What it was like to play under Bernard Haitink: the London Philharmonic Orchestra musicians remember the great maestro

Bernard Haitink is fondly remembered by the musicians who played under him, not least the members of the LPO, an orchestra he had an enduring relationship with

(GERMANY OUT)   Bernard Haitink (* 04. März 1929 in Amsterdam, Niederländischer Dirigent) leitet das Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
in Begleitung der deutschen Alt-Sängerin Gerhild Romberger (* Sögel/Landkreis Emsland), des Kölner Domchor, einstudiert von Eberhard Metternich und des Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, einstudiert von Yuval Weinberg  Philharmonie Köln   (Photo by Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

When Bernard Haitink died in October 2021, his loss was felt around the round, particularly by those who had played under him. As well as posts at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera House, Haitink’s longest stint as a conductor was with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a relationship that extended the following decade as he took on the role of music director at Glyndebourne Opera, where the LPO was (and still is) resident.

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We asked some of the musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to share their memories of working under the baton of the great Bernard Haitink.

Thomas Eisner: 1st Violin (1986–present)

‘My very first concerts as a new member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra were with Haitink; they were two Proms concerts, one was Ein Heldenleben;  the other Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. I recall feeling slightly anxious – having been used to life in the provinces, I was suddenly playing in a world-famous venue, in a big-time orchestra, with a renowned conductor. When we started playing the symphony, any angst I had initially had was quickly dispelled by  Haitink’s benign smile. I sensed he knew what I was going  through; indeed he had a unique ability to make everyone feel essential and needed. He was one of my absolute favourites.’

Rodney Friend: Leader (1964–76)

‘I was leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra during the first nine  years  of Bernard Haitink’s tenure with the LPO. I was then appointed leader of the  New York Philharmonic. With these two orchestras I was privileged to work with the greatest conductors of the second half of the 20th century, and if I was  to make a list as to who constantly produced the highest level of uniformed orchestral energy and respect, Haitink would be first on my list.

He received, through his powerful yet modest personality, a clarity and atmosphere of total respect from all the musicians as he expected and received our very best efforts. Rehearsals were free of lectures, as he had complete trust in our instrumental abilities.  I missed him very much when I left the LPO. I missed his honesty, modesty, loyalty, friendship and sense of humour –  but most of all I missed playing the great literature with him.’

Christopher Seaman: Principal Timpanist (1964–68)

‘Bernard Haitink exceeded my highest expectations when I first played for him.  The two main works were Mahler’s First Symphony and Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’. He had a remarkable combination of solidity and artistic flexibility. You felt you could trust him and this brought out the best in all of us. He knew what he wanted and was able to convey it in a collegial manner, but there was no doubt  that he was going to get what he wanted! He had great warmth and a quiet sense of humour.

I remember at one rehearsal the violins played a passage with great schmaltz. He stopped and said, “Please – I am only Dutch!”. As I moved towards conducting, Bernard allowed me to attend his rehearsals in Amsterdam and to meet and answer questions, which showed he was an absolute ‘natural’. He was  most supportive after I left the LPO and would encourage me if he liked one of my broadcasts. I feel privileged to have known and worked with him and only wish he could have enjoyed a longer retirement.’

Michael Boyle: 2nd Bassoon (1962–89)

‘I was in the London Philharmonic Orchestra when Bernard Haitink’s LPO career began in the BBC’s Maida Vale’s Studio No. 1, where the young Dutchman conjured an insightful recording of Bruckner’s Third Symphony with the entire orchestra breaking into spontaneous applause after the red light went out.

Within a few months he was approached to become the orchestra’s next principal conductor, and during the following 12 years he transformed the orchestra’s reputation, with subsequent years at Glyndebourne confirming it before finally becoming its most distinguished guest conductor.’

David Marcou: 2nd Violin, Chairman, twice Interim Managing Director, then Deputy Managing Director (1967–95)

‘I first played for Bernard Haitink in 1967 and count myself extremely fortunate  to have known and worked with him for over 50 years. Our relationship, professional and personal, matured slowly. It deepened through my time as LPO Chair and moved to a new level during the Southbank residency negotiations, at the end of which he agreed to become the orchestra’s president.

Bernard’s musical integrity and generosity of spirit is well documented; less publicly celebrated were his kindness, warmth and generous support for individuals away from the podium, something I experienced first hand.’

Patrick Garvey: 2nd Horn (1973–85)

‘I was the youngest and least experienced member of the LPO when I joined it, and could feel Bernard’s support through the ether as I learnt the repertoire. Playing for him was akin to making chamber music, with everything going up so many levels as he became excited or,  in more reflective music, took himself to some other celestial place.

It was also the orchestra’s joy to support him at Glyndebourne as he moved into and developed his work in opera. It was a privilege to be a very tiny part in what he achieved in life.’

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The London Philharmonic Orchestra will be dedicating its concert on 1 December with pianist Stephen Hough and principal guest conductor Karina Canellakis to the the life and artistry of its former principal conductor Bernard Haitink.