The Chicago Symphony Orchestra said goodbye last weekend to its Principal Conductor of the past four seasons, Bernard Haitink, in the best way possible: they played their hearts out for a beloved leader. Haitink bade farewell to Chicago after leading a successful and musically satisfying three-week Beethoven Festival. As a parting gesture, the musicians awarded him the Theodore Thomas Medal for Distinguished Service as a token of their esteem.
I caught three of the maestro’s performances: Beethoven’s Second and Third (Eroica) Symphony, a dress rehearsal of the Fourth and Sixth (Pastoral) and the final performance last Sunday of the magisterial Ninth.
It was the best live performance of that score that I’ve ever witnessed. I also had the best possible view: sitting in the Terrace on stage at Orchestra Hall, less than 10 feet from the Chicago Symphony Chorus and facing Haitink head-on. Such a unique vantage point enabled me to see not only his facial expressions, from somber to joyous, but also the movements of both hands.
I am not musically expert enough to pinpoint what makes Haitink a great conductor. The key to that riddle cannot be captured with words. It’s a matter of musical chemistry between players and conductor. And the 80-year-old Haitink found his perfect match in Chicago.
However, I suspect part of the answer can be found in his left hand. Had I been sitting in a regular house seat, facing his back, my focus would have been more on Hatitink’s baton. But facing him, I saw that his left hand was just as active as his right. He kept sending nonverbal telegrams to orchestra or choral members about how he wanted them to play and sing.
I counted at least a dozen different hand signals and then stopped counting. He raised his hand to draw out a louder sound, moved his hand agitatedly to express tension, make a raised clenched fist to demand full-out singing or pointed his index finger to cue the tympanist or cellos. And the players reacted instantly, giving him whatever he desired.
When I wrote a story last year about the search for Haitink’s successor, Riccardo Muti, I asked orchestra oboist, Michael Henoch, how musicians knew Muti was “The One”. He told me, “They (top conductors) don’t need a lot of verbiage. They don’t even have to speak English. The best convey it with their gestures.”
Over the past four seasons, whenever Haitink led the orchestra, you knew that a special evening was in store. He never disappointed. His readings were revelatory. Loud applause and bravos resounded through the hall. While his manner was serious and almost phlegmatic, once he ascended the podium, the results were consistently electric. His seven recordings with the orchestra will insure his legacy.
I have lived in Chicago 30 years and seen the orchestra led, at various times, by five of the greatest conductors of the past 50 years—Sir Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez and now Haitink. Chicago will soon welcome the sixth in September with Muti. Our orchestra and city has made musical history that is close to unmatched in our time. Only Berlin can come close.
Thank you, maestro, and farewell. I’ll await your return next May and your performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. I can’t wait!