Conductor Bernard Haitink
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In every generation there are very few who make it to the top.
This adage applies, of course, to all professions, but those who appear
in public before large audiences seem to have a certain manifest
destiny about them. While the numbers who attend classical music
concerts regularly are not huge, they are devoted and usually
knowledgeable. And they will be certainly be acquainted with the
talents of Bernard Haitink.
For a quarter-century, he led the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and
brought it to the top of the heap. He has also been with the
London Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony as well as Covent Garden and
Glyndebourne, to name just a few select companies. In 2006, while
citing his age as reason not to be its Music Director, Haitink accepted
the invitation to become Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony
In 1997, it had been twenty years since his last appearance with the
CSO and there was eager anticipation of his return. I was
fortunate to secure an interview during that visit, and we
met at Orchestra Hall following a rehearsal, which led to this opening
question . . . . .
all your work done at rehearsal, or do you leave something for that
spark of the performance.
This was a piano
rehearsal with the chorus, but that’s a good question. Rehearsal
is a preparation for a concert, and that says it. No matter how
well you prepare everything, a concert is always a new
adventure because all of a sudden the musicians
realize, and I realize, that there’s no going back. You can’t
stop; you can’t talk. You have just to perform. That’s
one of the first things I said to the orchestra when I came, because it
was such a long time ago. I was here twenty years ago and
I say it more often to orchestras I don’t know that well, and who don’t
know me as well. I say, “Listen, I’m not a great talker.” I
want to create a communication with an
orchestra in a way which you have to do during a concert — with your
physical appearance, your manual dexterity, your hands, and with
your musical personality. Words don’t help then,
anymore. Of course, you have to say sometimes things, and
explain — well, not explain; you don’t have to explain to these people
— but to
get a certain sound, a certain balance. There are always words
where you can help the music, but in answering your question, for
me a rehearsal is a preparation for a performance. I’m not
that sort of technocrat, or analytical man who is so wonderful at
rehearsals, and then afterwards a bit of a disappointment. I
don’t have that talent. I wish I had, maybe because there are
colleagues of mine who
are incredibly intelligent and incredibly analytical, and I’m more
instinctive. I come with a perception of how I want it, but I
also have a sort of openness. I leave something open because I
don’t know what will come to me. That’s a very important
thing, what is offered to me from the musicians. I translate
it very quickly in giving back something, and anticipate the next move.
BD: So you
can work with what you’re given. Do
you ever get ideas that change your basic
yes! Oh, yes. It has to do with
an orchestra as a whole. For
example, the last time I did the Brahms Second Symphony was in Boston five
ago, and that hall has enormous space and reverberation. So you
take it slower. Here in Chicago, I immediately felt I
can’t take it that slow. I have to adjust my tempo to the
hall, of course, otherwise music doesn’t breathe anymore. You
have to be very alert and very awake during a rehearsal because
that’s your only chance to get that right, to get the right
preparation for the concert! [Laughs]
BD: Do you always
get it right?
BH: Of course
not! [Both laugh] Come
on! Who gets it always right?
But one always tries.
BD: Do you
always come very close?
BH: I hope
so. It is not for me to say
that; I’m not a good judge. The moment I start to perform,
there’s a difference. In a rehearsal,
there’s a part of your brain which is controlling and a
part of your ear is listening very carefully. During a
performance, of course I listen, but I am more in [pause] a
way of sound. It’s dangerous to say, but I am in a sort of
dream-like state. It is different!
BD: Is this
state your dream or is it the composer’s dream?
course, of course. It’s the music as
it’s channeled through you, of course.
BD: So you’re
just a conduit then?
BH: Yes, I
hope so. Music means a lot
to me. I have a great admiration and the greatest respect for the
music as it is composed, and I think this every time. It is like
beautiful flower which unfolds itself. I’m thinking now, for
example, of the piece I just did, the Brahms Second Symphony.
