It is a question you might understandably pose to a conductor who has just turned 80 and who made his debut more than half a century ago, and you might anticipate in response some sort of revelatory analysis of qualities required to maintain stature on the podium. Energy? Experience? Encyclopedic knowledge of scores? Efficiency in rehearsals? Efficacy and tact? Haitink possesses all of those traits, but he also harbors behind that solemn, sometimes rueful exterior a disarming wit.
If only it were as simple as his reply, the world would be awash with conductors of Haitink's inspirational powers, but the great ones bring something intangible to their craft. The listener recognizes it when he or she hears it. Orchestras are aware of its value in producing performances of penetrating insight. But the sleight of hand and the acuity that go to make the master-maestros' interpretations so memorable, so emotionally devastating, so eloquent and so enveloping are characteristics that remain cloaked in mystery. Conductors cannot explain how it is done anymore than we in the audience can fathom it.
Lincoln Center audiences will have the opportunity to experience that mystery Oct. 21-25 when Haitink leads the London Symphony Orchestra in three concerts of Mahler and Schubert to open the 2009 _2010 season of Great Performers.
Haitink, as anyone who has observed him on the platform will know, is a man of economical gestures. In rehearsal he is a man of few words. He once wryly remarked that orchestras liked him because he said so little, but it is a fact that he can convey his intentions with apparently minimal movement of the hands and with virtually no verbal comment.
Maybe part of the secret lies in the respect he has for orchestras and in the reciprocal respect they have for him. This has been a constant feature throughout his distinguished career, and it is a testament to the strong and fruitful bonds he can forge with players that his key appointments have enjoyed long duration. Born and educated in Amsterdam, he was principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for more than a quarter of a century, from 1961 to 1988. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, he held a similar post with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He was music director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera in the U.K. for a decade from 1978, and from then until 2002 was music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London. For nine years from 1995 he was principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. More recently, he has been in charge of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, acting, as he self-effacingly puts it, as a "caretaker" between the departure of Daniel Barenboim in 2006 and the arrival of Riccardo Muti next year, but in the interim guiding the orchestra to peaks of excellence.
In all these positions Haitink has made an indelible impact through concerts and recordings, tapping orchestras' natural resources while creating his own individual, warm, balanced and lucid sound and achieving unforgettable results by means of his profound knowledge and persuasive gifts. The same has been true of his association with the London Symphony Orchestra. The relationship started in 1998, and in 2006 he directed a landmark cycle of Beethoven symphonies in London and New York, still talked of in awed terms and happily preserved for posterity on the LSO's in-house record label. Players in the orchestra adore him. In the words of David Alberman, principal second violinist, "There are conductors who enjoy admiration among musicians, and there are conductors who enjoy great affection. Bernard is one of the few who enjoy both, because of his qualities as a musician and as a human being."
Haitink also knows infallibly how orchestras work. While he generally might not say much, there are occasions when he needs to adjust something. Matthew Gibson, double bass-player and the LSO's vice chairman, says that "when he stops the orchestra, he doesn't start talking straight away. He rests and allows the orchestra to have its moment. When an orchestra is stopped by a conductor, it needs to express itself. People want to discuss things with their partners. He understands that that's part of the process of musicians working together. He gives you space to have that discussion. He will then make a very few small directing points and start again from the same place."
This mutual confidence between Haitink and orchestral musicians manifested itself yet again in July during the BBC Proms in London, when he conducted the LSO in a breathtaking performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, one of the works they are bringing to New York. Here, as on other occasions when Haitink is interpreting a score of ample proportions with many layers and facets of expression, the overriding impression is that he is thoroughly at one with the broad architecture, instinctively sensing the music's innate momentum and its moments of climax, while at the same time being alert to crucial aspects of detail, orchestral timbre, and strands of texture. David Alberman finds an apt analogy in the internet's geographical windows on the world. "He has a command of the world map as well as the street-finder and the layout of the bricks in that little house on the corner."
Watching Haitink on the rostrum, he does make it all look so easy, but his art is the product of deep and protracted preparation. "I'm good at planning," he once said. "I prepare things for a long time, not two days before I have to go to a rehearsal. I like that, because maybe, hopefully, the interpretation will grow. If ever I stop interpreting, I shall miss sitting at my desk looking at a score." Let's take heart in that "if ever." Nobody: whether musician or audience member: wants him to stop.
For tickets to the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Haitink, visit Lincoln Center.