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 Orchestra.

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 . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Is all your work done at rehearsal, or do you leave something for that spark of the performance.

Bernard Haitink:    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 interpretation?

BH:    Oh, 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 years 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]

haitink 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 dream-like state your dream or is it the composer’s dream?

BH:    Of 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 a 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 wonderful ideas which are welded together in a wonderful structure.  It is very poetic, with an extremely high sense of beauty as aesthetical value.  It’s 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, or beautiful?

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 completed in 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 most established 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 anywhere.

BH:    Yeah, 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 to assess the value of a piece immediately.  It needs time.

BD:    Well, what is it that makes a piece of music great?

haitink 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 that 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.

BH:    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 evening!

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, and more 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 Williams 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.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    After 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 way?

BH:    Yes, of course, that happens.  My life is half opera and half symphonic, and Wagner’s Tristan has always evaded me, to give you a small example.

BD:    Sure, but then you’ve had the opportunity to do the Ring.

BH:    Exactly, 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 contrary! [Laughs]

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.

BD:    [Facetiously]  You mean, you don’t want to be dictator???

BH:    [Chuckling]  No, no, not at all.  In that respect 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 had a very long spell in Amsterdam and also with London Philharmonic.  Then the Glyndebourne Festival for twelve years and 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.

haitink 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 orchestrasI 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 the 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!  That is 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?

BH:    Yeah, 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.

BD:    In general, is the audience for opera different from the audience for symphony?

BH:    Oh, 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 concerts in 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 totally different 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 enter 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.  I’ll 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 the 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.

haitink BD:    Do you leave enough time in your life for study and preparation?

BH:    I have to.  I have to.  It sounds all very sensible and seems to have common sense, but with the study of music, learning 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 about this.

BD:    Do you feel that you have human souls in your hands?

BH:    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 that!  How can I be so stupid?”  These are awful moments, actually, because you work with human beings!  And you get a response from them.

BD:    I hope, though, that the glorious moments far outweigh stupid moments.

BH:    Oh, 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?

BH:    [Laughs] 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!

BD:    Still, it’s like an old friend, is it not?

BH:    Yes, of course!  Yeah.

BD:    What advice do you have for younger conductors coming along?

haitink 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 is 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 think 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 if you get the sound and the tempo you want.”  Everyone is different.

BD:    I would think that if they get the sound they’re looking for, then they must be communicating it properly.

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!

BD:    Sure.  Exactly!  It’s a very wonderful way of handling it.

BH:    You have to try it, in the limits of your own personality.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the young conducting talent that you see coming along?

BH:    [Sighs] There is talent, of course.  I can’t imagine that we live now in a time and age where there’s less talent than 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 has three 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 case, the 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 the 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 Coursewhere I went two consecutive years for six weeks each. 

BD:    I thought you started out as a violinist.

haitink 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!

BD:    Leitner had a good success here in Chicago conducting several operas.  [See my Interview with Ferdinand Leitner.]

BH:    I 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.

BH:    Oh, 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 the knowledge?

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 the 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 hear a 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 that?”

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 the orchestra?

BH:    Exactly.

BD:    So when it is really good, it’s easy to say, and when it’s really bad it’s easy to say?

BH:    Yeah.

BD:    But then there is this whole gap in the middle.

BH:    There is that, exactly.  Yeah.

BD:    I see.  Let me ask a very easy question:  what’s the purpose of music?

BH:    The 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. Johnson?

BD:    Oh, sure, Samuel Johnson.

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 always tried 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.

BD:    You 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.

BD:    Despite all the obstacles, are you basically pleased with the recordings that have been issued under your baton?

haitink 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.

BH:    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.

BD:    Perhaps not 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; there’s 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 have several different interpretations of the same piece.  That’s what I do as a music lover.

BD:    Sure.

BH:    Certain 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]

BD:    But that’s like going to several different concerts, really.  You
’re just bringing the concerts into your home.

BH:    Exactly.

BD:    Should we now start producing recordings where the person has the ability to bring out the first flute, or change the tempo?

BH:    Well, 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 thing?

BH:    Seems 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?

BH:    Ah! [Laughs]

BD:    One last question:  is conducting fun?

haitink 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 persevere.

BH:    Of course, we have to.  But I think it is, in many ways, a wonderful life.  One has to be careful about the whole 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 dangerous.

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 admiration society?

BH:    No, mutual motivation, I would say.

BD:    In the end, though, it gets the best out of the composer.

BH:    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 happens.

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.

BH:    That’s very kind.  Thank you.

Bernard Haitink

With an international conducting career that has spanned more than five decades, Amsterdam-born Bernard Haitink is one of today's most celebrated conductors.

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.

Award-winning 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 like 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.