Showing posts with label Bernard Haitink. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bernard Haitink. Show all posts

Monday, December 31, 2012

And JDCMB's top ten posts of 2012 are...

Here are the top ten stories on JDCMB this year. Good to see that among the matters that interested you most were some of the world's top conductors, several exciting young artists and quite a few of the quirky JDCMB pieces that you won't find anywhere else - not least, the April Fool's Day spectacular. Below, listed in reverse order.

Thank you, everyone, for joining me through the roller-coaster highs and lows of 2012 and here's hoping that in 2013 the comets shine bright!

10.  Socks for the Lilac Fairy?                                                  
 Why do balletomanes knit socks for their favourite dancers, but Lang Lang doesn't get gloves from the pianophiles?

Life-enhancing ways to behave at a concert.


Introducing Angelo Villani.

In which I sit in on the great maestro's conducting masterclasses.

Italian romantic in cravat triumphs at the UK's premier piano competition.

You're a pragmatic lot, dear readers, and you know when you're on to a good thing.

Or can there? A look at this year's finalists.

1 April, and it looked like we might all have to play to Gergiev. Delightfully, a few of you fell for this, lock, stock and subsequent red ears.

And in first place...

The maestro gets it all off his chest.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wisdom in Lucerne, with Bernard Haitink

At Easter I went to Switzerland to listen to Bernard Haitink's conducting masterclasses at the Lucerne Festival Academy. Three intensive days of fascination later, the mystery of the maestro was in no way reduced. If anything, quite the opposite. Never has it been clearer that the sound of an orchestra changes entirely, depending on the person standing up and waving the baton in front of them; it does so immediately; and it is almost impossible to explain it. I talked to Maestro Haitink and some of his students about what the masterclasses mean to them, and found myself learning a few little lessons in the process. My feature about it all is in Radar with today's Independent. Slightly shortened for space, though, so the director's cut is below.

As an exciting footnote, I'm glad to say that the other week I ran into the youngest of the students, Duncan Ward, at the OAE Night Shift concert and he tells me he's been assisting Simon Rattle in Berlin on, among other things, Die Walküre. Watch that space.


It’s a training experience like no other. Twenty of the world’s brightest young conductors have come to the Lucerne Easter Festival, Switzerland, hoping to be chosen for a masterclass with Bernard Haitink. Of those 20, seven make the final cut. Their task: in front of the veteran Dutch maestro and a fascinated public, they must conduct the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

There, though, any resemblance to The Apprentice ends. This is not a competition and it’s anything but cut-throat. All 20 youngsters, selected from 150 applicants, listen to the course;  they all have a chance to conduct, not just the final seven. It is like Hogwarts for conductors, with Haitink, a legend in his own lifetime, serving as benevolent Dumbledore to the lot. 

“I supervise them, give them my ideas and see if it suits them and if it helps them,” Haitink, 83, remarks with characteristic self-deprecation. “I can’t work miracles. But there are so many wrong ideas about this profession that it doesn’t do any harm when a conductor who has a certain amount of experience tries to share it with younger people. It takes an enormous amount of energy, but I enjoy it.”

Would-be conductors are at a disadvantage compared to instrumentalists: they can’t practise easily because their instrument consists of 50-80 highly trained humans. That gives this course extra value even before Haitink has said a word. “The chance to work with an orchestra like this one is something we don’t normally have as students,” says Antonio Mendez, one of the final seven; he hails from Spain and is studying in Germany. “To do Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is really a rare thing.” (Since Easter, Antonio has won second prize in a major conducting competition in Denmark)

Each participant has prepared four set works: Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Schumann’s Manfred Overture, the first movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No.7 and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. The chosen seven each have half an hour per day to strut their stuff. 

“Some teachers might try to make everyone do things the same way that they do,” says Gad Kadosh, a French-Israeli conductor currently working as a vocal coach at the Theater für Niedersachsen, Hildesheim. “But Maestro Haitink works with each of us as an individual, trying to bring out the best in everyone.” Haitink’s techniques certainly keep the youngsters on their toes.

Usually (to generalise) a conductor gives the beat with his/her right hand, using the left to aid direction and amplify expression. Having decided that Anton Torbeev is using his left hand to excess, Haitink grabs his wrist in mid flow: the Russian student must finish the piece with his right hand alone. [Do have a look at Anton's blog.] Then, with Kadosh, Haitink does the opposite, asking him to conduct only with his left; the result sounds marvellous, apparently to Kadosh’s own surprise [photo, right]. 

Another student is startled when Haitink removes the score from under his nose halfway through a piece: he must continue from memory. “I could see that you know it,” Haitink explains afterwards. “Looking at the score was distracting you. Have confidence!”

In the most common traps, the practicality of Haitink’s advice proves its worth. “Not so holy,” he says, stopping a student after a few phrases of Bruckner. The massive Seventh Symphony’s opening inspires too much reverence; if the tempi slouch, the energy will soon flag. Haitink gently encourages him to think less of the heavens and more of the mountains. He takes the baton and demonstrates: at once the sound changes, the music becoming supple and vivid. “It’s a long symphony,” he points out. “Don’t make the brass play full out even more than they are – they will be exhausted halfway through.” 

Then there’s a recurrent question about focusing the movements. “Don’t move so much,” Haitink exhorts a student whose flailing limbs are not helping the orchestra: a particular flute entry is late every time. “Concentrate the energy.” He demonstrates – and with one flick of one finger of Haitink’s left hand, the flute is spot on.

