Arts & Events

Herbert Blomstedt: A Ninety Year-Old Wunderkind

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday February 18, 2018 - 02:53:00 PM

This weekend, February 15-17, Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Herbert Blomstedt wound up a two-week visit during which he conducted two great works by Beethoven, a great symphony by Mozart, and a rarely heard symphony by Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar. Now age ninety, Herbert Blomstedt never ceases to amaze us. Eons ago, Blomstedt led the San Francisco Symphony from 1985 to 1995, and during his decade-long tenure here he raised the orchestra’s standing and led the Symphony on prestigious international tours. Known for his modesty and good-natured humility, Blonstedt had a way of getting what he wanted from an orchestra while never hectoring them as some conductors do, but also, and more surprisingly, by making his orchestra members respect , revere and even love him. 

San Francisco Symphony audiences feel the same way about Herbert Blomstedt, as was evident by the standing ovation and shouted Bravos they accorded Maestro Blomstedt at the close of the Friday evening, February 16 concert I attended at Davies Hall. I would even venture to say that Herbert Blomstedt is the recipient of more heartfelt love and appreciation from San Francisco audiences than Michael Tilson Thomas, who will have led the Symphony twice as long as Blomstedt when Thomas retires in 2020. With Thomas, there are high notes to be sure (his interpretations of Mahler, first and foremost). But with Thomas there are also many low notes, most notably his misguided penchant for gussying up music with Hollywood-style video special effects. With Herbert Blomstedt, however, there is nothing but high note after high note, in a career lasting well into old age. Moreover, I would hazard to say that, as good a conductor as Blomstedt was during his 1985-95 tenure here, he is an even better conductor today; and this is so because Blomstedt has never ceased to grow in his understanding of the music he conducts. 

In my review posted last Saturday, February 10, of Blomstedt teaming up with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, I noted Blomstedt’s attention to dynamics. Both Blomstedt and Ohlsson made us keenly aware of how much delicacy and softness underlies a concerto that many musicians treat as an invitation to hammer away thunderously from beginning to end. (Take Jonathan Biss, for example.) I also noted, when comparing Garrick Ohlsson and Jonathan Biss, that a key moment in Herbert Blomstedt’s growing awareness of the importance of acknowledging Beethoven’s softer side no doubt came when Blomstead in February 2016 conducted the San Francisco Symphony with pianist Maria João Pires in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Pires offered a Beethoven Third Piano Concerto that was so refined, so delicate, that it brought tears of admiration to the eyes of Herbert Blomstedt. Now, two years later, Blomstedt did not fail to honor Beethoven’s softer side as well as the composer’s thunderous side, and Blomstedt held both sides in equilibrium, not only in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto but also in his “Eroica” Symphony. The “Eroica” Symphony I heard on Friday evening, February 16, was a model of dynamic equilibrium. Softness was given its due, as was the thunder. Everything was in place in a performance that was taut, yet by no means one-dimensional. 

But Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony was not even the highlight of this concert. In my opinion, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, was this concert’s highlight. This is perhaps my favorite among Mozart’s symphonies. Eric Blom states that “the G minor Symphony is the work in which classicism and romanticism meet and where once and for all we see a perfect equilibrium between them, neither outweighing the other by the tiniest fraction. It is in this respect at least the perfect musical work.” Mozart’s G minor Symphony opens with a gentle, slightly sad melody in the strings. Yet this melody is also achingly beautiful. Only a Mozart could follow this gorgeous theme with a second that was equally inspiring and beautiful. This second theme is shared between oboe and clarinet on one hand, and the strings on the other. As these two themes are developed, we find ourselves leaving behind all eighteenth-century notions of courtly formalism. Here we are in a new musical vein, one that anticipates Beethoven in its drama of emotional unrest and inner conflict. Yet all the while Mozart keeps these agitations just below the surface of extraordinarily beautiful music.  

The second movement, marked Andante, offers a serenely slow melody that always reminds me of the ditty, “In Dublin’s fair city where girls are so pretty, twas there I fist met my sweet Molly Malone.” This simple melody offers Mozart material for the whole movement, and there are moments of heart-melting beauty in this theme’s development. Conducting without a score and without a baton, Herbert Blomstedt used his hands to elicit wonderfully poignant music from his orchestra in this Andante. The third movement, a Menuetto, strikes a vigorous note for full orchestra, though the trio offers a pastoral melody shared between strings and woodwinds. 

The finale fairly explodes. It begins with an electrifying theme in the violins, with contrasting rhythms. This leads to a complex development. When a second theme is introduced, it is almost as achingly beautiful as the first movement’s opening theme. When this theme’s development is thoroughly worked out, its final cadence is an expressively poignant chromatic descent, once again hinting at emotional tensions just below the surface. There is much polyphonic presentation in the working out of both themes. Yet Mozart does not call attention to his polyphony. Rather, he simply – if that is the right word for something that is by no means simple – integrates his polyphony into music of the utmost beauty and consistency. In spite of undercurrents of unrest throughout this work, Mozart’s G minor Symphony closes on a note of triumph. Beauty is victorious. 

I think this performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, will forever be etched in my memory; and henceforth this wonderful work will be associated with the sensitive, intelligent conducting of Herbert Blomstedt. Bravo, Maestro Blomstedt!