Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Haitink in the Guardian.

As I've noted before, Bernard Haitink is one of my favorite conductors. Having enjoyed a distinguished conducting career that has spanned over half a century, the 80-year-old Dutch maestro is not yet content to rest on his laurels. Despite experiencing lingering pain and fatigue from back trouble that required major surgery earlier this year, in July Haitink led the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony at the BBC Proms that won instant plaudits as "one of the highlights of the musical year." (I should be able to judge for myself next month: Haitink and the LSO will be doing Mahler's 9th again in New York, and I have a ticket.) As I write this, Haitink is nearing the end of a five-city European tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which he has led as principal conductor since 2006. The CSO tour provides the occasion for a fine profile of Haitink by Guardian music critic Tom Service. Among other topics, Haitink reflects on his youth in wartime Amsterdam and his intensely focused approach to conducting:
Those formative years during the war still haunt him. "There was so much talent lost. During the occupation, it became clear the Germans wanted to isolate the Jewish population. However, at the time, we didn't want to believe it. We couldn't believe they would all be murdered. I remember I went to see a young Jewish violinist play a concert at his home - he played Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata quite beautifully - but then, of course, he disappeared. I think the whole scene would have been different if Hitler and this whole fanatic policy had not existed. It becomes very odd and frightening when you think about it." He looks troubled. "These are very dangerous and unpleasant thoughts - but I would never have been a conductor if all of these catastrophes had not happened. There would have been more talented conductors than me."

Musicians who play for Haitink today would disagree. Concertgebouw members speak of him with reverence; no one seems to know exactly how he does it, because he doesn't say much during rehearsals, but Haitink makes them play with more concentration, intensity and freedom. Simon Rattle says he can tell when Haitink has conducted his own orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, because they sound more relaxed, spacious and expressive.

But ask Haitink how he does it and the answer is a pained expression and a few cryptic phrases. "It's very dangerous to talk about these things. I try to have an utmost concentration, focused on the music, not thinking about unnecessary things - and there are so many unnecessary things." OK, so what did he think about a huge work like Mahler's Ninth? Was there an idea, a plan? "One of the things I was thinking was: how can I keep it quiet at the end? Because it's a unique ending, this breaking off of everything and disappearing in the air. And I thought, 'Whatever I do, they [the audience] must be silent.' I don't know what I did, but they were silent! Then you have one or two idiots in the hall shouting 'Bravo!' and the whole thing is broken."
Raised in a non-religious family, Haitink nonetheless shows a respectful appreciation for the spiritual dimension of music. He also displays salutary humility in admitting what he sees as his own limitations in explaining why he turned down the opportunity to conduct one of his favorite works, Bach's Mass in B-minor:
"This piece is too great for me. That is not false modesty. The B-minor Mass comes from an enormous religious and contrapunctual upbringing. I don't share that religious background, and I don't feel ready for all that counterpoint. It is a work I love to listen to, but I don't want to struggle with it and fall flat on my face. So I said I won't do it. In a way, it's very liberating, to say, 'No, goodbye!'"

. . .

With the CSO, Haitink is touring four other composers he loves: Haydn, Mozart, Brahms and Bruckner. I wonder how he can find Bach's music too religious yet feel an affinity with Bruckner, one of the most devoutly Catholic composers. "This music speaks to me," he says. "Yes, there is a very strong Roman Catholic feeling, but . . ." His words dry up, so I try again. Does he find Bruckner's music - the Seventh Symphony, say - a spiritual experience? "It's very difficult to talk about this," he says at last.

Far easier to conduct it: as ever with Haitink, the performances will do the talking.
To read the rest of Service's profile of Haitink, click here. AMDG.


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