Former EMI producer, now CEO of the League of American Orchestras, recalls working with the great conductor
Many people have written fondly about their memories of Bernard Haitink, following his death last week. I have read reviews online from orchestral musicians speaking of their great respect for him, listeners for whom his recordings were cutting-edge experiences in their appreciation of orchestral music, and members of the public who have been fascinated by his presence on the podium.
I was fortunate enough to work with Haitink during my years at EMI Classics as a recording producer in the 1990s, and it gave me real insight into how he works. The role of a classical recording producer is interesting. You are not directly an interpreter, of course – yet you are much more than an intruder in the registration process. Most people have little idea of ââthe degree to which even the most famous musicians rely on a pair of trusted ears in the control room to advise, encourage and help them realize their vision for music. a way that will stand the test. of time.
Haitink has made over 450 recordings, including a precursor Mahler cycle, touchstone interpretations of most of the great works of the classical repertoire, magnificent opera recordings, a few outliers such as the immaculate recordings of Debussy and Ravel from the era of the Concertgebouw, and his indispensable recordings of Elgar, Walton, Britten and Vaughan Williams for EMI.
The UK was his adopted homeland. The Queen bestowed on him the title of “Knight of the British Empire”, and if he had taken British citizenship he would have been allowed to call himself Sir Bernard Haitink. He had a deep affinity for English music; its nature reserve was perfect for music that needs to speak with sincere sentiment but firmly avoid sentimentality – a combination that has sometimes escaped those beyond the British coasts. Much to the regret of many of us, he never defended this repertoire in concert halls, but his recordings of key works in the English repertoire are unforgettable. It was in this recording branch that I was involved. I can only claim to be involved in a very small handful of recordings from his huge discography, but he had a disproportionate influence on me, and we got along well even though he was almost 40 years old. my elder.
It was always like a huge privilege to be in the room with Bernard. He wasn’t a towering presence off the podium, but he had deep wisdom, a wry smile (if you could coax him), genuine humility, and total dedication to getting the best out of music. It was a privilege to see him at work, and my little tribute here is a âthree-movement symphony,â each of which is a small episode with an attached lesson.
First movement: take responsibility
Orchestral musicians loved Haitink because he gave them what they needed to do their best and trusted them completely. I saw this demonstration one morning in the studio, working with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. After a few takes of a particular move where a section just never came together, I decided I should ask it for a âpatchâ. Despite his long recording experience (or maybe because of it!), Bernard had little time for the numbing rehearsal of the studio recording at its peak. He hated doing short sections of music, preferring to create a sense of performance through the architecture of long takes – and every request for patches from the control room was grudgingly accepted, if at all. So you had to choose your moments. Here is a typical dialogue from the control room:
Simon, on the studio phone line: “Unfortunately, it never came together to the letter J. So we really need to patch that part.”
Bernard: Deep sigh. Long pause. Fix the score. ‘Should we?’
Simon: I don’t think you’ll be happy with what we have on tape. It’s just not together in the brass.
Bernard: ‘Okay.’ Put the phone down. âLetter H please. Â»Start the music.
Here’s an important nuance: most conductors would have made a comment to the orchestra like “Could the brass be careful to be together, especially in bars 135 and 136”. He never said any of that. In fact, he said absolutely nothing to them. But the letter J was perfect. Why? Because he saw the vagueness of previous takes as his failure, not theirs. He knew that if he fixed it himself, the orchestra would be together perfectly.
After more than 30 years of observing conductors closely, I come back time and time again to this random moment in my head. Most orchestras can do anything if they have a conductor in front of them who masters his craft, takes responsibility and trusts musicians to do their best.
