I was at a concert: Mahler 9

For  many years I had threatened to see Bernard Haitink in live action, and Saturday night that threat made the transition to promise thanks to the Philharmonic. Haitink is 87 years old now, and I think I had projected some ill health on to him that he does not at all appear to be suffering from. Mahler 9 is obviously right in his wheelhouse, and even at his advancing age his conducting was as clear and impactful as I always figured it was. He received warm ovations both before and after the music, the applause feeling to me like it carried the subtext of a final goodbye for certain audience members, myself included. I don’t know if I’ll have the chance to see and hear the man in his element again, but I can tell you unequivocally that dude’s still got it.

Haitink walks pretty gingerly, like a guy who just had hips and knees replaced, carefully placing his steps and stabilizing himself on chairs and stands. I don’t say that with ill intent. Christ, I walk gingerly sometimes and I’m just an overweight 35-year-old who hopes like hell he even sees his 87th year, much less is walking during that year. He looked fragile, though. Fragile, that is, until he took his spot on the podium. From there, he was fucking rooted to the spot, weighty and firmly in control. It was truly a physical transformation. I really can’t describe just how strange it was. Honest to G-d, once he took his bow and turned around it may as well have been 1970 all over again. Those same Haitink mannerisms – the flourishes on certain upbeats, the clear patterns, the left hand shaking, fingers spread wide – were all there, like a greatest hits album of his entire visual aesthetic.

Because I projected ill health on to him, I also projected a certain artistic expectation that proved to be wildly inaccurate. Haitink’s approach was mostly on the money. The first movement was driven, but not hurried, and had a perfect blend of sweetness and pervasive unease. One of my favorite parts of the entire symphony is in the middle of the movement when, after the trombones and tuba grind everything to a halt with those pounding syncopations calling back to the opening bars, the trumpets play fanfares, answered by the woodwinds, and give way to the strings playing the fanfare lick with extreme prejudice. It’s such a great moment (fast forward to 19:13 of the video).

Saturday night was the best I’ve ever heard that bit sound. The balances were immaculate, and Haitink let in just enough grotesque snark from the strings to really close the episode in style. It was supremely enjoyable.

The second movement was superbly paced, and the woodwinds stole the show with colorful playing the likes of which I assumed were the norm for this band, but haven’t been to this point in my experience. The music was playful but sarcastic, bounding along with a sort of casual energy that proved to be a perfect counter to the idea of the third movement. That movement, though, proved to be the one that got away. I’m not sure if Haitink couldn’t sustain the relentless pace or if it just lacked energy because sometimes it just isn’t there, but it was a noticeable departure from what came before. The middle of the movement was subtle and well done, not giving too much away (the whole finale is waiting in the wings, something that not every conductor remembers). The principal trumpet played like a champion during this stretch, displaying easy facility and gorgeous, gorgeous tone.

The finale was where my expectations for the performance died a fiery death. Because of my projected feelings about the imminence of Haitink’s impending doom, I anticipated a performance of the finale that oozed sentimentality (“how many more times will I get to conduct this?”), a step or two shy of Celibidache in his late Munich days. Proving once again that you should check your expectations at the door in pretty much everything you do in life, Haitink proceeded to lead one of the least overwrought, most unsentimental takes on the finale that you could ever hear. It flowed along like a God damn river, feeling Andante while being Adagio. I didn’t think that was possible. It apparently is if you’re the greatest conductor alive. Surely, though, this man was going to let that shit go when the movement’s explosive and powerful climax came along. Nope. It was zurückhaltend  as fuck. The orchestra brought it home nicely, allowing the music to unwind while maintaining Haitink’s relatively aggressive pace. This was, by a not insignificant margin, the best concert I’ve heard the Philharmonic do since I moved here. They had moments before, but this was as close to a complete performance as I’ve personally been witness to. I attribute a lot of that to Bernard Haitink.

Even in his 7th decade as a conductor, Haitink was fresh and engaged. He had a vision and, with the exception of a dip in the 3rd movement, executed it to perfection. Most surprising to me was how much it came in the service of the music. Who could blame him for enjoying himself at this time in his life, secure in his position as one of the all-time legends in the field, just going around to conduct repertoire he digs with the finest orchestras the world has to offer? There’s not a soul who would begrudge him the indulgence of a self-serving performance. He wanted no part of it, though. This, as much as the amazing creation Mahler left us, was my takeaway from the evening:

Bernard Haitink is a true, and I mean true as an adjective, a verb, and an adverb, fucking artist. I feel privileged to know this.

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