About an hour into the first rehearsal of the Bruckner 7th under Bernard Haitink I had a disquieting thought. The Bruckner symphonies were a staple of our former music director so I have spent many hours rehearsing them, hours I will unfortunately never get back. After finishing the first movement I realized I had been holding myself in a kind of cringe that was just beginning to relax. Where was the browbeating? Where were the condescending lectures? What happened to the tedium? And yet the orchestra sounded fabulous, better than we have in a while. How was that possible?
For years around here ‘artistry’ has been so firmly linked to negativity that it is almost impossible for any conductor to clear away the poisoned atmosphere. Somehow Haitink managed to do it this week. He is a quiet, self-effacing conductor, and the orchestra really seems to admire and respect him. Rehearsals were eerily quiet when he stopped us to make minor corrections here and there. His remarks were consistently both tactful and effective.
As everyone knows, orchestra musicians are feckless and lazy. Naturally we would prefer any conductor who treated us nicely over one who might attempt to lead us to a higher level of artistry. That in mind, I tried to keep a critical ear on Haitink’s concerts to see if my sense of contentment vanished during the performance or the musical standards had slipped in any way. The concert is after all the time when all conductors are equal in the sense that the lecturers have to shut up and conduct while the nice guys have to show they have enough backbone to actually lead the orchestra.
Bruckner’s symphonies are like massive cathedrals built from thousands of notes. Conductors can become so enamored with superficial features, pausing to admire every gargoyle and arabesque, that they lose sight of the thing as a whole. Haitink’s approach to the 7th was a success I thought because he focused on the structure rather than every single (or arbitrarily selected) bricks. The music actually flowed along – even at about 70 minutes the symphony seemed refreshingly brief.
Finally, another conductor mistake is fall victim to the episodic nature of Bruckner’s writing and build every climax to maximum dynamic, pummeling the audience (and orchestra) with bruising fortissimos when the composer has actually carefully structured the dynamics. Haitink was somewhat successful at getting the orchestra to observe the dynamics and restored some sense of balance to the sound.
The thing that amazed me and inspired this post was that he was able to do it all in a professional and respectful way. And the orchestra responded with (so far) three very fine performances. The whole thing reminded me of a story probably every school-aged child learns at some point – although I wonder if that was the case with our former music director.
The sun and a storm cloud were debating who had the greater power. When they saw a man walking below they decided to test their strength by seeing which of them could get the man’s jacket off his back. First the storm cloud huffed and puffed, blowing cold winds at the man and pelting him with rain. But the man only pulled his coat more tightly about him. But when the sun came out from behind the cloud the man freely removed his coat and continued on his way.