Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Star power: Bernard Haitink

Bernard Haitink conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, March 16, 2017. Robert Torres photograph

Bernard Haitink conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, March 16, 2017. Robert Torres photograph

You end up writing things that make conductors mad. This is one of those times.

Bernard Haitink was the star of the Boston Symphony Orchestra performance Thursday evening. 

Nothing could be further from the truth, is what I could guess the long beloved maestro, the BSO’s conductor emeritus, would say to such a thing. But it was true.

And not because the program—Haydn’s Symphony No. 60, “Il Distratto,” Debussy’s Nocturnes, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony—lacked an instrumental soloist. It did, but that’s hardly the reason. This evening was about music-making, and how Haitink goes about it.

Perhaps we see his work in starker contrast these days, given the BSO’s flamboyant and popular music director Andris Nelsons. Nelsons conducts with his heart on his sleeve, and leaves no musical emotion uninterpreted.

Haitink does it with a nod. A left-hand gesture. Sometimes with nothing at all—you know that phrase came in rehearsal, either this week, or ten years ago. Haitink expects everything from his players, and gets it. But he doesn’t demand it. That’s star power.

Haydn, Debussy, Beethoven—hardly seems groundbreaking. But this program carefully took apart symphonic stereotypes. Programming the modern in order to surprise? No need here. All three of these symphonies acknowledge the genre, only as they transcend it, moving on to other notions.

Haydn’s “Il Distratto,” bearing the title of a dramatic work (The Scatterbrain), makes that subtitle into a musical formula. The Schizophrenic might be more appropriate, but modern psychology was still a couple centuries away for that.

Each of the six movements states something, then un-states it. The opening starts out formally, then dissolves in confusion. The second opens with a nice lyric, but a fanfare chases that out of the room. And so on. There’s even a scordatura moment in the finale, the violins tuning down their G strings mid-phrase, sucking the air out of the melody.

Haydn was be the father of the symphony, and this middle child was a comedian. A century-and-a-half later, Debussy became the symphony’s artist, painting images of the structures rather than drawing their architecture. I couldn’t have been alone, trying to keep extraneous noises out of my head during intermission afterwards.

And Beethoven? The Seventh seems like the joy of creation. Of particular note, for Haitink watchers, was the pianissimo. When he could call for it, like in the first phrase of the canon that begins the second movement, as he works the low strings quieter, and quieter—that seemed like real music-making. 

Multiple curtain calls brought the deliberate-moving maestro back to the podium. For the last one, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe refused to let the orchestra stand and share the bow. It belonged to Haitink, but naturally, unwilling to take the spotlight, he grabbed his score off the stand and bowed along with it. 

CADENCES: Caught up with Lidiya Yankovskaya, who had prepared the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for the wordless atmospheres in the third movement Debussy’s Nocturnes. Of Haitink, she said: “He gets it all.” The always entertaining reprints of the original programs for each work had this gem: the first BSO performance of “Il Distratto” came in 1972; also on that program, Beethoven’s C minor concerto, with Garrick Ohlsson. That was 45 years ago. Haitink made his BSO debut the previous year. Haitink had a stool on the podium, but only used it briefly between movements of the Beethoven symphony.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs music of Haydn, Debussy and Beethoven under Bernard Haitink Friday, Saturday and Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m. bso.org; 888-266-1200.

Stave Sessions opens with yMusic, Tuesday, March 21.

Stave Sessions opens with yMusic, Tuesday, March 21.

Devotion. Christina Day Martinson, performing the Biber Rosary Sonatas, Friday, March 10, 2017

Devotion. Christina Day Martinson, performing the Biber Rosary Sonatas, Friday, March 10, 2017