The New York Philharmonic opened its season last week with a much ballyhooed concert led by Alan Gilbert in his debut as music director -- a brief commisioned work from new composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg, Renée Fleming singing Messiaen, and the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. Los Angeles has its won commission, from John Adams, no less, and is calling its opening night with its already celebrated Gustavo Dudamel "The Inaugural Concert." (Take that, Yo-Yo and Itzhak!) James Levine opened Boston's season with more Berlioz, the Roman Carnival Overture, Evgeny Kissin playing the Chopin Second Piano Concerto, and a new work by John Williams (!) featuring and honoring the BSO's recently retired principal harpist. And the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will climb onto the gala carousel next Saturday, October 3, also featuring the in-demand Miss Fleming, this time in music of Barber and Richard Strauss along with Bernstein's Divertimento, all under the baton of Paavo Järvi. (Järvi also leads a night before "opening night" on Friday, October 2, with Bartók and more Bernstein, including Russian violinist Vadim Gluzman's CSO debut in Bernstein's Serenade.)
At this point in his career, these sorts of things are as far from the mind of Bernard Haitink as the winners of the Eurovision song contest or the cancellation of the Beastie Boys concert scheduled for last week at the Hollywood Bowl. And his relationship with the CSO is such that he can lead a tour such as the one of Europe now winding down the way he conceives one: No flashy soloists, no short new commissions (which usually wind up as forgotten occasional pieces anyway), no bravura showcases, and no encores. This month, the focus was on two pairs of seemingly contrasting works -- Mozart's C Major Jupiter Symphony, K. 551 (1788) and Shostakovich's A Major 15th Symphony, Op. 141 (1971), and Haydn's D Major London Symphony No. 101, The Clock (1793-94), and Bruckner's E Major Seventh (1881-85), with the Brahms C minor First Symphony, Op. 68 (1876) thrown in (for different reasons) in Paris and London.
A purity of expression is of great concern to Haitink, and if an orchestra wishes to show the world what it is doing and where it stands, what better way to do so than with major works that frame the rich but remarkably brief history of the artistic construct of the four-movement symphony. But a tour, too, takes on a shape and follows the ups and downs, the crescendos and pauses, of a symphony, he seems to say. The very act of performing these pieces in a concentrated period, of bringing two programs to four of the five cities visited, means that certain points can be made and certain emphases discovered over time and space. Sometimes these variations reflect the mood and style of the city and audience visited -- in Berlin, with its music students and teachers and other cognoscenti hanging off of the railings of Hans Scharoun's much-imitated (see Los Angeles) but never matched Philharmonie, and the sense of friendly competition between cities and orchestras, there is a sense of a sporting event with keen and even fanatic judges. In Lucerne, with its black-suited bankers and their gown-clad wives in Russell Johnson and Jean Nouvel's acoustically marvelous Concert Hall, there is a cleanness and a brilliance to the playing, especially in the Bruckner, which turns emotional and deeply moving in Vienna's historic, and Bruckner-connected, Musikverein, where the heard-it-all, seen-it-all audience knows how to keep silent making their ocean of cheers at performance's end all the more resounding. In Paris, the casually dressed crowd seems to want to show that, contrary to the beliefs of some, their cultural interests do not stop at the bookstalls or the piano recital: this, in return, seems an especially analytical, even intellectual, Bruckner. And then in London, a city that overflows these days with animation and joy, the eager crowds want buoyancy and they get it as Bruckner seems always moving forward to a celebration of life. So perhaps this tour was itself not like just any symphony but like a Bruckner Symphony.
In Haitink's hands, simply pairing pieces does a great deal. There are the shadows and dark places in Haydn's winking and Mozart's jubilation. And here the moments of delicacy and quiet introspection in the great spreading scores of Bruckner and Shostakovich. Haitink doesn't follow program notes, he writes them in his stick-to-the score, let the listener's interpretation follow, readings. Maybe Shostakovich really is assessing both his own life and the death of the symphony as a form, but maybe that's to be found in the playing and not in posturing about intentions none of us can know. Maybe Bruckner's religiosity is about upward movement that even those of us with different faiths, or none at all, can identify with, but let's hear it in the music and not seek to impose a single view based only on elements from the composer's biography. (The notes in Paris asserted that the Seventh is a Catholic work and nothing else, with its four movements even forming the shape of the Cross.) Maybe Haydn and Mozart know that they are opening doors to worlds that they themselves will not live to see but let's listen ourselves.
And those audiences -- amazed everywhere at "how many Asians" there are in the orchestra. At the beauty, lushness, elegant, and, when need be, gentle strings -- a recent legacy of Daniel Barenboim's years as music director -- " but we thought this orchestra was famous for its brass," and that brass, appropriately tamed. And the halls -- from the 19th Century to the 1990s, from ways of hearing to ways of seeing. And a sense of planting the flag, but seeing where it fits within the other flags and landscapes visited and passed trough.
Haitink, at 80, is making an argument, one which every member of the orchestra has endorsed. Novelty and flash and celebrity have their uses and their place in the shape of a season. But on a tour, let's make a pact: We'll play, several times, four or five major pieces together that we've already come to know together. And we'll play them in a way that recognizes that reflection and inquiry and the very act of repetition takes us deeper into these masterworks. And we'll share what we find and make with our audiences, but also with each other -- nothing automatic, nothing unattended. And maybe we'll learn some things and even if we start off extremely well, maybe we'll still improve. The applause and the cheering and the stomping feet that came from the orchestra for Mr. Haitink at the end of each and every of the nine performances on this tour told you something about what it means to say that some event or series or concerts were memorable. These were such evenings, this was such a tour. You leave the concert hall and the tour busses and planes wanting to hear and play more. Wanting to go deeper, even into these same four works. You leave grateful. Truly grateful for what you experienced.