I had the incredible privilege of experiencing Bernard Haitink conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony last night with the London Symphony Orchestra. He's 86 years of age, and I couldn't help but wonder how he might show his age. Would his tempos be slow' Would he have the full energy and dynamism needed for this epic score?
I found it to be a revelation to watch him conduct.
As a conductor, I was watching his every move. I've conducted four performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony previously on two separate occasions. I've studied the score for probably 60 hours or so (not sure really), and yet, with a masterpiece such as this (and virtually all great music), I know that I am just beginning a long journey in truly understanding all that is there in the music. Each time I study the score or experience a performance either as a conductor or a listener, more of the music's beauty, meaning and connections reveal themselves and start to define my connection to and interpretation of the music.
So, it was with a certain close connection to the music already that I was keenly experiencing the shaping of the music that Haitink was creating for all of us. It was easy for me to follow what he was doing musically with every phrase and this was a great experience. First, I was almost shocked at the power that came from him. The concert opened with Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 2. Haitink's opening gestures were like powerful strikes. They weren't big, or overt, but they were sudden and the reaction of the orchestra was shocking in response. This was followed by some of the most incredible hushed and ethereal string playing, again a shock to the senses. I almost wondered whether they were all going to move together and whether Haitink was in control. He immediately made it clear that he was. The hall was entranced by the pure power of Haitink over the orchestra. They were playing their best for him and this sort of playing on the edge was visceral throughout the hall.
As a conductor, I was interested in how he led the shape, the tempos, the direction of the score. I found one thing to be fascinating. He sometimes was very readable, and naturally seemed to follow the rhythm of the music, or to stimulate a change ahead that we naturally expected. But often he made my heart skip a beat as I thought his gesture to pull ahead of where expected, or to come down on a downbeat with pure expectation that they would follow him even if it was slightly out of context to where he was previously in either tempo or nuance. His conducting was courageous. He had no worry that they would follow him, and in fact it almost seemed that he purposefully created a tension with the orchestra by being slightly undefinable or unpredictable. He wouldn't always prepare the orchestra or us for these moments. He just trusted and expected. I found myself holding my breath on several occasions and letting it out slowly when I realized that they had just turned a sharp corner and they were still with him. The LSO always came through. It was beautiful to experience and it made the performance exhilarating. This is one of the profoundly impactful things that I learned from watching Haitink. You must go where you want to go with absolute conviction and if you do, the orchestra will follow. Don't coddle an orchestra, don't coax. There is no need to be overt. Let the music lead us through our ears and let the baton be absolute.
Haitink was clear but he didn't waste a movement. He had incredible focus and clarity and vibrant energy in his hands but his body was still. He never once seemed 86. He never once seemed tired or frail, but always completely engaged in the power of the music. It was a marvel to experience him and to experience Beethoven's music through him.
There is so much for conductors to learn from watching and experiencing other conductors, especially the great ones. Our art is always evolving within ourselves and in turn with and through the musicians that we work with. I was changed by the experience of watching Haitink and experiencing his music firsthand and will continue to be affected by great musical experiences, as we all will be when we attend concerts. Although I am a passionate advocate for contemporary music and new concert experiences, this all-Beethoven concert was a reminder of the impact that great art shared by great artists has on all who choose to experience it. Music experiences in the concert hall are as meaningful and as exciting today as they ever have been. We need to let the music speak and to just simply listen.
It was moving to experience the audience's passionate response to Haitink at the end of the concert. Their exuberant applause was for a man that had given them not only the beautiful concert that we had just experienced, but a lifetime of beauty and profound music.