Bernard Haitink at the Barbican Centre in London with the London Symphony Orchestra, 2011

Sameer Patel remembers Bernard Haitink

The great maestro Bernard Haitink passed away last month, and I am grieving this immense loss. Without a doubt, passing at the age of 92 is the sign of a long, rich life, but there are those you secretly hope will live forever. For me, he was one of them. I worked with him once, at a conducting masterclass in Lucerne almost a decade ago. He was kind and encouraging, and he invited me to keep in touch and see him whenever the opportunity came up. So, over the years, I made several trips to see him at work in Chicago, Boston, and, most recently, Amsterdam.

His rehearsals were a real masterclass in action: He was soft-spoken and a man of few words, and that was one of his greatest gifts, I think, in a profession where we conductors are all too well known for loquaciousness. Theatrics, too, were not part of his gestural vocabulary, and he had no time for flattery. Instead, the rehearsal process was about one hundred people on stage finding that selfless, sacred path together, with the highest musical integrity. When you saw one of his performances, you felt like everybody on stage and in the audience was communing together with the spirit of the music; all of us as conduits perhaps, for something greater which momentarily inhabited the hall. You were not hearing Haitink’s Beethoven, nor the Chicago Symphony’s, nor the Berlin Philharmonic’s. Nobody had ownership. You were simply hearing the composer — at their best.

Over the years, I exchanged occasional emails with him and his wife, Patricia, and whenever I would see them, I was always greeted with warmth and kindness. With a twinkle in the maestro’s eyes, he would ask about my family and how my work was going. For a man who was possibly the greatest in our field, his humility and generosity were astounding.

Upon reflection, there is a wonderful story that was shared with me by a friend of mine in college. He recalled that back in the day when Haitink was conducting a lot in Boston, this friend, who was a child at the time, wrote the maestro a fan letter and asked if he would come over sometime to have pizza and play video games. Though it naturally never materialized, the gentle maestro indeed wrote him back and said he would love to.

And this is why I hoped he would live forever: He was a constant reminder, a beacon, for whenever the trappings of the ego got in the way. He was the way to be in this profession, the best of what is possible.

The world lost a special musician, and more than that, a special human being.

I last saw him on stage in 2018 leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. I will remember that performance, and his spirit, and that selfless twinkle in his eye, for as long as I have the privilege to live.