by Douglas Yeo
Two days ago, on October 21, 2021, conductor Bernard Haitink died. He was 92 years old.
I have been fortunate—even blessed—to have played under the baton of many of the greatest conductors of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For instance, a few weeks ago, I wrote about Leonard Bernstein, a childhood hero of mine with whom I played many concerts. He was a Titan of western musical life. And I worked with many others, many who were great, others who were merely good, and some who were forgettable. But there was only one Bernard Haitink. And now he will conduct no more.
I first learned of Bernard Haitink in my youth by listening to recordings made during his long tenures as music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam (1959–1988), and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic (1967–1979). His recordings always struck me as “just right.” I knew nothing about him as a person, but I held a thought, “I hope that someday, I can play in an orchestra with him conducting.”
That opportunity came in November 1985 during my first season as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bernard Haitink was scheduled to conduct two weeks of concerts, starting with performances of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. I was thrilled at the prospect of playing Mahler 7—one of my favorite pieces—under Haitink’s baton, but when my mother died on October 30, I was giving a eulogy at her funeral at the moment when Haitink’s downbeat was delivered for Mahler’s great symphony. But the next week, I was back at Symphony Hall for performances of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 with Haitink. The concerts were memorable, and they confirmed what I had known for so long: Bernard Haitink was a musician’s musician, a musician’s conductor, a person who could truly bring out the very best in me—and so many others—as a player.
The Boston Symphony’s musicians all knew that playing for Bernard Haitink was something very special, and after those two weeks of concerts in 1985, we petitioned the management to have him appointed as our principal guest conductor. For reasons I never understood, it took 10 years for that to happen, but it finally did happen, and from 1995 to 2004, he was the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, and after 2004, he was given the title of laureate conductor of the BSO. No matter his title, he was a frequent guest with the orchestra, and we played dozens of memorable concerts with him, including performances of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 (1998) and No. 9 (1989), Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1989), Igor Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka (1990) and The Rite of Spring (1997), Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” (1994) and “Great C Major (2007) symphonies, the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms (many times over the years), and acts from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre (1992) and Götterdämmerung (1994). With Haitink conducting, we performed Mahler Symphony No. 9 (1995), Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration (1996), Ein Heldenleben (1998), and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (2010), Shostakovich’s Symphony 10 (1996), Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1998), the Violin Concerto of Alban Berg (2000), Mozart’s Requiem (2002), Mahler Symphonies No. 7 (it came back with him conducting again in 2000), 9 (1995), 6 (2006), 1 (2006), and 2 (2008), Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (2010), and many more pieces on many more concerts. The last concert I played with him was Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (2012). In August and September 2001, he led the Boston Symphony on a tour of Europe, and our final concert of the tour was in his beloved Concertgebouw where we played Symphony No. 2 of Brahms. Three days later, one day after we returned home to Boston, the world changed forever on 9/11/2001.
Cover of the recording of Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Tragic Overture with Bernard Haitink conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, recorded in March 1990 in Symphony Hall, Boston. Philips 432 094-2.
In all, I played over 200 concerts with Bernard Haitink on the podium. In addition to concerts, Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony made many recordings together, most memorably many works of Maurice Ravel, and especially the four symphonies of Brahms on the Philips label. There was something about Haitink and Brahms. Something very special, something he brought to that music that no other conductor managed to convey. What was it?
I don’t know. I have struggled for years to put into words the qualities that made working with Bernard Haitink so special, important, and memorable. I’ve never found the words. There were so many things, intangibles and tangibles alike. He always came prepared; he knew the music exquisitely well. He always showed that he genuinely cared for the members of the orchestra. He always spoke in a quiet, polite, tone; he never shouted. He knew exactly how to balance the orchestra. And he always appreciated our playing. I recall on many occasions, after I had played something that he noticed—and he noticed everything— he would look my way and give me a gentle smile. Not a big grin, just a gentle smile. He wanted me to know that he knew what I had done, and that he had appreciated it. He did this for everyone in the orchestra. We appreciated that. But more than all of this was his presence. When he conducted, everything just seemed right. There’s no other way to explain it. You had to be there to understand it. We all felt it, and the audience did, too.
