The leaves are beginning to turn in Central Park. The colours of Autumn seem to deepen by the hour as they cascade on the Sunday morning crowds before being crushed underfoot. The kids are starting to kick them around, the dogs chase and snap as they swirl in the air, the joggers avoid their slippery surface as they pound around and around. Every now and then, a monumental piece of rock pushes back the grass as if a giant has dropped a stone.
As I walk uptown, passing conversations drift in and out.
“…so I had to walk up like se-ven flights of stairs!”
“Oh my God are you serious?”
“…you know honey, you just have to tell him that you need some commitment…”
“…I know but I don’t want to freak him out. I mean…I’m nearly thirty…”
“Don’t talk to me about the biological clock honey…”
“Bobby! Bobby! Stop pulling his ears! Play nicely or we’ll go to gram’mas…”
All down the west side of the park, a walk in aid of breast cancer research is in progress. You can hear the roar of the crowd from Madison Avenue; the line of unnatural pink shirts stand out from the browns, reds and greens. There are cops standing in a sunny patch on the steps outside the Metropolitan Museum in their strangely old fashioned uniforms. They smile and tip their hats at young women like it’s 1958. At the side entrance is a security guard for the museum. He stands arms folded, an enormous bunch of keys (there must be 200) pulls his belt down at one side. The gatekeeper, he must have access to thousands of years of history hanging right there from his trousers. There are people everywhere this morning and any thoughts of a quiet walk are long forgotten as I head uptown for a quiet cup of coffee before today’s rehearsal and concert.
It’s always a pleasure to visit this incredible city, although I’m always exhausted by the tempo, despite being used to London, it’s different somehow. It’s a city of reinvention and rebuilding. Every time I arrive, another building has disappeared to be replaced with another brighter, more spectacular construction. The residents of the buildings change even more frequently, shops and restaurants move regularly. The traffic moves fast, joggers run on the spot impatiently at stop signs and the spectacularly sibilant waiters bring your order in seconds. Standing in the centre of the whirlwind this week though is Bernard Haitink.
The orchestra is rearranging itself on the expansive stage at the Lincoln Center, chatting, catching up on adventures and restaurant recommendations in a noisy chatter. Bernard sits on his stool, the thick score of Shostakovitch 4 closed in front of him. He looks around at the orchestra smiling and nodding a greeting at people who catch his eye. After housekeeping announcements about instruments, receptions and flights (some players leave immediately after the concert to return to London), he picks up his baton and there is silence.
“So. Good afternoon to you all. Shostakovitch. I think it will be very loud here, so take it easy.”
There is a knowing laugh from the band at this impossible request. Bright orange earplugs are put in position and we play the ferocious opening of this enormous symphony. As we’ve already played it in London, we top and tail a few selected passages before Emanuel Ax comes on to rehearse the Mozart concerto and lets everyone’s ears recover for a few minutes.
At 3pm as people file in on this bright Sunday afternoon and the orchestra goes on stage to tune, Bernard sits, quietly on a chair at the side of the stage just out of sight of the audience, happy to watch everyone else run around while he sits, waiting patiently. Like all the great conductors, he knows when to whip his beat enough to make the orchestra lunge forward and when to sit back and let the music unfold, the clench of his fist creating tension and power in the sound. The other day in rehearsal he made a small error and found himself giving down beats on the upbeats. He immediately stopped and apologised which wasn’t needed, but he said that he was so concerned with the overall shape of the symphony that he forgot to pay attention. We laughed but it was an interesting insight into how he thinks about this piece. On such a massive work of moving musical landscapes, Bernard doesn’t chase around like the runners in the park going round and round in circles, he doesn’t speed up to the next red traffic light to be caught by everyone else; he keeps an eye on the overall structure and forms an deeply satisfying arc from beginning to end. It feels monumental and inevitable, an experienced reading, honed over a career which has, to date, spanned six decades. It has the inevitability and solidity of the rocks in Central Park, barely touched by age. And after the concert, the leaves in Central Park are still falling just like last year, and the next.