Back in 2006 Bernard Haitink, then age 77 and about to begin a fouryear stint as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, told an interviewer, "Every conductor, including myself, has a 'sell-by' date."
This month the Dutch conductor, now 82, leads the New York Philharmonic. Between the middle of September and these Avery Fisher Hall performances, he will have spent one week with the Berlin Philharmonic and two weeks in Chicago. After New York and a couple of weeks off he will return to the orchestra that first brought him fame, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Has he reached that dismal "sell-by" date?
"I hope not," the distinguished conductor said during a phone interview from his home in London. "Otherwise I wouldn't do it. If I were conscious of it, I would stop immediately." Both on and off the podium, Mr. Haitink is known as an unassuming man. Asked whether he should be addressed as "Maestro," he replies, "No, I don't like that. It makes me nervous. You can call me Bernard."
He doesn't need the fuss. He has been described as "attention-compelling, but never attention-seeking." Still, he has had a long and stellar career. He made his debut with the Concertgebouw in 1956, and led that orchestra : originally as first conductor, then as principal conductor : until 1988. He also served as music director of the Glyndebourne Opera, and then of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Most of Bernard Haitink's conducting has been in Europe, although he was principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1994 to 2004, and is now the ensemble's conductor emeritus. As peripatetic as any contemporary conductor, he has toured Japan with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony as well.
There is one orchestra, though, that he hasn't visited in a very long time: the New York Philharmonic. He made his debut with the Orchestra in 1975, and then returned for two weeks in February 1978, during the transition from Pierre Boulez to Zubin Mehta. That was the last time he stood on the podium at Avery Fisher Hall.
Why? "I don't know, it was a long time ago," Mr. Haitink reflects. "I think the press was not very favorable. These things happen : you don't get a good grip on the orchestra."
Today, he believes, things are different. "I have a feeling that I have changed a lot. Also, the New York Philharmonic has changed a lot over 40 years. I hear that they are going through a very positive time of their life."
Bernard Haitink gives Music Director Alan Gilbert credit for bringing him back to New York. "I had very pleasant meetings with him, and got the impression he is a man who really cares for his musicians. That is very important, more than in the past. The new Music Director saw me, we talked about the Orchestra, I got a very positive impression of him, and therefore I said 'Yes, I'd love to come.'"
During his time in New York Mr. Haitink will lead two programs, first with Strauss (Don Quixote) and Beethoven (Symphony No. 6, Pastoral), then with Haydn (Symphony No. 96, Miracle) and Bruckner (Symphony No. 7). "Strauss was such a craftsman," the conductor says. "People even said once that Mr. Strauss could compose an empty glass of beer. That is how he was, an incredible virtuoso in illustrating his musical source."
But Strauss was no Beethoven: "Strauss is excellent. He has great moments. Beethoven is a great composer. You can't compare the two." Mr. Haitink considers the combination a good program because after the Don Quixote, the Pastoral "brings you back to more intimate music-making. I strongly believe in this program. It is also because I look forward to working with two of the Orchestra's principals," referring to Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps and Principal Cello Carter Brey. "I have not worked with them before; I only know that they are very good."
One might link Beethoven and Strauss as two Romantic composers, but the distance between the creators of the second program seems much greater. There is a remarkable contrast between the sound worlds of the courtly Haydn, the supreme classicist, and the complex, polyphonic harmonies and organ-like sonorities of the profoundly pious, romantic Bruckner. "That's what I want : contrast," Mr. Haitink says. "Bruckner has a very certain style. You should start with a Mozart or Haydn. For me, that is an ideal combination."
That is in keeping with the conductor's well-known laconicism. He once told a British interviewer: "I'm a conductor who is not very elaborate with words. I really have to do it with my hands. One has to make strengths of one's weaknesses, and my weakness is that I'm not very good at verbal explanations."
But he is very good with those hands, as we expect to hear.
The 1970s are long past: "I am a different man," Mr. Haitink believes. "In a way it is a new orchestra for me. That is always an extra challenge. I remember after many years I came back to Chicago : it was something new, something exciting."
With decades of experience and having worked with a host of ensembles, he remarks: "It is wonderful, the relationship between conductor and orchestra. I am looking forward to experiencing that in New York."
Peter W. Goodman is an assistant professor of journalism at Hofstra University. For many years a music critic for Newsday and New York Newsday, he is the author of Morton Gould: American Salute.