Bernard Haitink was also a gracious man. I have told this story often, about one of the biggest mistakes of my career:
The Boston Symphony was playing Act III of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung in April 1994 and I was playing bass trumpet, a part that has many solos. From my vantage point on stage in a concert where I sat between our principal trombonist, Ronald Barron, and principal trumpeter, Charles Schlueter, and behind our principal hornist, Charles Kavalovski, I was thoroughly enjoying the music. Everything was right with the world: the soloists were great, the orchestra was great, Haitink was pleased. Then, suddenly, I heard Ron humming. “What is he doing, humming during a concert?”, I thought. I gave him a funny look and then glanced up at Maestro Haitink. He was staring at me, frantically shaking his left index finger with a panicked look on his face. I instantly knew why Ron was humming—he was humming my part: I was supposed to be playing a solo! I quickly jammed the bass trumpet up to my face and finished the last measures of my solo. I was terribly embarrassed, and after the concert, I went up to Haitink’s dressing room to apologize for my faux pas. When he opened the door, I said, “Maestro, I am so sorry for my lapse. I was just lost in the music but it was inexcusable. That will not happen tomorrow.” He put an arm on my shoulder and smiled, and said, quietly, “There is no need to apologize. You looked so happy. And what you did play was wonderful. Rest well.”
That is how I remember Bernard Haitink. He was gracious and graceful, a classy person who cared about those around him. He was not a prima donna or one who was overly impressed with himself. He served the music, and he enlisted his musicians in that service. Many of my most memorable performances were under his baton.
Pages from the commentary that accompanies the facsimile edition of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 (Rosebeek Publishers, Amsterdam, 1995).
Bernard Haitink and I also enjoyed many conversations off the podium. I would often meet with him in his dressing room along with his wife, Patricia, before a rehearsal, and he always wanted to know of my most recent exploits in the early music world with the serpent and ophicleide. He was fascinated by those instruments. We also talked a lot about Gustav Mahler. I have a large collection of composer facsimile scores, reproductions of the scores of great works written in a composer’s handwriting. Haitink was instrumental in the publication of the facsimile of Mahler Symphony No. 7 and the edition was a revelation because it contained a companion volume that contained many reproductions of early drafts of the score as well as long articles about the piece. The role of the tenor horn in the symphony was often a topic of discussion among us, and when, in 1995, I purchased a copy of the Mahler Symphony No. 7 facsimile, I asked Haitink to sign it, which he graciously did.
Bernard Haitink and me, Symphony Hall Boston, November 2009. Photo by John Ferrillo.
In 2009 the Boston Symphony gave Bernard Haitink a party in celebration of his 80th birthday. He was in Boston to conduct the orchestra in Brahms Symphony No. 1 and we had a long conversation about Brahms at the party, a moment that was captured in a photograph taken by my colleague, principal oboist John Ferrillo. Later, Maestro Haitink inscribed the photo, with fond memories of our many conversations.
My final bow in Symphony Hall, Boston, following a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Beethoven Symphony No. 9 on May 5, 2012.
When I retired from the Boston Symphony in 2012, my final concert in Symphony Hall was conducted by Bernard Haitink, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. It was an emotional time for me, with Beethoven’s great symphony, Maestro Haitink conducting, and my being called to the podium after the performance to take my final bow at Symphony Hall. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and Haitink called me up to the front of the stage from my seat in the back row and we exchanged a few words before I faced the audience in Symphony for the last time. The fact that Bernard Haitink was conducting my final concert in Symphony Hall was very, very meaningful to me, and it remains very meaningful to this day.
Behind me are concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and Bernard Haitink.
That was the last time I saw him but I have recalled him in my mind on many occasions since then. Bernard Haitink profoundly shaped my life as a musician, and his death on Thursday represents the closing of the era of the “great old world” conductors. There is no one conducting today who is like him, and I consider myself to be a blessed man to have played so many concerts under his inspired leadership. I miss him already.
Bernard Haitink conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal in Beethoven Symphony No. 9, May 2012. I took this photo from my seat on stage.