Second movement: consummate craftsmanship
One of the projects we did together was the full recording of Britten Peter Grimes in 1992 with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Peter Grimes is full of traps for the recording team. It has complex ensembles, large choirs, a backstage dance orchestra, a backstage organ and church choir, a long a cappella section without an orchestra, lots of sound effects and lots of movement on stage. Despite a cast that included some of the most famous British singers of the time, a choir and orchestra that knew the work inside out, and an excellent recording room, I was worried about our ability to pick up a work. so complex with a conductor who I feared would only want to do entire scenes and would resist breaking them up into more manageable chunks. And the technology in 1992 was much less useful than it is today.
“He had the ability to create a strange sense of direct transmission from the notes on the page to the performance that emerged from it.”
I didn’t need to worry. It was extraordinary to see Bernard’s ability to rally forces in long takes, giving the actors everything they needed, eliciting magnificent orchestral playing, propelling the music forward all the time. with every ounce of dramatic tension the job demands. His art was so accomplished that you rarely noticed him – and it gave him the ability to create a strange sense of direct transmission from the notes on the page to the performance that emerged from it.
He only listened to the first take. After that he got back on the podium, gave some notes and we did the whole scene again. Most of those seconds taken are what resulted in the final recording. I have never seen someone so efficient in their use of time, because nothing was wasted. Why exhaust singers and backing vocals doing ten takes if you can galvanize everyone around you and make it a great one?
Third movement: create the sound
More than one person commented on Haiti’s ability to change the sound of an orchestra as soon as he raised his arms. This mysterious phenomenon is, in general, true for conductors – but never as much as with him.
At that time, I was based at Abbey Road Studios in London, which, although renowned for being where the Beatles made most of their albums, were at zero point during the frenzy of re-recording the entire song. classical repertoire in digital sound in the ’80s and’ 90s. At that time, almost every morning of the week, one of the London orchestras was in Abbey Road recording another classical CD.
âThe sound he evoked from orchestras miraculously combined firmness, clarity and luminosity. It was drawn with precision, in pencil not in watercolor ‘
Usually, at the start of a recording session, you spend 20 or 30 minutes “balancing” the sound before you start recording actual takes. But with Bernard, it was often enough to position the microphones correctly, push the faders up on the mixer, and the “Haitink sound” was revealed. John Kurlander, the superb sound engineer who worked his magic on many recordings with me, often refused to take credit for the glorious sound that came out of the speakers, saying simply, “Thank you, but it’s not. me, it’s Bernard â.
And it was. The sound he evoked from orchestras miraculously combined firmness, clarity and luminosity. It was drawn with precision, in pencil and not in watercolor, carefully shaded in meticulously clean lines. I always felt that he gave musicians such security and space that they were free to focus on the beauty of the sound and on the natural and unforced shaping of the music that he encouraged.
Listen to the final minutes of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony as an example (you can find the full movement below on Apple Music – this section starts at 7’14 “). At a daringly slow tempo, with each beat rising. moving perfectly in unison, beautifully phrased wind solos supported by a silvery cushion of string sounds, it inexorably heads to the serene conclusion. I’ll never forget how we all exhaled at the end of this take , and this is what I will choose to remember him by.
In 1997, I left EMI after almost ten years to become artistic administrator of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Bernard sent me a most touching handwritten letter to wish me good luck. It ends with: âI wish you all the best, andâ¦ how I will miss you. As always, yours, Bernard. I have it in front of me as I write this. At the time, I couldn’t believe that such a great artist was so generous to a young record producer with whom he had only made a handful of recordings. But that was him – he was very loyal to those around him who supported him, loved the music, and cared enough about getting it right. He was an artist of immense stature, whose performances seem even more human today if we look at them from the perspective of an era that often values ââoutdoor spectacle above quiet wisdom. Those of us who have worked closely with him know how lucky we were.
Simon Woods is President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. He began his career as a recording producer with EMI Classics, based at Abbey Road Studios in London, where he worked from 1988 to 1997. After joining the Philadelphia Orchestra as artistic administrator in 1997, he became CEO of the New Jersey Symphony. , Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Seattle Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic before joining the League in 2020.