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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Haitink's Legacy

By Norman Lebrecht / July 17, 2002

Bernard Haitink entered Covent Garden 15 years ago as a dour Dutchman. He departed last weekend, garlanded with gongs and gratitude. The Foreign Secretary, no less, called him 'one of the great conductors of our time'. The Queen created him an Honorary Companion of Honour.

The tributes have been so fulsome that one hesitates to inject a note of realism - to remind ourselves, for instance, that Haitink has been threatening to resign almost from the moment the ink dried on his contract and that his role in the running of the company has been, at best, peripheral and, with the best intentions in the world, regressive. The issues that he fudged and the problems he stored up for future generations form a central part of his legacy. These troubles, however, lie ahead. First, in farewell, we must sing his praises.

What Haitink did best was to conduct two or three operas each season that he nursed from casting meeting to final curtain. His interpretations of Wagner and Verdi, Stravinsky and Janacek, were uniformly authoritative and often unforgettable. An early Jenufa springs to mind: when the heroine's foster-mother set off to drown the illegitimate baby, Haitink evoked such tension in the cellos that their tremolos were almost overwhelmed by the heaving and sobbing in the stalls.

Orchestra and chorus gave their all for Haitink, as they did for few others. The house atmosphere was heightened by his presence. It was said of Gustav Mahler that a student at the back of the topmost gallery could feel the difference when he conducted. Hairs rose on every nape. So it was with Haitink at Covent Garden.

But where Mahler, as director of the Vienna Court Opera, took charge of as many as 111 performances a year, Haitink, as music director of the Royal Opera House, conducted fewer than 20 nights. He was, of course, older than Mahler had been in Vienna and less driven. Also, in the manner of modern maestros, he had to keep half a mind on his international career, flying first-class from one concert hall to the next, as restlessly peripatetic as Wagner's emblematic Hollander. He was, in Thatcherite terminology, semi-detached. For all the devotion he invested in the operas he conducted himself, the rest of the operation scarcely felt his guiding hand - except when someone from the ballet or the design shop inadvertently trod on his toes.

He was seen to ill effect on national television in The House, objecting with some petulance to the cardboard objects that cluttered Richard Jones's modernist staging of the Ring. Protest as he did, Haitink could not get them scrapped. He lacked resilience or, possibly, a commanding presence: Georg Solti would never have put up with such nonsense. Yet his sense of duty surmounted all reservations. When the chips were down and the curtain rose, it was Haitink's ardent conducting that redeemed the wacky production.

The one occasion when he stood his ground was calamitous. In the autumn of 1998, a year after closing the house for reconstruction, the homeless company hit the buffers. Faced with a £20m black hole, the board voted to suspend performances for a year, during which time it would renegotiate the quaint and costly labour agreements. The unions cried 'cultural vandalism', but the then Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, was all in favour. The shutters were about to come down when Haitink hit the roof.

Any suspension of activity, he declared, would depress artistic standards and encourage defections from his orchestra. In a city saturated with underworked musicians this seemed improbable, but Haitink seemed to feel a unique attachment to the orchestra after marrying one of its viola players, Patricia Bloomfield. Many of the players were his wife's friends, now his. He sent a letter to the chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, threatening to resign if the music stopped. When this failed to produce instant acquiescence he had a little grumble to the press. That did the trick: Smith, as media-sensitive as any New Labourite, buckled at the knees and abolished the suspension decree. The cost of this climbdown was far greater than the £7m that was added to the deficit.

Haitink's hard line lumbered Covent Garden with a salaried orchestra that costs the tax-payer £4m a year and is protected from the remotest possibility of flexibility by neanderthal union agreements. Every single one of its 102 salaried players has to be paid even if only 45 are playing Figaro. The ROH has no option, as Glyndebourne does, to vary its tone with period-instrument ensembles. It cannot appear in Manchester without booking its own band into fourstar hotels on massive overtime, when it might have done the ROH a power of good to be seen playing with the Halle and the Huddersfield Festival Chorus. Haitink has left the ROH locked into its past with no key to a better future.

He cannot be blamed for showing dogged loyalty, one of his finer Dutch attributes, or for following the dictates of his heart over the reasoning of tougher minds. But leadership demands an aura of ubiquity and the courage to take unpleasant decisions. Haitink, now 73, never seemed to be around to take the helm in a storm. Nor did he achieve the true hallmark of a great conductor, imprinting a personal sound on the orchestra as Solti had done. He was just a very good conductor of a limited number of performances.

In the past year Haitink has become the orchestral world's busiest baby-sitter, filling in simultaneously at Dresden after the tragic death of Giuseppe Sinopoli and in Boston after the long-manoeuvred removal of Seiji Ozawa. He does not lack for long-haul engagements. Playing away has been the hallmark of his reign.

Happily, his successor is made of more adhesive stuff. Antonio Pappano has been a hands-on music director at the Monnaie Theatre in Brussels. For the past two years, long before cashing his first pay cheque, he has been taking executive decisions at Covent Garden, fixing repertoire, booking artists, getting to grips with the cumbrous institution and its top-heavy board. He bristles with energy, know-how, engagement, presence.

All that remains of Bernard Haitink is a fading memory of a handful of marvellous nights.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001