It’s like a wonderful, wonderful piece of art, a composition with
ideas which are welded together in a wonderful structure. It is
very poetic, with an extremely high sense of beauty as aesthetical
wonderful music. There’s a danger with orchestras, and also with
performers and conductors, that they become complaisant treading such
common ground that one
forgets how wonderful it is, and one should not.
BD: Is every
piece that you conduct wonderful,
BH: When you
have spent twenty-five
years with an orchestra like I have — the Concertgebouw Orchestra of
Amsterdam — you do also works which you are asked to do, and which you
think you have to do. You try and you try, but there’s not that
love relation which you have with other works.
But that doesn’t mean that you should not treat it very
seriously. As it happens, today I received a new score of
which I have to give the first performance. The piece was
December. I looked superficially through the score and I
said, “Well, that will not be easy, but I will try to do what I
can.” I don’t think that it will be a piece which I can take to
my heart as an established classical piece, but we have to be
extremely careful! Look back into history and see how
mixed the receptions of masterworks were at their first performances — Rite of Spring, Daphnis,
Carmen. Now they are the
masterworks, so one has to be extremely careful. The
critics often condemn these works and later on they seem
to have survived and are masterworks.
BD: It seems,
though, that today we have almost the
opposite, that the critics are praising works which really aren’t going
that is also a thing! It is not that
a critical opinion is stupid, but the critics
are human beings, like we all are, and apparently it’s very difficult
assess the value of a piece immediately. It needs time.
what is it that makes a piece of music
BH: That is very
difficult. Of course, there
are technical things. Men like Boulez can tell you why Schoenberg
is a great composer, and so on. I am not that versatile; I’m not
articulate. Great art, of course, is a mystery, in a
way. Take a man like Mozart. Maybe
he was a very ordinary fellow, and maybe he was not such a nice
man. Who cares? Who knows? But he has written in his
thirty-five years of life the most
outrageous beautiful works! What is that? He wasn’t such a
great man. He was a tiny little man who loved filthy jokes and
loved to gamble and lost lots of money and was very tricky to
people. But he was just that incredible genius! And he must
have had, also, somewhere, a very warm, human touch. You see this
when you read his
letters, his caring letters for his wife and to his father.
That’s a human being! Also consider a controversial figure like
Richard Wagner — my goodness! We all have our moments, but what
makes it that these people, who can be
horrible in life to other
people, how is it possible that these people can create such
masterpieces? That is the secret of genius. And one must
have enormous respect. I think that’s sort of mystery, why
that happens. Let’s be happy. I am happy that they come
and reveal the mystery. I’m happy that I can’t give you an answer
to the question of what makes a good piece. I can’t.
BD: It’s the
magic of it.
Yes! There are so many different styles
and so many different masterworks. The repertoire is so
huge! Think of Schubert or of Bartók, or Haydn or
Stravinsky! It’s only a few names, but I can go on all
BD: From this
huge array of literature that you have
at your disposal and your command, how do you decide which you’re going
to program today, and which you’re to program next week and next year?
BH: Ah, that
is a thing of it. I am a European,
used to teamwork than here in the United States where the Music
Director has to decide everything. For more than twenty-five
years I worked with artistic administrators, and we always decided
together what will be appropriate to do. Even now, forty years a
conductor, when I am invited to
Chicago, I never say, “I want to do this, and that’s it.” I
always ask, “Can we talk? What is your overall line in the
season? How can I fit in?” In my case, Martha Gilmer to
came to London. We had an hour discussion, and she said, “Mahler
is not played very often at the moment, so it would be lovely if
you would like to do Mahler.” So I said, “Oh, I would love
that.” I also said I would like to have an English piece,
and she knew about Turnage. After that we had quite an
interesting exchange of faxes,
because Brahms Second Symphony
was also an idea. Then what shall be the
first piece? She said, “We would like to have the Vaughan
Overture The Wasps,” and I
replied, “No, it’s far
too superficial for the Turnage.” The Turnage is a very serious
piece, for mezzo soprano with orchestra, about loneliness, about
not being accepted by society. Then I decided to stick
to Brahms and do the Haydn Variations,
which is a serious
classical piece, a set of variations, and sets the mood for the
Turnage. It worked out well, actually, I think. I find
program-making fascinating, but I need
dialogue. I’m not a man who likes to sit behind his desk and make
programs. I want to talk about it.
more than forty years of conducting,
are there still some pieces that you would like to do which
you’ve never gotten the opportunity to do or have just never come your
BH: Yes, of
course, that happens. My life is
half opera and half symphonic, and Wagner’s Tristan has always evaded me, to
you a small example.
