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Haitink conducted his first concert on 19 July 1954 with the Netherlands Radio Union Orchestra (later the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic [RFO]). He became second conductor of the orchestra in 1955, and chief conductor of the orchestra in 1957. His conducting debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra was on 7 November 1956, substituting for Carlo Maria Giulini. After the sudden death of Eduard van Beinum, Haitink was named first conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra on 1 September 1959. He became principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961, and shared that position jointly with Eugen Jochum until 1963, when Haitink became sole principal conductor. With the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Haitink made many recordings for the Philips label, and later Decca and EMI Classics, and toured widely with the orchestra.
In the early 1980s, Haitink threatened to resign his Concertgebouw post in protest at threatened reductions to its subsidy from the Dutch government, which could have led to the dismissal of 23 musicians from the orchestra. The financial situation was eventually settled, and Haitink remained as chief conductor until 1988. In 1999, he was named the honorary conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. In December 2012, following his advocacy for the RFO in the wake of proposed budget cuts to the orchestra and Dutch music in general, Haitink accepted the title of patron of the RFO. In March 2014, Haitink stated to the Dutch newspaper Het Parool that he wished to renounce the title of RCO conductor laureate and no longer to guest-conduct the orchestra, in protest at the orchestra's current administrative management. In September 2015, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra announced a rapprochement with Haitink, with a scheduled guest-conducting engagement with the orchestra in the 2016-2017 season.
From 2002 to 2004, Haitink was Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden. His original contract with Dresden ran to 2006, but Haitink resigned in 2004 over disputes with the Staatskapelle's Intendant, Gerd Uecker, on the orchestra's choice of successor.
In April 2006, after an acclaimed two-week engagement in March 2006 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), the CSO appointed Haitink to the newly created position of principal conductor, effective as of the 2006-2007 season. The duration of the contract was four years. Haitink had declined an offer from the CSO to be music director, citing his age. With respect to this contract, Haitink stated that "every conductor, including myself, has a sell-by date." He concluded his Chicago principal conductorship in June 2010 with a series of concerts of the complete Beethoven symphonies and being awarded the Theodore Thomas Medallion by the orchestra.
Haitink stated in a 2004 article that he would no longer conduct opera, but he made exceptions in 2007, directing three performances of Parsifal in Zurich in March and April and five of Pelléas et Mélisande in Paris (Théâtre des Champs-Élysées) in June. He stated in 2004 that he did not plan to conduct again at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. However, an April 2007 announcement stated that Haitink would return to the Royal Opera in December 2007, with the same Zurich production of Parsifal, and he fulfilled this engagement.
Haitink has led master classes in conducting for young conductors in Lucerne for several years. In June 2015, the European Union Youth Orchestra announced the appointment of Haitink as its conductor laureate, effective immediately.
In June 2019 Haitink stated in an interview with De Volkskrant that his final concert as conductor was to be in September 2019, formalising his previously announced sabbatical into retirement. His final concerts as conductor with ensembles with whom he was formally associated were as follows:
Chicago Symphony Orchestra: 30 October 2018
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam: 27 January 2019
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra: 15 June 2019
Haitink has five children from his first marriage to Marjolein Snijder. Haitink lives in West London with his fourth wife, Patricia Bloomfield, a barrister and former viola player in the Covent Garden Opera orchestra.
In 2019, Bärenreiter published the book Dirigieren ist ein Rätsel ('Conducting is a Mystery'), a collaboration between Haitink and the journalists Peter Hagmann and Erich Singer that includes biographical reflections by Haitink on his life and career.