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Bernard Haitink, former CSO principal conductor, dies at 92

The Dutch artist held the CSO post from 2006-10, between the terms of music directors Daniel Barenboim and and Riccardo Muti.

Bernard Haitink conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2013.
Bernard Haitink conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2013.
Todd Rosenberg

Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, a former principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, died at his home in London on Thursday, his management agency announced. He was 92.

A musician of refinement and grace, Haitink held the CSO post from 2006-10, between the terms of Daniel Barenboim and current music director Riccardo Muti. He shared the artistic leadership of the orchestra during that time with Pierre Boulez, who was labeled conductor emeritus.

He most recently conducted the CSO in Chicago in 2018, in a program of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Paul Lewis as soloist.

In a statement, Muti praised Haitink as “one of the greatest conductors, artists and musicians who has given so much to the history of musical interpretation. His loss leaves an immense void in the world of music, and his extraordinary collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will long remain in the history of this great institution.”

Haitink recorded eight albums with the CSO over the course of his tenure in Chicago, including the 2008 release of “Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4,” which won a Grammy for best orchestral performance.

Haitink was born in Amsterdam on March 4, 1929, studied violin and conducting at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and made his conducting debut with the Netherlands Radio Union Orchestra on July 9, 1954.

He conducted his first performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Netherlands’ premier orchestra, on Nov, 7, 1956, became co-principal conductor with Eugen Jochum in 1961 and sole principal conductor in 1963, a position he held he held until 1988. Under his tenure, the Concertgebouw was considered among the world’s premier orchestras alongside the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics.

He was known for interpretations without flash.

“Haitink’s approach was more passionate than portentous, happily lacking in heaviness,” Associated Press critic Daniel J. Wakin wrote after a Brahms Symphony No. 2 with the Berlin Philharmonic at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1991.

In a 2006 interview with the Sun-Times, Haitink, who made his debut with the CSO in 1976, reflected on his career on the podium. “You can’t succeed with an orchestra if you start talking about wonderful ideas and theoretical lectures. After three or four words, they will be totally uninterested. You need to learn, as a conductor, to use your personality, your physical personality, to transfer your ideas to an orchestra. That is very difficult to develop.”

The maestro was no stranger to Ravinia audiences, having made his debut with the CSO at the Highland Park venue in 2008.

Haitink developed a lengthy and influential career in England, where he was chief conductor of the London Philharmonic from 1969-79 and music director of the Glynebourne Festival from 1978-88.

He succeeded Colin Davis as music director of The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 1987 and held the position until 2002. Among the highlights of his tenure were a color-splashed Graham Vick production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” that reopened the refurbished Royal Opera House in December 1999.

“If we have seen a lot of Haitink here in the concert hall and the opera house over the past three decades and more, that has been our gain, for he is one of the leading conductors of our age, a superbly natural musician who brings a rare combination of rigour and expressiveness to everything he tackles,” Andrew Clements wrote in the Guardian before Haitink stepped down from Covent Garden. “Haitink’s performances have always been a reflection of the man himself: direct, unshowy and profoundly truthful.”

Haitink became principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1995-2004. He was also principal conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra from 1994-2000.

Haitink conducted 111 performances with the Vienna Philharmonic, making his debut in February 1972 and leading the ensemble on tour to Costa Mesa, California, and Carnegie Hall in 2002. He conducted his final four concerts with that orchestra at age 90 from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6, 2019, programs of Beethoven and Bruckner in Salzburg, Austria; London; and Lucerne, Switzerland.

Haitink was nominated for nine Grammy Awards and won two, for 2003 opera recording with the Royal Opera for Janácek’s “Jenufa” and for the 2008 CSO performance.

His recordings include Beethoven and Brahms symphony cycles for the London Symphony Orchestra’s LSO Live label, and an extensive library for Phillips and EMI.

Contributing: Sun-Times reporters Darel Jevens and Miriam Di Nunzio