BD: Sure, but
then you’ve had the opportunity to do
I did that. And so, even if
Tristan will not happen in my
life anymore, well, that’s it. That doesn’t mean that I like the
work less. On the
BD: But you
can make noises and say, “This is
something I’d really like to do.”
BH: I do, but
it is not that easy. It
is very often a matter of casting and a matter of finding the right
slot. It’s not that simple. People think that the music
director has the right to say everything and to want
everything. That’s not in my system.
[Facetiously] You mean, you don’t want to
[Chuckling] No, no, not at all. In
I’m quite an empty conductor. I never enjoyed power. Worse
enough, I didn’t know how to handle it. I discovered that when I
was young and started conducting. Of course, when you are young
you think that you have to impress people! I very
quickly learned that that was not my color, that I’d rather stay
to my own skin and that I couldn’t jump out of my skin and put on the
scene. That didn’t work. One major English critic said to
me, “You’re far too reasonable for a conductor.” [Laughs] I
don’t know if that’s true, but I love to work in organizations. I
a very long spell in Amsterdam and also with
London Philharmonic. Then the Glyndebourne Festival for twelve
now Covent Garden, which is also quite a long time. I like to
belong to an organization. It’s not always easy, but gives me a
sort of satisfaction.
BD: Aside from the
very obvious, what are the
basic differences between conducting an opera performance and
conducting a concert symphonic performance?
BH: That is a
question which very often comes
my way. It’s very interesting. When I’m in the pit, I
love it so much that I think, “Oh why do I go back to the concert
platform?” When I’m working with a symphony orchestra
— and I’m an
extremely lucky man that I’m always able nowadays to work with
top orchestras — I think
I’m mad to go back to the pit and have all
these hassles with the singers and the directors and that whole
shooting match! Why do I do it? It is a very strange thing;
I’m very split. So what is the difference? As a symphonic
conductor you are
enormously exposed. There’s nothing between you, the score, and
music. You have the musicians in front of you and when you are
able to create a good communication with them, that’s it. But
you are extremely exposed. You are a man on the podium and
there’s two thousand people with all these eyes on your back. In
opera, you have the orchestra, of course, but you have the singers, you
have the production. Sometimes you have, of course, the technical
problems of keeping the whole bloody thing together!
sometimes a bit more complicated. The danger in opera is
sometimes it can be below par, because you have all sorts of problems
with singers who don’t live up to your expectations, or are getting
ill and you’re having a substitute, etcetera, etcetera. The
danger factor in opera is the risk is bigger; there’s no doubt.
On the other side, the pit can generate an excitement which is such
that you not so often find in the concert hall.
BD: It’s a
bigger risk, but a bigger payoff?
sometimes, and that has to do with
the whole dramatic impact of these pieces. Take, for example, a Ring
cycle, which I did three recently. The response of an
audience after each opera, but especially after Götterdämmerung, is
something mind-boggling! It is such a wave of emotion which, in
the concert hall, you only get with Mahler,
sometimes, because that’s also such theatrical music. That
doesn’t say that opera has better music, but the dimensions are
different, and it can impress in an enormous way.
general, is the audience for opera different
from the audience for symphony?
yes! At least, in my
opinion. In London, we have the situation of two opera companies
and two concert halls and many orchestras. I do both opera and
London, and I also go to performances
myself as a member of the audience. It’s very interesting
sitting in the opera or sitting in the concert hall. It is a
audience! It’s very seldom that you see the same people as
crossovers. At the opera, you sometimes have a very partisan
community in your audience. This is dangerous to say, but concert
audiences can be more civilized! [Both laugh]
BD: Does this
into your mind at all in selecting repertoire, or in choosing tempi
or interpretation? Or, is it just something that’s there on the
night of the performance and you let it go?
