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Remembering Bernard Haitink, the anti-glamour conductor

Bernard Haitink leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2003. The beloved conductor died Oct. 21 at age 92.
Bernard Haitink leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2003. The beloved conductor died Oct. 21 at age 92.

Bernard Haitink didn't fit the mold of a superstar conductor. He was the antithesis of flamboyant, a solid professional, a cool exterior that housed a solid knowledge developed over decades of study and practice. Yet his concerts were such that he is on the short list of the finest conductors of the past half-century.

It was 50 years ago when I first heard the fabulous Bruckner and Mahler recordings he made with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on the Philips label. I still have them. They appealed to me because they sounded so beautiful, had a sheen, a clarity, and a sense of honesty, of "rightness" that I knew I could study and learn with confidence. There is a rhythm at the beginning of the Mahler Seventh that is absolutely perfect with Haitink, and not with anyone who recorded the work before that.

I met him when I began producing the live Friday afternoon broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Speaking with Haitink one-on-one, and listening to his concerts and rehearsals, made clear to me his appeal: he was obsessed with the sound of the orchestra—not so much in a personal manner, as with Leopold Stokowski, but rather in guiding the players so that their Ravel, Schubert and Wagner sounded true to each composer.

Haitink had little enthusiasm for orchestras that played in compromised concert halls, which is why he seldom appeared in Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere. He also didn't like to conduct outdoors, appearing at Tanglewood only with determined encouragement from BSO management. He really desired an orchestra with a fabulous hall, like he had in Boston with Symphony Hall and at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw.

He also was obsessed with dynamics, a facet that seems to elude conductors in this day and age. When the score was marked piano, he really wanted it soft, not the mezzo-forte that can come creeping up with even the best orchestras. The dynamic range in Bruckner symphonies especially benefited from his careful stewardship; when triple-fortes finally arrived they were truly worth the wait, not something you had been pounded with sporadically for the previous quarter-hour.

Haitink came to rehearsals meticulously prepared, and expected the same of the musicians. If all was well, rehearsals would go with a minimum of commentary and, if he was satisfied, end early. Yet thanks in no small part to his economical gestures from the podium, the finished product sounded completely different than a performance of the same work given several years earlier under a different conductor.

I heard a rehearsal of a concerto where the soloist, eminently famous, was not so meticulously prepared. Haitink never raised his voice, but pointed out errors (not due to a lack of technique, mind you) with a stern conviction. The following day's performance was a complete success, easily the best I have heard from said soloist. However, it was the only time they appeared together.

Bernard Haitink leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, August 17, 1996
/ Walter H. Scott, courtesy of the BSO Archives
Bernard Haitink leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, August 17, 1996

Haitink's discography is broad, including Mendelssohn, Schumann, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky symphonies and quite a number of operas, especially from his time at London's Convent Garden. Yet his Boston concert programs returned to those works he did with distinction by Bruckner, Brahms, Ravel, Mahler, Beethoven and Schubert. Even within this select repertoire, differences would appear from one rendition to the next: he would be miserable knowing that a London Philharmonic recording from decades ago was still available, when his intervening study had convinced him the composer's intentions were not as well served by his earlier effort.

Perhaps because Haitink was a true servant of the composer, not a mantra dreamed up by a marketing department, orchestral musicians loved him. His primary concern was that they play at their very best.

No artist representative and management team got together and dreamed up Haitink's appointment as principal guest conductor of the BSO in 1995. Rather, an assemblage of musicians gathered backstage and cornered then-managing director Kenneth Haas, strongly suggesting that a conductor they admired deeply, who had led some of their finest concerts of recent seasons, was more than deserving of some sort of title.

Considering the source, how could the Dutch maestro refuse?

Though he had several wonderful seasons as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he was leery of the title music director: Haitink felt that the really great orchestras of this or any country needed a varied diet of several top-notch conductors—and that no matter how fine a conductor might be, they all had a "sell by" date with musicians. He truly believed a music director role as currently practiced gives a single conductor too much power, and over the course of several seasons, the marriage will inevitably sour.

Though Haitink perhaps lacked the absolute white heat to which so many podium talents aspire, his solid professionalism and practical application of his knowledge and study appears to be in short supply today. Hopefully, his example will serve many new conductors.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 27, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this article misidentified the managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1995.