As the head of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam between 1964 and ’88, Bernard Haitink worked methodically to rebuild the orchestra made great by Willem Mengelberg, the legendary champion of Mahler and Richard Strauss. Without much fanfare, he succeeded; under him as under Mengelberg, the orchestral playing had a warmth and discipline that added gloss to its heavily Austro-Germanic sound. Bucking the trend of the time–evident in the conducting of Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti–Haitink didn’t go for the big statement. He avoided bombast; his approach tended to be straightforward and balanced. This clearheaded, middle-of-the-road tack worked especially effectively to articulate the structure of the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven and in toning down the excesses in the concerti and symphonies of Brahms and Mahler, though occasionally it resulted in dullness or reticence. After a stint at the prestigious Glyndebourne Festival, Haitink took on the opera- and ballet-oriented job of director at the Royal Opera House, but his interpretative personality remains pretty much the same. Now that he’s eased into the role of an elder statesman–with most of his rivals gone from the scene–he’s finally recognized for his taste and acumen. Though much sought after for guest assignments by most of the major musical organizations on both sides of the Atlantic, he hasn’t led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra–which shares many traits with his beloved Concertgebouw–since 1976. In two programs, starting with this mostly Brahms affair, it’ll be interesting to see how the CSO responds to the mild-mannered Haitink (as opposed to the autocratic Solti) in playing, once again, Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Symphony no. 2. The first program, which runs for four shows, starts Thursday, January 9, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Michael Ward.