Bernard Haitink, conductor who let music speak for itself, dies at 92

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Bernard Haitink, conductor who let music speak for itself, dies at 92
Bernard Haitink conducts the Boston Symphony at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., July 9, 2006. Haitink, an unaffected maestro who led Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for 27 years and was known for presenting powerful readings of the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner and Beethoven conducting orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic, died on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, at his home in London. He was 92. Michael Lutch/The New York Times.

by Vivien Schweitzer

NEW YORK, NY.- Bernard Haitink, an unaffected maestro who led Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for 27 years and was known for presenting powerful readings of the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner and Beethoven conducting orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic, died Thursday at his home in London. He was 92.

His death was announced by his management agency, Askonas Holt.

Along with the Concertgebouw, Haitink had long associations in Britain with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Festival. He was also a prolific recording artist, putting on disc the complete symphonies of nearly a dozen canonical composers — sometimes twice.

Haitink let the music emerge from the orchestra, often transcendently, without imposing a heavy-handed interpretation that a star conductor might.

His self-effacing nature was noticed early on.

He was “not one of the glamour boys on the podium,” Harold Schonberg, chief classical music critic for The New York Times, wrote in January 1975 after Haitink’s debut with the New York Philharmonic, conducting Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.

“He does not dance, he does not patronize the best tailor on the Continent,” Schonberg wrote. “But he is a dedicated musician, always on top of the music, getting exactly what he wants from his players.”

Reviewing his performance of the same symphony with the Philharmonic in 2011, critic Steve Smith wrote in the Times: “Some conductors strive for mysticism in late Bruckner; Mr. Haitink, with his unerring sense of shape, transition and flow, lets the music speak for itself, with results that can approach the supernatural and often did here.”

Haitink was so humble as a young man that he almost missed out on his first big break. The Concertgebouw had asked him in 1956 to replace an indisposed Carlo Maria Giulini for a performance of Cherubini’s Requiem in C minor. But he initially turned down the opportunity, despite having conducted the work many times. He said he didn’t feel ready.

But he changed his mind, the concert was a success, and so began his long collaboration with the Concertgebouw. He became a regular guest conductor, was appointed co-chief conductor in 1961 and then chief conductor in 1963.

Haitink began conducting opera in the 1960s and made his debut at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1972, leading Mozart’s “Abduction From the Seraglio.” He was music director of the Glyndebourne Opera from 1977 to 1988 and of the Royal Opera from 1987 to 2002.

In an opera world where increasingly outlandish stagings were becoming the fashion, Haitink had a strategy when required to conduct a production he didn’t like. “One closes one’s eyes and lives in the music,” he said in a 2009 interview with The Guardian.

That strategy seemed to have worked at Covent Garden for a mid-1990s staging of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle by Richard Jones, in which Brünnhilde wore a body stocking with a skeleton print and a gym skirt, and the Rhinemaidens sported latex nude bodysuits.

Critic Rupert Christiansen wrote in The Spectator that the “sketchiness” of the staging “was cruelly shown up by the contrasting finish and maturity of the musical aspects of the performance.”

“I have never heard Bernard Haitink conduct anything better than this Götterdämmerung,” he said. “In its combination of fluency and subtlety with blazing grandeur, it was consummate.”

In addition to the Concertgebouw, Haitink held conductorships of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Dresden Staatskapelle. He also regularly led the Vienna Philharmonic, and in 2006 he was hired as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“These things are never planned, but things just happen to me — I’m not a chess player,” he told The Guardian, regarding the Chicago appointment.

Haitink's reputation for being unassuming trailed him throughout his career. In 1967, Time magazine described him as “a short, quiet man who likes to take long bird-watching rambles in the woods,” and pointed out that “in a profession where flamboyance and arrogance are often the hallmarks of talent, the diffident Haitink is an anomaly.” A New York Times article in 1976 carried the headline “Why Doesn’t Bernard Haitink Act Like a Superstar?”

Haitink’s colleagues lauded his modesty, integrity and musicianship when he was awarded the prestigious Gramophone Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. Pianist Murray Perahia, who recorded the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Haitink and the Concertgebouw, praised him as being “dedicated to a real collaboration: neither dictating an interpretation, nor slavishly following — but a natural give and take.”

But Haitink did not shy away from taking a stand when he thought it necessary. In 1982, he threatened to “never set foot on a Dutch stage again” after learning that the Dutch government planned to reduce the Concertgebouw’s subsidy, a move that might have led to the firing of about two dozen orchestral musicians. The cuts were eventually avoided. And in 1998 he resigned from the Royal Opera in London to protest a yearlong closing that was to take effect in January 1999 after a period of artistic and financial tumult. He rescinded his resignation shortly afterward, however.

Haitink frequently gave master classes. In an event held at the Royal College of Music in London, he wryly advised a class of young conductors not to criticize the orchestra musicians since any flaws might be as much the mistake of the conductor as of the players.

“You are there to give them confidence even if things aren’t going perfectly,” he said.

Bernard Haitink was born March 4, 1929, into a well-off family in Amsterdam. His father, Willem Haitink, was a civil servant, and his mother, Anna Clara Verschaffelt, worked for the French cultural organization Alliance Française. Neither were musicians. The family lived under Nazi occupation during World War II, and Willem was imprisoned for three months in a concentration camp.

Haitink referred to his youth as his “lazy days.”

“I wasn’t stupid,” he said, “but I just wasn’t there. Half the time we were taught under our desks because of air raids. But even when things became normal, I wasn’t interested. Maybe this is why now, when I am over 70, that people always ask me why I work so hard.”

He began playing the violin at age 9 and later studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory. He joined the second violin section of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra but was insecure about his abilities as a violinist. After taking a conducting course, he was appointed conductor of the orchestra in 1955 at age 26.

Haitink, who once said that “every conductor, including myself, has a sell-by date,” officially retired during his 90th year after an acclaimed farewell tour of European summer festivals. Reviewing his concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in London on that tour, critic Erica Jeal wrote that the “last word had to be from Bruckner.”

“Haitink, as ever, emphasized beauty over structure,” she wrote, “yet did not allow the music’s sense of shape to slacken for a moment.”

His extensive recordings include the complete symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Schumann for the Philips label; the complete symphonies of Elgar and Vaughan Williams for EMI; the complete symphonies of Shostakovich for Decca; the complete Debussy orchestral works for Philips; and Beethoven and Brahms symphony cycles for the London Symphony Orchestra’s LSO Live label.

Haitink was married four times and had several children and grandchildren. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.

In 2011, in another interview with The Guardian, Haitink mused on the strange life of a conductor. “I have been doing this job for 50 years,” he said. “And, you know, it is a profession and it is not a profession. It’s very obscure sometimes. What makes a good conductor? What is this thing about charisma? I’m still wondering after all these years.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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