BH: Oh, no,
no, no. I came later to opera, actually. I was a
youngish conductor, in my early forties, and they asked to do it.
come back to your question, but it was a sort of adventure. Then
I started to understand that it can expand your musical
horizon in an enormous way, especially when I went to Covent Garden
and the Royal Opera House in London. I knew this was a huge risk
because it’s not an easy institution, not an easy organization.
But there, I knew I could do the Wagner, Strauss, Verdi, and I knew by
then that it’s a sort of musical body-building. And it has
done me enormous good, I have to say! I lacked
something before I did it, and I think I have developed, now, in a
better way, and that has to do with so many facets, with so many
aspects. One of the good things of opera is that you have a long
preparation time. Especially when you are the Music Director, you
have your new productions and even revivals, but you keep your eye on
house and you can oversee the larger schedules. However, I
always see that guest conductors also get time. Even a revival
means two and a half or
three weeks preparation, and a new production gets four weeks. In
that time, you have really a chance to absorb more and more and
more. You start from the beginning where the music calls for the
singers, with your repetiteurs, and you have your production
rehearsals. You see how the whole thing starts to grow, and
that’s a very fascinating thing! Sometimes, in a symphonic
scene, a concert is over before you
realize that you have done it! Every week is another
program. It’s very cruel, especially in the States. The
whole set-up of symphony orchestras here is so rigid — it’s four
rehearsals. You have twice a day Tuesday and Wednesday, and then
you have your series of concerts. In the long run, that is quite
a cruel schedule.
BD: Do you leave
enough time in your life for study
BH: I have
to. I have to. It sounds
all very sensible and seems to have common sense, but with the study of
music, or re-learning, I’ve never had the
feeling that I can close the score on Tuesday night because I know it,
really, and I don’t have to look anymore. There is always the
fear, “Oh, God, I should have had more
time!” But this, of course, is the neurotic
artist who always thinks, “I can do
better,” and we have to be that way! That can be a terrible
nuisance because you live under continuous stress, but I think a
lot of professionals have that. A writer has to live
up to a deadline, a doctor has his patients, and a surgeon
has human lives in his hands. So, I should not moan
BD: Do you
feel that you have human souls in your
Hmmmm. Yes, in a way. I work with
musicians, with human beings. Oh, yes! Oh, yes! I’m
not a man who wants to consciously tread on his musicians’ toes.
Of course, it happens in real life that you have to make
unpleasant decisions, especially when you are linked to an
organization. That’s awful. And of course it happens that
you say the wrong thing at the wrong moment. It happens to all of
us; it happened to me. It happens less and less, but nevertheless
it happened to me, and I’m the one who has sleepless nights,
then. I think to myself, “Oh, I should never have said
How can I be so stupid?” These are awful moments, actually,
because you work with human beings! And you get a response from
BD: I hope,
though, that the glorious moments far
outweigh stupid moments.
yes. What do you think? Of
course, of course.
BD: When you
come, for instance, to a Brahms
symphony that you’ve conducted and recorded, do
you get a clean score and start fresh?
I’m terrible! I always buy a new
pocket score, so I have five different copies of Brahms’ Second
Symphony, three different copies of Bruckner
Seven and four of Bruckner Eight. Yes, I
always like to. After you do certain repertoire for a
certain time and you leave it for a couple of years, then you want to
start fresh again, and have a new score. It’s
wonderful, even if it’s a miniature score, to open a new score and
it’s totally fresh. It’s lovely!
it’s like an old friend, is it not?
BH: Yes, of
advice do you have for younger conductors
BH: Oh, my
goodness! I love to work with
younger conductors. I have done that several times at
Tanglewood. I can’t give an overall advice because every talent
different. My attitude is that I’m not
going to say he has more talent than he. It’s not a competition
here.” I look at them; I let them do things and listen to
them, and then I try, in their possibilities or in their
impossibilities, to change things or to give them some advice.
