Bernard Haitink: the Modest Maestro

By | October 8, 2013 at 11:55 am | No comments | Artist Interviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

In the next few weeks the Orchestra is working with conductor Bernard Haitink and pianist Emanuel Ax, including concerts in London and New York. Working with Haitink is always eagerly anticipated by the LSO musicians, and we asked Sub-Principal Second Violin Sarah Quinn why this was.

I understand you worked with Haitink on Shostakovich Symphony No 4 right at the start of your career?

Yes, 1997 was the first time I ever played Shostakovich 4 – it was in the European Union Youth Orchestra. I’d first worked with Haitink in 1995, two years previously, also in the EUYO – that was the first time I really came across him. I wasn’t hugely aware of conductors really, which is a shameful thing to say, but I had lots of CDs of his and I knew who he was, and I was very excited to work with him. So that was the first time I met him, in ‘95 when we did lots of Strauss and the Rite of Spring, and then in ’97 was we did Shostakovich 4. On that tour Mannny Ax was playing as well – he played Beethoven Piano Concerto 4. We played it at the Proms and it was fantastic – it’s still is one of the highlights of my musical career, despite having done god knows how many concerts I’ve done now!

So the forthcoming LSO concerts will be a bit of a reunion! How did you find him as a conductor working that many years ago?

He was hugely inspirational. He’s fantastic with young people. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t say a huge amount, but what he does makes a tremendous impact. I remember the one thing that really struck me about him was that you always felt like you had time and space to play everything, no matter how difficult it was, or how fast it was, or how frenetic you might think it is. It was as if he could make time stand still and everything was possible. Especially in Shostakovich 4 – there’s this really fiendish string fugue which is a bit of a nightmare. In the EUYO we were all finding it quite stressful until the first rehearsal with Haitink – he’s just so incredibly calm when he conducts, he made it feel easy. That’s one of the big things. There’s just never any panic or fuss, everything is completely calm. It breathes, but that’s not to say that he ever loses the passion or the energy or the fire, that’s all there too.

For such a great maestro, he’s a terribly modest man. He’s very humble. He’s very softly spoken and understated. If you went and told him how fabulous you thought he was, he would probably feel embarrassed! He seems to have a huge affection for the LSO and we love working with him. We look forward to him coming in so much, we recently had a wonderful tour in Japan with him and it was a real treat to do it! The combination of him and Manny Ax is just a match made in heaven, really. It’s a wonderful combination to have those two playing together. You can tell there’s a huge affection and respect, and they have a great rapport, amazing chemistry. It’s an unspoken understanding of everything that’s happening – it’s amazing to have them together.

I’ve heard Emanuel Ax is quite a character to be on tour with, too…

Yes – he loves to chat to players; he doesn’t particularly keep himself to himself. I think he’s really quite a funny man and he seems to enjoy having that contact with the Orchestra.

The last big trip we did with him wasn’t with Haitink, it was with MTT, but it was absolutely relentless and it was really quite exhausting for everyone, especially him, but I think he really enjoyed getting stuck in and being part of it. He seems to enjoy getting involved and he’s good fun. Again, Ax is also unbelievably humble and modest and everything he says is always quiet and gentle, there’s never any hysteria about him he just gets on with it and it’s fantastic. He’s a joy to work with and both of them together, it’s brilliant!

It’s Haitink’s 85th birthday in 2014, so in 1997 he would have been in his late 60s. Has much changed since then? Has he continued to be an influence over the years?

I don’t feel he’s really changed much. I think those years in the EUYO were very special when he was the music director. For anyone playing in the EUYO during those years, I think the impact he had is just immeasurable.

When I started playing with the LSO, one of the first concerts I did was Bruckner 7, which we also did on the same tour. Haitink was conducting, and he remembered me, which was really nice. Because EUYO is a pan-European youth orchestra it feeds into anywhere and everywhere, and it’s amazing that he always remembers you. Jim Maynard (LSO second trombone) was in the EUYO at the same time, and Bernard always speaks to him. He always remembers people! He’s just a wonderful human being, a lovely man.

It’s interesting that somebody like Bernard Haitink who’s quite quiet and humble has such command and authority when conducting.

Yes, he has complete control and authority. He walks onto that platform and it’s like a switch, he can control anything and he doesn’t jump around and thrash around to do it. Some conductors like to throw themselves around and, you know, they channel their energy in that way, but he doesn’t. He’s very focused and economical. He can do more with one small hand gesture than other people may do with a lot of jumping around and that sort of thing. He has complete control and complete authority over what he’s doing at all times, and you never expect anything but that from him.

Do you think there’s a distinctive ‘Haitink’ sound or style?

I don’t know how you would put it. Some people might think Haitink and Shostakovich aren’t an obvious combination. I think there are some people who think of Haitink as synonymous with Strauss and Bruckner – this rich, Germanic stuff. But I think he’s absolutely amazing at Shostakovich. I don’t know if it’s a Haitink sound but there is a particular feeling that he gives for a player – one of space and breadth and beauty. You have the space to play every single note and give it everything. It’s an amazing feeling because you often don’t get that – particularly in something like Shostakovich 4, where there’s a lot of high energy stuff. I love the way he does Shostakovich.

It’s an interesting combination in the programmes which are coming up – Shostakovich Symphonies in the 2nd half, with Mozart piano concertos in the 1st. That’s quite a contrast, do you think it will be effective?

It’s going to be lovely to do, actually. Something like Shostakovich 4 is absolutely massive, but everything about a Mozart piano concerto is totally intimate, so it’s actually really nice to have that contrast. I think it will work really well, and of course Manny Ax for Mozart is just wonderful. It’s lovely to have Haitink doing two such different thing, rather than just Brahms with Brahms. It’s nice to have two ends of the spectrum and it’ll make for a very interesting evening for anyone who’s coming. I’m going to find it interesting playing. I’m really, really looking forward to it, I can’t wait!

Interview by AJ Chandrasena


Wednesday 9 October, LSO St Luke’s, London
Master class with Emanuel Ax
> Tickets 

Thursday 10 October, Barbican, London
Mozart PC9 / Shostakovich 4
> Tickets

Tuesday 15 October, Barbican, London
Mozart PC27 / Shostakovich 15
> Tickets

Sunday 20 October, Lincoln Center, New York
Mozart PC9 / Shostakovich 4
> Tickets

Monday 21 October, Lincoln Center, New York
Mozart PC27 / Shostakovich 15
> Tickets


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