The fine-brush baton of Bernard Haitink

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(c) Todd Rosenberg

Bernard Haitink conducted Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Finale would hardly be a sufficient word for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s last regular concert of the season, a transcendent performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony conducted by 82-year-old Bernard Haitink. It was more like a consummation. Or perhaps summation. This exquisite, valedictory Mahler seemed to total up everything I have admired for decades about Haitink as musician, artist and thinker.

A few days after that June 5 concert I came across an interview Haitink did with The Guardian in 2009 when he was conducting the Chicago Symphony on tour in London. One comment in particular rang a bell with me. "My worry,” the conductor said, “is that (these days) Mahler is performed louder and louder to make a success." What had impressed me especially about Haitink’s Ninth Symphony with the CSO was the conductor’s trademark restraint. For the most part, certainly in the work’s deeply introspective opening movement and the Abschied-like finale, I was mesmerized by an aura of chamber music writ large.

But that has always been my experience with Haitink, going back to my first encounters with his recordings, in the 1960s, when he was principal conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. Whether the music before him was Mahler or Schumann, Brahms or Bruckner, he always seemed to work with a subtle palette and a fine brush. In the late 1970s, when Haitink brought the Concertgebouw to the U.S. for twin cycles of the Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos (with Vladimir Ashkenazy) at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., I caught half the project in each locale. For a young critic, that concentration of concerts was like a master class in the art of conducting.

Even better, during the Kennedy Center stint, Haitink agreed to speak with me for a few minutes by phone. We ended up talking for quite a while, until he had to break off to get to rehearsal. But he invited me to sit in as the orchestra honed its Beethoven and to come back stage during the break so we could continue our chat. I’m sure we covered many topics, but the issue at the top of my mind was the same that seems to fascinate Haitink’s admirers today: How, in those intense but never overblown Beethoven performances, did he elicit so much drama without any hint of excess? It was the very quality that transfigured his recent Mahler Ninth with the CSO.

I remember Haitink’s answer verbatim: “You begin with a true pianissimo.” Since that day I have judged conductors by their ability, or willingness, to structure interpretation from a quiet base line.

In that evanescent closing movement of the Mahler Ninth — the music of a soul melding into the cosmos, not unlike Strauss’ earlier “Death and Transfiguration” — the Chicago Symphony strings seemed to play at the mere threshold of sound: true pianissimo. When you’re drawn into that sort of sonic domain, even a small dynamic inflection can make a dramatic impact. That’s Haitink, molecular engineer and musical poet.

For an illuminating glimpse of Haitink as teacher, drop in (virtually) on this YouTube master class session:

It’s also worth hearing what the maestro has to say about taking on Stravinsky’s ever-revolutionary ballet “The Rite of Spring” in a video produced by the London Symphony Orchestra:

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.