Isn’t it alarming to feel Haitink’s eye upon your every move? “Not at all,” declares Zoi Tsokanou from Greece, the only girl in the top seven [photo, above right]. “His energy is all about ‘Let’s make lovely music’. He gives us a lot of trust and a lot of love – there’s no need to be afraid.” Her animation and assurance in the Schumann overture inspire the orchestra into giving her a spontaneous round of applause.

JonathanMann, from the UK [photo, left], says that the course has been “one of the most exciting experiences of my life so far”. He has already started his own orchestra, the Cardiff Sinfonietta. What does he feel he’s learning here? “Maestro Haitink mentioned that sometimes the simple things are the hardest to do,” he says. “Holding a pause a little longer or getting a really quiet sound from the orchestra – those tiny things can make the difference between a good performance and a great one.” 

Another youthful Brit, Duncan Ward, is in the final 20 and is asked to run through the Schumann one afternoon. Having studied with (among others) Ravi Shankar in California, Ward especially enjoys Haitink’s anecdotes about the great conductors of the past, such as Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg: “The Indian tradition passes everything down aurally from guru to pupil,” he points out. “This is a little similar – the sense of a contact point with those great figures is fabulous.”

The course is short, but its effects long-lasting. “We will always have Maestro Haitink’s comments with us,” says Gad Kadosh. “There is so much to think about that we won’t be able to integrate everything fully right away; maybe not in a year, maybe not even in ten years. But I think that much later these ideas will pop back to us and maybe the next level of learning will happen.”

The conductor’s art is not exactly demystified by listening to Haitink teaching. “Every conductor gets a completely different sound from an orchestra,” says Antonio Mendez. “It’s something you just can’t explain.” And it’s completely true, hearing the transformation of the sound from student to student. Nobody could come out of this audience believing that a conductor just waves his arms about. 

Life lessons are here, too: concentrate energy on the essentials, rather than expending it on diffuse peripheries, and maybe the rest follows. This class isn’t just about conducting. This is the getting of wisdom. 

Bernard Haitink returns to the Lucerne Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic on 14 and 15 September. More details:

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Double Brahmsfest: Haitink and Abbado go head to head

Another Friday, another Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 given at a great music festival by legendary performers. Honest to goodness, it's quite something to hear it in Lucerne with Abbado at the helm one week and at the Proms under Haitink just seven days later. Last night's Prom was a Brahmsfest par excellence - and the first of two, since tonight the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bernard Haitink and Emanuel Ax follow it up with the Piano Concerto No.2 and the Symphony No.4.

Yesterday opened with the Third Symphony (which steamed into first place as my favourite of the four while I was on tour with the LPO and Vladimir last December) - the most intimate of them, it's the one you can turn, while listening, into the middle-period piano sonata Brahms never wrote, or the finest of his chamber works. In Haitink's hands the solid centre radiated the orchestration's golden glow; the playing was faultless, the tempi spot-on-delicious, the beauty and reflectiveness balanced out with certain touch and vast affection. Brahms 3 doesn't get much better than that. It was so good that there's almost nothing to say.

As for the concerto, Manny Ax was everything that last week Radu Lupu unfortunately didn't manage to be. I don't know what happened to Lupu in Lucerne, but he wasn't on form - technically the concerto was all over the shop, and there were some alarming moments where he and the orchestra seemed to be on different planets - the passage in the final movement just before the fugue, where the piano duets with a French horn off the beat, was a case in point (one pitied the poor horn player). What remained was Lupu's characteristic sound, a palette like an Odilon Redon pastel, dusky, velvety and radiant all at once. Ax, by contrast, was rock solid, dynamic, shining, thoughtful, humane.

And Haitink v Abbado? Telling, dear friends. Very telling. Haitink is a conductor whose work I've revered for donkey's years. There's something pure about his approach, free of egomania and point-proving, setting out simply to convey the truth of the music as he feels it and thinks it through. In the past his Ring Cycle was what turned me on to Wagner, his Ravel Daphnis left me exhilarated and his Mahler Nine sent me home speechless. And this Brahms 3 was, as I said, pretty much perfect.

But last week Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra arrived riding a different variety of phoenix. Things went wrong - plenty wrong - if this was only Lupu's doing, I just couldn't say. Yet that opening orchestral exposition wasn't only strong, but revelatory. Abbado's detailed emphases lit the opening motif like a shaft of sidelight in a Caravaggio; the phrasing of the second theme's descending scale linked it at once in the mind to the melody of the slow movement. Risks were taken, all of them in the service of dear old Johannes, and when they paid off they did so spectacularly. Haitink and Ax took few risks: what resulted was the solidity of the ideal just about realised. Yet despite all its problems, it's the Abbado-Lupu performance that I suspect I'll still remember in 20 years' time, assuming my brain is still in reasonable working order by then.

One other little grumble involves the RAH acoustics. For me, Ax's performance fell foul of The Echo. Apparently this phenomenon is well known at the Proms. It's not something I normally encounter in the usual press seats around door H, but this time we were by door J, further round the circle, and each piano note seemed to sound twice in rapid succession. Others have tweeted that they too experienced this, one from the centre of the arena, another from the other side of the stalls, so it's clearly not specific to seat 52 in row 7. Some say it does not detract from their enjoyment of the music, but I found it immensely bothersome, especially in the fast passages where at times it felt like seeing double. Please could someone investigate whether anything can be done about it?

Meanwhile, read more about my trip to Lucerne in yesterday's Independent, here.

And here is a taster of the performance last night from BBC TV - accessible only to UK readers, I'm afraid (that's not my doing, folks).