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Bernard Haitink: A Personal Approach

If pressed, the musicians who work with Bernard Haitink will attest to the 80-year-old conductor’s graceful baton technique, his attention to detail, and the structural clarity of his interpretations. But when asked what makes Haitink special, they immediately turn to more fundamental qualities.

Conductor Bernard Haitink, shown above with the London Symphony Orchestra, will lead the Juilliard Orchestra in a performance that concludes his one-week residency at the School.

(Photo by Nan Melville)

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“The most important aspect of our relationship with him is the trust that we have in each other—that no matter what, our performances together will be of the highest level and quality,” said Robert Chen, concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Haitink has been principal conductor for the past four years. Chen, who received his bachelor's and master's degrees at Juilliard, added, “He has the utmost respect for the musicians—the people who actually make the sound.” As C.S.O. trumpeter Tage Larsen pointed out, the feeling is mutual. “There is a special kind of respect for his incredible history and his musicianship,” Larsen said. “And there is a great relationship with Maestro Haitink on a personal level, so we always try to give him our best.”

Juilliard will experience the Haitink effect first-hand in October, when the maestro spends a week rehearsing with the Juilliard Orchestra in preparation for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Op. 26, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 73, at Alice Tully Hall. At the same time, Haitink will open the 44th season of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series by leading the London Symphony Orchestra in performances of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major and Symphony No. 8 in B Minor (“Unfinished”), and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major and Symphony No. 9 in D Major, as well as Das Lied von der Erde, at Avery Fischer Hall.

If at this point in his career Haitink’s relationships with his fellow musicians transcend the strictly technical, the same might be said of his relationships with repertoire, which he tends to describe in humanistic terms. For example, he speaks of the “wisdom” and “sanity” of Haydn, the “seriousness” of Mozart, and the weltschmerz, or “world-weariness,” of Mahler, a composer whom Haitink helped reintroduce to modern audiences. “In rehearsal, he’ll sometimes talk about the composer’s humanity, the composer’s intent—even what the composer was going through,” Larsen said. “You rarely get to that level, and it’s such a treat to hear it from someone like Maestro Haitink. His purpose is to get to the essence of what the composer meant.”

Haitink doesn’t waste a lot of words in the process. The famously unchatty conductor once told the English critic Martin Kettle, “When you start to talk to orchestras then you are losing it.” Instead, Haitink prefers to communicate through gestures. “He does it all with his baton, with glances here and there,” said Larsen, who credits Haitink with bringing the C.S.O.’s notoriously powerful brass section into better balance with the rest of the orchestra. “If he even gives us a look, or raises his hands, we know we have to take it easy.”

Haitink’s technique, and his authority, are rooted in decades of experience—the kind to which few other living conductors can lay claim. Born in Amsterdam in 1929, he studied violin as a child, attended the Amsterdam Conservatory, and joined the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra. His childhood violin teacher was an admirer of Willem Mengelberg, who was principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the time, and Haitink attended his first performances at an early age. Yet his own urge to conduct surfaced a bit later. He took his first conducting course, sponsored by the Netherlands Radio Union, in 1954, and has attributed much of his success since then to sheer luck. 

“If I had not lived through those awful times [during World War II], when so many talents were murdered ... there would have been many more available talents and I would not have become a conductor,” he once told music critic Andrew Patner in an interview on WFMT, a classical radio station in Chicago. (Haitink’s Jewish grandmother was forced to flee the Netherlands before the Nazis invaded and his father was jailed for four months during the German occupation. The war had a musical impact, as well: though Mengelberg was renowned for his Mahler interpretations, the Nazi ban on works by Jewish artists meant that Haitink did not hear the Austrian composer’s music until after the war.)

In 1959, Haitink was appointed joint chief conductor of the Concertgebouw alongside Eugen Jochum. He had previously served as principal conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, and had already made his American debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Over the next five decades, Haitink would go on to assume sole responsibility for the Concertgebouw; serve as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic and as musical director of both the Glyndebourne Opera Festival and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; assume the role of principal guest conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (he remains conductor emeritus); and become principal conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle. By the time he became principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2006, he had earned a reputation as one of the last great maestros on the world stage. He had also committed an enormous amount of repertoire to disk, ranging from complete cycles of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler to operas by Wagner, Debussy, and Janacek.

Somewhere along the way, Haitink also acquired that rarest and most precious of commodities: a personal sound, one that he carries with him wherever he goes. “He has a great ear for sound in general—not just the string sound, but the sonority of the orchestra as an organic entity,” Chen said. Warm, well-balanced, and transparent, the Haitink sound epitomizes the qualities of clarity and expressiveness that characterize the conductor’s interpretations, as well.

He also acquired a great deal of stamina. Larsen vividly recalls Haitink conducting Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on the conductor’s first visit to mainland China this past spring—a long haul, even if you aren’t an octogenarian. “It’s a behemoth,” Larsen said of the piece, “and here’s this 80-year-old man, like a kid on the podium. It was so exciting.”

Chen has no doubt that excitement will communicate itself during Haitink’s visit to Juilliard, regardless of how little the man actually says. “It’ll be a memorable experience,” said the concertmaster. “He’s a man of few words. But with him, you just go along for the ride.”

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