David Afkham reflects on the influence of a great mentor, Bernard Haitink

Conductor David Afkham, who returns to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this spring, realizes how fortunate he is.

It’s not just that Afkham, born 40 years ago in Germany, has been praised by critics and audiences for performances with high-profile groups ranging from Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival to Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. It’s not just because he is chief conductor and artistic director of the Spanish National Orchestra and Chorus, a post he assumed after five years as those ensembles’ principal conductor. Nor is it the international conducting awards he began winning while in his 20s.

Perhaps the most fortunate turn of Afkham’s career was his long-term association, early on, with the internationally esteemed Dutch maestro Bernard Haitink.

Haitink, who died in 2021 at age 92, played a crucial role in recent CSO history. He served as the orchestra’s principal conductor for four years, between the departure of Daniel Barenboim, then music director, in 2006 and the arrival in 2010 of Riccardo Muti, the CSO’s current music director.

Afkham’s work with Haitink began during those years. “Everything started for me in the years 2006 and 2007 when [Haitink] gave one of his first conducting master classes in Lucerne, Switzerland,” said Afkham, soft-spoken and forthcoming in a recent video interview from Germany. “I was a regular, normal conducting student in Germany, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I apply? I have nothing to lose.’ ”

He passed his audition and joined Haitink’s master class. “This experience was so strong,” recalled Afkham, who will lead the CSO in concerts June 1-3 and 6. “I asked Maestro Haitink if it would be possible to stay in touch and continue learning from him. He said yes.”

“In the end, everything we do is in service the composer. It’s about doing the best we can to make those black dots on this white paper come to life.” — David Afkham

Haitink was revered for his deeply thoughtful approach to a vast repertoire — operas ranging from Mozart to Wagner, orchestral works from Beethoven and Brahms to Mahler. He conducted all over the world and held principal musical posts with the London Philharmonic, the Glyndebourne Opera, the Concertgebouw and London’s Royal Opera House, among other prestigious appointments. But he rejected the persona of glamorous, jet-setting international maestro. Afkham was struck by Haitink’s understated but compelling stage presence. Rather than drawing attention to himself, rather than operating as a kind of high-profile policeman supervising 100-plus musicians, Haitink subtly drew the orchestra into the very heart of a musical score.

Afkham recalled a life-changing moment during an early master class. Haitink was standing aside while Afkham conducted the slow second movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 3. (Afkham conducted the piece during his most recent CSO appearance in fall 2019.)

“He said, ‘David, may I conduct one time?’ I said, ‘Yes, please.’ He took the baton and already the way he stood on the podium, the way he lifted his arms, there was an energy, a presence. It was so strong for every musician, who were already giving everything for this man, this music. He was just leading everybody from inside.

“It’s giving trust to the musicians and letting go in a way,” Afkham said. “Of course, you must have enormous presence, enormous will. But the power of his will was so strong, he didn’t need to be a policeman. This I don’t think you find so much anymore. This is one of the reasons why I asked him if was possible to stay in touch.”

Bernard Haitink takes a bow with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. "He was one of the greatest maestros of our time," says David Afkham of his mentor. "But there was always great respect for musicians, the score and the composer.”

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Haitink invited Afkham to more master classes, and rehearsals and performances in Berlin and Amsterdam. Afkham assisted Haitink with symphonic cycles in Chicago, Berlin and London. In 2014, Afkham was named the first recipient of the Bernard Haitink Fund for Young Talent.

“This was the start for me, then one thing came after the other,” Afkham said. “He asked if I would like to assist him in Chicago, then came the London Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic. It was really a wonderful start, and it became a close friendship.”

Afkham experienced first hand Haitink’s ability to draw a particular sound — “more natural, more organic, transparent, noble” to the young conductor’s ears — from diverse ensembles. “Whatever orchestra he worked with, after five minutes, 10 minutes, he got that sound, his sound.” When Afkham ask how he did it, Haitink replied, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Afkham describes Haitink’s power as an ineffable blend of a gifted, committed musician and empathic person. “With these strong artists, these strong personalities, you feel immediately that there is something unique in this human being, this musician, this conductor. You cannot separate the human being from the musician. In the end, they are one.”

Haitink’s laser-sharp focus was on the composer’s score and working on an equal footing with the musicians to discover its most profound depths. “In the end, everything we do is in service the composer,” he said. “It’s not about me [as a conductor], it’s not about them [as musicians]. It’s about doing the best we can to make those black dots on this white paper come to life. We are nothing without the musicians. And if you’re transmitting your will and sharing your ideas, and the musicians want the ideas you are sharing, then you have a connection.’’

If Haitink liked a musician’s ideas about how to play a particular musical phrase or passage, he would incorporate their ideas into the performance.

“You form something together,” Afkham said. “It’s not from above; it’s on the same level. Bernard was strong. He was one of the greatest maestros of our time. But still, there was always great respect for musicians, the score and the composer.”