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Patrick Huerlimann/Lucerne Festival

Bernard Haitink at Ninety, in London and Lucerne

On March 4, the world of music will send many happy returns to a great artist, as Bernard Haitink marks his ninetieth birthday. He will celebrate in the most admirable way, by conducting two concerts, and two of the composers with whom he’s been most identified. At the Barbican Hall in London on March 10, the London Symphony Orchestra, with Till Fellner, will perform the Mozart Piano Concerto K. 482 and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. On April 14 at the Lucerne Easter Festival, conductor and pianist will join forces again, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for the Mozart Concerto in C major, K. 503 and Bruckner’s Sixth in A major.

Why conductors in particular survive and thrive into old age is an interesting question. Some great painters have flourished into their seventies, like Tintoretto, or their eighties, like Titian, but performing musicians are often constrained by physical as well as intellectual capacity. Opera singers have continued performing, advisedly or otherwise, into their sixties or seventies (definitely not advisedly in the case of Plácido Domingo at seventy-eight), and a few instrumentalists have had even longer performing lives. The beloved Arthur Rubinstein was an extreme case, giving his last piano recital at the Wigmore Hall in London in 1976, at the age of eighty-nine, nearly seventy years after he had first played there. But Alfred Brendel retired from the keyboard, though happily not lecturing and writing, at seventy-seven, giving a final concert with the Vienna Philharmonic under Sir Charles Mackerras, in the same Mozart Piano concerto as Fellner is playing at the Barbican.

In 1969, I heard an eighty-three-year-old Otto Klemperer conduct a grand if somewhat stately Fidelio at the Royal Opera House, where more than forty years later I heard a truly wonderful Cunning Little Vixen, conducted by Mackerras, by then aged eighty-four and only months before his death. Even in this company Haitink is a splendid figure. He has long been associated with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in his native Amsterdam, but in England we’ve also been lucky enough hear him over many years. In the 1970s he conducted a brilliant series of Mozart operas at Glyndebourne, directed by Peter Hall, and in his years as Music Director of the Royal Opera from 1987 to 2002 we heard him become a great Wagner conductor before our very ears, as his interpretation of the Ring grew deeper and finer with each performance.

Last summer I heard Haitink conduct the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in a glorious Beethoven evening at the Lucerne Festival, Sir András Schiff playing the First Piano Concerto, followed by a magnificent “Pastoral” Symphony. Haitink is a little frail now, walking with a stick, but communicating the wisdom and serenity of age to his players, most of who weren’t even born when he began his career. No one who has the chance to hear this great musician in London or Lucerne should miss it.

For more information, visit barbican.org.uk and lucernefestival.ch.

Category: Music
Barbican Centre
Silk Street,
London, United Kingdom