Sometimes it’s very simple. Some batons fiddle
around. Then I ask, “What do you mean with that? Do you
that helps? I am now an orchestra musician, so give me a
beat that I can play on; but not only give a beat correctly,
but also in the right mood, the right sound. And why is your left
hand so contrived? Let go, and maybe you get a more relaxed
sound.” So, everyone has a different problem or a different
asset, and I find it fascinating to bring that out and make it
conscious to them. Last summer I had also two
fellow students with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
(the young people). I had to observe them and coach them
diplomatically. I had a concert with
them; I did two pieces and they did two pieces. One did the
Mumford Overture the other one did a Haydn
Symphony. It was very interesting, a total difference in their
characters. In that situation I changed seats. First I was
in the hall, and then I was in the
orchestra. They have fifty minutes in the morning
and another fifty minutes in the afternoon. So there you are in
front of musicians, and every word you say can be very
hurtful for these conductors; you have to be very
careful. You should not destroy them, you should stimulate
them. So I let him go on for
ten minutes and then I said, “Do you really think that works? Why
don’t you try it
another way to see if it is good for you, if it suits your hands, and
you get the sound and the tempo you want.” Everyone is
BD: I would
think that if
they get the sound they’re looking for, then they must be communicating
BH: Yeah, of
course. And I find
that extremely fascinating. There was one who was extremely
talented, but also extremely
authoritative; for my taste, too much. I thought, “How can I
handle that in front of other people in the hall
and the musicians? How can I handle that without making it too
embarrassing for him?” because then it can be counterproductive.
I think I found the right sentence. I
said to him, “Listen, now don’t show more authority than you are doing
at the moment. Don’t overdo it, okay?” [Both laugh] And
then I said it several times every day, and
he cooled down a little bit!
Sure. Exactly! It’s a very
wonderful way of handling it.
BH: You have
it, in the limits of your own personality.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the young conducting talent that you see coming along?
There is talent, of course. I can’t
imagine that we live now in a time and age where there’s less talent
there was. The problem is do they get the opportunity?
BD: Are there
too many conductors around?
BH: No, I
don’t think so. Maybe too many
aspiring conductors, but I don’t know. The
opportunities are very important factors. For
example, you have here in Chicago an assistant conductor. Boston
assistant conductors who do three months each. I
think that’s extremely important! I’m in origin Dutch and I live
in England now, but I still have my links with Holland because I
conducted the orchestra for a long time. I have seen that
whole scene deteriorate because there was no money anymore. That
was the excuse the orchestra managements in Holland used, “No,
no, we don’t have assistant conductors anymore because we don’t have
the money.” I don’t think that is a viable argument. In any
director of the hall Amsterdam,
which is different from the orchestra, has found a sponsor,
and now there’s a program for orchestras
to engage assistant conductors. The sponsor will give an amount
of guilders each year to an orchestra who wants to have an assistant
conductor. The assistant conductor has to be chosen by a
jury. I will not be in the jury because I want to be totally
objective. But I think it’s a good move because young conductors
have to start work; they have to get experience! There was a time when
famous conductors — Bruno Walter, Otto
Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, and all these people — they all started in the
little Central European opera
houses. That is not the case anymore. Opera houses are
disappearing. Opera houses have their music staff, but are very
protective about their people. It’s not that easy anymore, even
for a music director, to say, “I engaged Mr. X as a repetiteur.”
It’s all much more complicated. So
that’s an important source of musical education that has a gap now,
much more than it was. That was, of course, the way to learn the
trade! I was lucky as a young man. I was a
product of the Dutch Radio Conductor’s Course — not a competition, but
a Conductor’s Course — where I went two
consecutive years for six weeks each.
BD: I thought
you started out as a violinist.
