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Bernard Haitink leads CSO to unparalleled heights

Conductor Bernard Haitink (right) pianist Emanuel Ax with Chicago Symphony Orchestrtake their bows Thursday night's concert. | © Todd Rosenberg

Conductor Bernard Haitink (right) and pianist Emanuel Ax, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra take their bows at Thursday night's concert. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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Chicago Symphony orchestra — BERNARD HAITINK, EMANUEL AX

Highly RecommendedWhen:

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Tickets

: $32-$160

Info: (312) 294-3000;

Updated: December 3, 2013 6:09AM

In the summer of 1954 a quiet but determined 25-year-old Amsterdam violinist took up the baton before what was then known as the Netherlands Radio Union Orchestra. He was given a post with the group and two years later was called in as a last minute substitute by the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra for the already renowned Carlo Maria Giulini.

Bernard Haitink’s entry into the highly competitive world of international conducting was little different from that of other aspirants from well before his time up to the present day. That he early on took on and held major leadership positions and won and holds enormous respect from musicians and audiences around the world for 60 years puts the quiet, reserved Dutchman in a class by himself.

When Daniel Barenboim gave two years’ notice in 2004 on his contract as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, CSO Association president Deborah F. Rutter told me that she had two major dreams — to see if she could bring Riccardo Muti to Chicago despite his having had little connection to the orchestra since the 1970s, and to see if she might persuade Bernard Haitink, too, to return to the CSO after a long absence and perhaps even lead the orchestra during the intense search and planning process it was then launching.

Rutter’s vision and determination were confirmed yet again as Haitink Thursday night launched his single week with the CSO in this season that marks both his 60th as a conductor and his 85th birthday in March, 2014. Having served as principal conductor in Chicago for four years and played a major role in the initial years of the CSO Resound recording label, Haitink’s relationship with the orchestra and audience here is unique. One knew that his program of Mozart and Bruckner would be special from its announcement last year.

And even though Haitink’s high standards and quality are a constant, his ability to go to even higher levels in a way that appears to surprise even him still astonishes. Emanuel Ax was his more than reliable partner for Mozart’s B-Flat Major Piano Concerto, K. 595, the last of his 27 such works and the last piece the composer performed in public before his early death in 1791. It soon became clear that delicacy would be the order of the evening and Ax’s care, playfulness and lightly-worn technical prowess made the performance both greatly appealing and a cue as to how Haitink would offer and how the audience should take in the 70-minute Bruckner symphony that followed intermission.

As Haitink himself would say, What can one say about this performance of the much-played Fourth? Trim and energetic, the conductor banished memories of a period when he served the CSO through tremendous back pain. The entire presentation of the work was telegraphed from those first few measures when a theme quietly emerges from earthy rumblings that seem to appear without starting. Listen, Haitink said figuratively to the audience. Play as you played our delicate Mozart, seemed to be his message to the orchestra.

Three of the movements of the Fourth have the marking “bewegt,” moving, in their captions. And this was Haitink: the work was not massive, it was moving, rhythmically, logically, emotionally. Daniel Gingrich shared horn calls entirely in keeping with this gentle yet rooted presentation. Mathieu Dufour and his flute brought colleagues floating up with him. New timpanist David Herbert had you watching to see when he was touching his (also new) instrument, so subtle were the beats. In his double anniversary year, Haitink gave us a performance for all time.

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