aside and takes a sip of her espresso. The stones of the ring on her middle finger, shining in the light, distract me briefly.

She continues. 'Passion is the key ingredient. Of course, that does not mean that following your heart will immediately make you happy. Having the courage to accept the situations that come your way and still remain in harmony with your passion leads to intense happiness in many ways. When you are happy you can give and when you give you also receive a lot back. I had to discover that myself.'

'Look, Jaap and I have been together for thirty-three years. What makes us happy from the beginning until now is following a path where we each feel useful in our own way while making a difference. Together and yet apart, not easy but definitely worth it. For Jaap, that's music. It took him years to find out that his passion is not so much the violin as conducting. The last few years as a conductor he is experiencing much stronger and deeper than anything he has ever experienced as a violinist.'

'For me, the challenge came with motherhood. At twenty-one, I had our first child. Motherhood overwhelmed me, it felt special with each subsequent child. The fourth and final child was our Benjamin with autism. The beginning was difficult, we resisted doctors' predictions that limited our hopes for his future. But surely he is no less, I always thought and then the penny dropped, autism for me had to come out of the taboo. Through Benjamin, I discovered a calling. Since his youngest years, I have been convinced that a child with autism can have a life he/she deserves. I also want to give parents a sense that apart from problems, their disabled child can offer them something very valuable and special.'

Aaltje immediately starts talking about a diagnostic centre for autistic children. She mentions numerous institutes in the Netherlands and abroad working on early recognition of autism. Instead of going into it, I stay with her person. It doesn't seem so easy for Aaltje to talk about herself. What is her mission?


'I believe in the power of music and art, not just as a listener or viewer but as an experienced project manager of Papageno Foundation and as an arts education expert. For 20 years, I have been advocating the very important role of music, especially classical music, for any kind of special education. In all my initiatives, I try to emphasise and bring out the social and healing aspect of music. In doing so, I focus the spotlight on the numerous results, which speak for themselves.'

Her phone rings. She excuses herself and picks up. It is Jaap. She informs him where she is. When she puts the phone back by hand, the ring makes a loud noise against the tabletop. The espresso is finished. There is another glass of water next to it. She leaves it. 'With Jaap beside me and with our four children, each of whom is connected to music in their own way, music naturally influences my life too. Still, I feel like a pioneer in the mission to communicate through musical sounds and heal through music therapy. There is still so much to do, so much to discover.'

'I can neither read a score nor play an instrument but that makes me open-minded. The years working with Benjamin and autism have sharpened my music sensors, I notice new aspects all the time. For example, I see music as a language that enables children with intellectual disabilities to connect their own world with the environment. And that in itself is quite a step. Everywhere I see opportunities to help these people out of their isolation. Any development in this direction can contribute to the musicology of the future. Why not try, why not persevere?'

Good luck

Aaltje describes the Foundation as if it were her fifth child. Everything that happens there touches her heart and soul. But she also has a husband. What do they do when they are not in the spotlight?

'We are not a standard "conducting couple" where the husband is on the podium and the wife is in the hall during rehearsals. Of course, I embrace the opportunities to contribute to the autistic centres wherever Jaap has a permanent position as chief conductor and follow news about developments and/or therapies. That way, I stay informed and am sometimes a conduit for interested institutes and foundations in countries where I am active. I really enjoy continuing to develop in this and being with my husband at the same time.'

'Right now, our lives are very complex. The downside is that sometimes we cannot see each other for a long time. Still, we discuss the most important things by phone or skype. Sometimes these are very short conversations.' She smiles and slides the lock of hair from her face again. Quickly she looks at the clock on her mobile; the time is up. She drinks the water and it takes a while before she says the next sentence. 'With great abandon I arrange big and small things for Jaap remotely or on the spot, just as I very much enjoy making time for our children. One benefit of Jaap's success is access to the upper class where together, in addition to our commitments, we champion non-profit organisations around autism. And that's kind of handy.'

'Success can be seen as a key that opens many gates but you are only truly successful when you share the prosperity with others, in our experience. Of course, sometimes we suffer from worldly life. We have almost no time for our friends, that way you start losing them too. I miss regular meetings with my children, especially now that we have a grandchild. Having dinner together and talking about ordinary things hardly happens. Terrible.'

And the two of them? I ask curiously, unable to picture Jaap without his conductor's baton and Aaltje in slippers. She smiles and plays with her ring. 'When Jaap and I are finally together and have time, which happens very occasionally, we enjoy a long conversation, good food and plopping down on the couch together and watching a good TV series like we used to. No, privately we haven't changed much after so many years.'

Ewa Maria Wagner

Besides being a viola player in the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, she works as a journalist in various editorial departments. Among other things, she writes about everything directly and indirectly related to classical music and the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, among others. Since 2014, she has also been active as a reviewer for cultural websites.View Author posts

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