BH: Yeah, yeah,
yeah, but I wanted to be a
conductor and I got my way into these conductor’s courses. I
had the luck that the conductor, the teacher, was extremely helpful for
me. He died recently, Ferdinand Leitner. After the
second Conductor’s Course, he said, “Either you go with me
in Stuttgart,” because he was music director there, “or you will get a
job with Dutch Radio. I will do that for
you.” And it happened that I got the job at the Dutch
Radio. So I had enormous luck; I was helped enormously!
had a good success here in Chicago conducting
know! He was a wonderful opera conductor! It’s very sad to
hear that he recently died,
because he was extremely wonderful to me, and he was such an old hand
in the opera repertoire; fantastic!
BD: And a
good friend of Carl Orff, too.
yes! Yeah, yeah, a friend of Carl Orff,
a great admirer of Carl Orff. He did all his pieces. So I
was very lucky. I think that every young
talent needs an elderly conductor who is willing and able to help
him. This, of course, is enormously important. Look
at Bernstein and Ozawa. Look at Koussevitzky and Bernstein!
I mean, it happens.
BD: Is it not
part of each great conductor’s responsibility to pass on the ideas and
BH: I totally
agree, but there are also conductors who very
jealously guard their position and don’t want any one around
them! I find that extremely odd. I know an example, but I
can’t mention the name. That’s very short-sighted, I
think. Nature always takes its course; when one gets older, one
has a bit more equilibrium and one sees more that one should try to
help younger people to find their way. It’s very difficult, this
business of conducting. The danger is that if there is a talent
and he has success, that he is immediately in the hands of the media,
and then things are going too fast. There are examples of
very talented conductors who are going the wrong way because they’ve
confused loudness with success! It’s a danger! And to judge
talent of a conductor is very difficult. I’ve known it
myself. I find I can judge a violinist, or just about every
instrument I think rather well. But when I go to a concert and I
conductor, I find it sometimes very difficult to make up my mind!
Sometimes that is very difficult. Only when a thing is really
outstandingly good, then I immediately say, “Oh, yes, that’s
fantastic.” Then I know. But there are layers in between
where I think, “Is it good or is it just a bit this, or just a bit
BD: Is it,
perhaps, that you’re wondering how much of
what you’re hearing is the conductor and how much is the ability of
BD: So when
it is really good, it’s easy to say, and when it’s
really bad it’s easy to say?
BD: But then
there is this whole gap in the middle.
BH: There is
that, exactly. Yeah.
see. Let me ask a very easy
question: what’s the purpose of music?
purpose of music? Good heavens, what’s
the purpose of art? I don’t think there’s a purpose; it is
there. Let’s be grateful that it is there. Someone said...
it was a famous English writer, a gazetteer — Dr.
BD: Oh, sure,
BH: He said,
“Why does one write? One
writes to make life more endurable for people.” I think that
is a wonderful sentence!
BD: Do you
conduct differently in the recording
studio than you do in the concert hall or the opera house?
BH: I made,
of course, the majority of my
recordings in Amsterdam with Concertgebouw Orchestra, during these
years. At that time — and I think that is still the practice
there — that you give a performance three or
four times and then in the same hall you have your sessions. I
to keep the feeling of a performance. Definitely you can do that
by making long takes, not too many interruptions, not being too
analytical. You always can make corrections later on. I
think that in the long run the orchestra and I developed a
certain scheme. First you have twenty minutes of fiddling around,
and you have to find the right sound. Then you make a first
recording, which is more or less a test. You listen to that
and you discuss the balance and the things you hear, or
you hear the things which are not right and you analyze your own
things. Then you go back to the orchestra and maybe you say a
few things and try to repair a few things. Then you make
your first real recording, and that is mostly the time that you
have to make or break. So you listen again, and then after the
break it’s very often that the serious work starts. Then,
everyone is wound up and then you do it. That was more or less
the system I had in Amsterdam and also in Boston now. Opera
recordings are much more complicated because of the varying ability of
singers. It is nearly never that you can
start from the beginning and go straight to the end. You
have to do scene three
and scene five in Act Three, and the next day God knows what, to have
this opera recording. And then you have to have a
really good radar system that oversees that you have the right
tempi, the right line, the right architecture, so that you don’t
deliver a patchy piece of work.
really have to come especially prepared so that
everything works right.
