It takes a while until I am absolutely sure. The volume is low and the aeroplane engines are beginning their pre flight whine; momentarily the rising pitch of the engine and music randomly coincide in Cagian cacophony. Rather than sitting en masse, the orchestra has been split up just as randomly around the cabin. Consequently the flight is quieter than usual, chatter at a minimum. Playing in an ensemble of up to one hundred people involves a fair amount of extra sensory perception, anticipating a change in tempo, stretching a phrase, a minute accelerando or watching the fingers of Carmine, leading the orchestra as we begin the Sea Interludes, not relying on ears alone. I can sense that I am not the only player on this flight straining to put a name to the music. There is the normal bustle of people filling overhead luggage racks and yet I can see in front of me the tell tale sign of colleagues heads, tilted slightly to one side, still, listening. As the whine reaches its peak, so too does the tutti passage of the concerto; as the engines quieten at their idling speed, the solo oboe becomes clear. The heads of my colleagues in front relax as they are finally able to put a name to the piece. More annoying than an itch in a plaster cast or a crossword answer on the tip of your tongue, is a piece recognised but unnamed. But… that’s it, Mozart Oboe Concerto in C, third movement. Mid phrase it is ripped from the air by a bing bong and an announcement in Korean. At the end, the movement begins again, from the start. A minute later, bing bong, the same announcement in Japanese. At the end the movement begins again, from the start. A minute later, bing bong, the same announcement in English. At the end the movement begins again from the start. There is an audible groan from the players around the plane. It is like a particularly belligerent conductor insisting that the performance must begin again for an unspecified musical reason after it was interrupted by coughing. A musical groundhog day. I close my eyes and give in to sleep.
In my strange, jet lag induced slumber I cannot escape the music, but now it is of last night’s concert in Seoul. I dream of Bruckner. The monumental sections of music like giant granite slabs that in the wrong hands can be a solid grey, disjointed, impenetrable wall of sound, but in the right hands can be chiseled and shaped into cathedrals of colour. Bernard Haitink’s hands are the tools of a master craftsman. Watching him conduct Bruckner is to see everything and nothing all at once. That is to say that at times his economical beat moves slowly and imperceptibly, a small flick of the stick in the scherzo, a more languid beat to coax that sound from the Wagner tubas. What he has is pacing.There is only one other conductor I personally have worked with who has the same ability to arch a performance over an hour, and that is Sir Colin, who paces a Sibelius symphony like it’s simply an exhalation; simple, natural and perfectly judged. Bernard is the same. Maybe the older one is, the easier it is to see how one should pace things, although conductors aren’t known for slowing down. I’m not sure I’ll still be playing Bruckner at their age - certainly, nobody will pay to hear me do it.
Bernard may be one of the conductors with more gravitas than most, but don’t be fooled by the economy of effort in his gestures, the impact of those flicks and swoops is far greater than many younger more athletic baton twirlers. His body remains upright and simply turns from side to side as his cues demand, his eyes move to the section of the band that needs an entry. His face remains still and almost impassive throughout the performance, no angst ridden facial expressions to spur us on. As the music progresses, rather than a disjointed piecing together of Bruckner’s musical sections, he gives us a flow of ideas, a procession of massive musical gestures which seem inevitable; like they’ve always been there. I have played the 9th enough times with other conductors to know that this satisfying interpretation is not simply how it goes. This is no default version, Bernard makes it so. On his podium there is a stool for him to sit on. He walks onto the stage briskly, bows and turns to the orchestra, ignoring the stool. He waits for silence and gives the impression he would wait forever if he had to. When he is ready he looks around at us all, nods, raises his baton, pauses, and with the smallest of upbeats ushers in the unmistakeable sound of Bruckner.
I’m awake. Sort of. Another announcement in Korean, Japanese and then English. The music is playing in the background again, but it’s not the same piece. Between the announcements the movement starts over again. It is in the same key (although I know the oboe concerto as the flute concerto number 2 in D) but it’s no longer that piece, but I do recognise it. It takes a while and then I realise that it’s so familiar I am ignoring the blindingly obvious – it’s Mozart’s Flute and Harp concerto. I eat the sandwiches I’m given, give my tray back and drift off again. Sleep is unwise during the day, but irresistible.
Bernard sits on his stool between movements. It’s the only time he uses it and even then it’s like he’s only sitting down as if to say to us, “Don’t rush. Take your time. We have time.” I estimate he sits down for no longer than thirty seconds before he is up on his feet again, looking around to see that we are all ready, an extra check for the tubas and he turns to his left and raises his baton to the first violins for the opening of the third movement. One upbeat later and the warm, throaty embrace of the firsts fills the acoustic in Seoul with that unsingable melody. Bernard brings a full but unfussy phrasing to the opening leaping ninth as the tune swoops around; his baton moves methodically, his eyes fixed to the fingerboards of the front desk. As the melody jumps back down to the G string it arrives and waits on the second beat, a beat later and the harmony catches up with a touch of Bernard’s left hand and a glance upward to the rest of the orchestra. The sound of the tubas and lower strings bathes the stage in a warm glow that always makes me smile. The melody moves between octaves and strings, an effect that in some hands can sound hysterical in a way more associated with Mahler’s most shrieking outbursts, and yet that pace and steadiness encourages the violins to smoothly sing out the melody as they cross strings; a noble experienced noise. This is the way Bruckner was meant to sound.
As the orchestration thickens and the sound reaches easily to the back of the hall, that left hand raises again slightly – with the luxurious acoustic here, there is no need to push; we settle back in our seats and relax into the music. As the final chord is held for what seems like an age, Bernard closes his hand and the sound rings on for a second. He stays still for a moment, then nods his head and smiles, satisfied, seconds before the audience erupts in deafening applause.
We’re preparing to land in Korean, Japanese and English. The music drifts back into my head. We’ve descended from the D minor of Bruckner to…C major, again, and…it’s not the flute and harp…it’s the oboe concerto, third movement again. Again. There is joy in repetition in Bruckner but I don’t need to hear this concerto again. As the plane descends, the whine of the engines increase until the oboe concerto is obliterated.
Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to Japan.