BH: Of course
you have to come prepared, even more than when you have done pieces in
performance. Even when you have
done opera in performance and you record it later on, the singer is
very often very different. Opera recordings are logistically
very complicated, and it’s very seldom that you have a
series of performances with the same cast as a recording.
That’s very seldom.
all the obstacles, are you basically pleased with the recordings
that have been issued under your baton?
BH: That’s a very
difficult question. I
don’t know. The best comparison may be, speaking for
myself, I never like to hear my own voice on tape and I know that other
people also have that problem. And it takes a very, very long
time before I really have the peace of mind to listen to my own
recordings. I never do that immediately. Of course I
listen during the sessions, I listen to the takes, but that’s a
different thing! Then you are in that whole working
process. But once the last session is finished, I let it
go. Of course, you get the trial recording where you
have to approve, or you have to give them your opinions, and I
try do it; strange enough, not too seriously! I will
then never listen with the score; I just think, “Now I want to listen
totally casually and see how it comes my way.” So I very seldom
hear technical details. I know artists who send the list back
of a hundred and twenty points they have! That I don’t do.
BD: But that
you’ve done previously in the process.
Exactly. Yes, but it is after the last session that the
tape undergoes a process until it becomes a
master tape. Many people fiddle around with it — all for the
better, maybe. But maybe one does this and one does that, and
sometimes one has to be very careful. I always was in the very
lucky situation to have extremely good producers whom I could trust
that they would not mess around with it.
with yours, but are there some recordings that should credit
co-conductors or the conductor and the producer on the same line?
BH: It could
be. And there are the
conductors that did it themselves. Von Karajan was famous for
that. When he made the tapes, he went to Hanover, to Deutsche
Grammophon, and started to mix things. He loved
technical touches. And it’s not always a pleasure to hear these
manipulated recordings, even with all the respect I had for Karajan.
BD: Did they
become a fraud?
BH: No, but
sometimes they do things more there, and
more there, and [sighs] well... They can do a lot nowadays;
so many tracks. That first note should have been a bit
more, and then they have to take it out. They can do it; it’s not
fraud, but they can manipulate.
BD: I just
wonder, does that set up an
impossible expectation on the part of the audience that hears the
record at home, and then comes to the concert hall expecting, perhaps,
the same kind of sound?
BH: There’s a
danger. There’s a big danger, a grave danger, of course.
That’s why I’m always a bit frightened
when people say, “I have this recording of this, and that.
That’s the only recording I want to listen to.” Well, that’s
dangerous because it’s frozen activity. You have put it in the
freezer and it comes out exactly as it
was. But it restricts you because you
think, “That’s the best one.” It was recommended to you, but you
close yourself to other ideas and other
interpretations. So there’s a danger. And you lose a sort
of spontaneity when you say [at a live performance], “Oh, well, that’s
not like my
recording.” I think the use of recordings is best only when you
several different interpretations of the same piece. That’s what
I do as a music lover.
pieces in the repertoire I love, and the
chamber music repertoire — the Archduke
Trio of Beethoven and lots
of his chamber music, piano sonatas, for example,
of Schubert, Debussy. I have several performances, several
interpretations of the same piece. Of course, I have my little
favorites, but nevertheless! [Laughs]
that’s like going to several different
concerts, really. You’re just bringing the concerts
into your home.
BD: Should we
producing recordings where the person has the ability to bring out the
first flute, or change the tempo?
that will be the future, I guess.
Maybe it’s already the present; I don’t know.
BD: Is that a
good thing, a bad thing, or just a
very dangerous! But I’m sure it will give people pleasure
because they feel that they are creative; they can mess around with it.
BD: Is that
creativity, or manipulation?
BD: One last
BH: For me it’s
very serious business. Maybe, because I’m basically very serious,
and basically also sometimes
quite pessimistic, therefore sometimes maybe I lose out on the
fun side of it. It gives me enormous pleasure, but you never get
used to it. The last minutes before a performance, no matter how
often you have done it, you’re always looking into the abyss.
That’s my experience. Of course, when the thing goes well
there is an enormous feeling of satisfaction afterwards, and I
should not underplay that. When I say look into the abyss,
it’s a thing you never get used to. I don’t know any artist who
doesn’t, more or less, tremble before a performance.
BD: You just
have to take a deep breath, and
course, we have to. But I think it is, in
many ways, a wonderful life. One has to be careful about the
ambition of being a conductor because we all are ambitious. That
is the problem, of course, because otherwise you are not a
conductor. But you must be careful that the ambition and the
power game and the politics don’t take over. Then it is not fun
anymore. As long as I still can admire a piece of music, then
I’m still on safe ground, I think. If I would just
look at it as a tool for my own use, I think that would be very
BD: So you
serve the music?
BH: Yes, I
think I try to do that, yes, yes. It
sounds a bit pretentious, but I think it’s true. Music is a
wonderful thing. Orchestras are a fascinating collection of
musicians and people. I like the togetherness and the ways to get
better, and to get the best out of people because then they will
also get the best out of me. It is a mutual thing.
BD: A mutual
mutual motivation, I would say.
BD: In the
end, though, it gets the best out of the
Yes. I’m terribly upset when I can’t
motivate an orchestra! If that doesn’t happen, I feel
terribly inadequate and then I find it a terrible job.
BD: I would
think in your position that that rarely
BH: I have to
say rarely, and that’s a good thing.
BD: Thank you
for all of the music for all these many
years. I hope it continues for a long time.
very kind. Thank you.
With an international conducting career that has spanned more than five
decades, Amsterdam-born Bernard Haitink is one of today's most
Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2006, he
was for more than 25 years at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw as
its music director. In addition, Mr Haitink has previously held posts
as music director of the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Royal Opera, Covent
Garden, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and the London Philharmonic. He is
Conductor Laureate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Conductor
Emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has made frequent guest
appearances with most of the world’s leading orchestras.
The 2008-9 season includes tours to Europe, Japan, Hong Kong and China
with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as performances in Chicago
and Carnegie Hall, New York. He will complete the cycle of Beethoven
symphonies, concertos and overtures with the Chamber Orchestra of
Europe started in Easter 2008 at the Summer 2008 and Easter 2009 Luzern
Festivals. Other highlights of the season include a new production of
“Fidelio” at the Zürich Opera, and concerts with the Berlin
Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras. He celebrates his 80th
birthday in March 2009 with concerts with the Royal Concertgebouw
Orchestra in Amsterdam and at The Barbican Centre, London.
Mr Haitink has recorded widely for Phillips, Decca and EMI labels,
including complete cycles of Mahler, Bruckner, and Schumann symphonies
with the Concertgebouw and extensive repertoire with the Berlin and
Vienna Philharmonic orchestras and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His
most recent recordings are the complete Brahms and Beethoven symphonies
with the London Symphony Orchestra on the LSO Live label, and Mahler’s
Symphonies no.3 and 6 and Bruckner Symphony no.7 with the Chicago
Symphony for their new “Resound” label. His discography also includes
many opera recordings with the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne, as well as
with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Dresden Staatskapelle. Mr
Haitink’s recording of Janacek’s Jenufa with the orchestra, soloists,
and chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden received a Grammy
Award for best opera recording in 2004.
Mr Haitink has received many international awards in recognition of his
services to music, including both an honorary Knighthood and the
Companion of Honour in the United Kingdom, and the House Order of
Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands. He was named Musical America’s
“Musician of the Year” for 2007.
© 1997 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at Orchestra Hall in Chicago
on January 13, 1997. Portions (along with recordings) were
broadcast on WNIB in 1999, and on WNUR in 2003. The
transcription was made in 2008 and posted on this
website in December of that year.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.