Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Ageless maestro back in town


Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt. Photo: Courtesy SFS
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There is real comfort and pleasure in tradition. Former Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Herbert Blomstedt was back on the podium at Davies Symphony Hall last week for the start of his annual two-week visit as Conductor Laureate. For those of us who remember his tenure from 1985-95, he is a great tradition personified. The seemingly ageless maestro continues to uphold revered musical convention with a level of integrity and energy that cheers the heart and demonstrates his important influence on the orchestra during his time in San Francisco. At an astonishing 87, Blomstedt still walks ramrod straight to center stage with a genial air of paternal authority that we remember with affection and respect. There is a warm familiarity with the audience, and with the musicians, that encourages a sense of being in reliable hands.

The American-born, Swedish-reared conductor was always known for his excellence with the core repertoire, and for his affinity for more modern Scandinavian composers. He also made infrequent but successful forays into contemporary music. A recording of John Harbison's Oboe Concerto with the sorely missed William Bennett as soloist is still treasured in my collection. Decca Records has put together a 15-disc box set called Herbert Blomstedt – The San Francisco Years (released March 31) that gives a good idea of the musical highs of a golden decade almost two decades past. One of the most recommended discs in the new compilation is devoted to Franz Schubert's glorious Symphony in C Major, The Great, and lucky us, the mighty catalogue number D.944 was on the bill last week, occupying the second half of the program.

In Schubert (Beethoven and Bruckner, too), Blomstedt shows us that old-school mastery that can make a familiar and potentially difficult work spring back to vibrant life. Careful attention to detail and rhythmic buoyancy marked the performance, and as with Blomstedt's renowned understanding of Bruckner's massive scores, a real grasp of the big picture. The opening Andante-Allegro ma non troppo grew organically from a soulful start into a festive dance, and the inner movements stood alone as not only beautiful moments, but also as logical parts of the whole. The final Allegro vivace moved swiftly and did not feel at all abrupt, as other interpreters can sometimes make it seem. The orchestra responded with expected quality. Blomstedt bottle-fed many of them back in the day, and they continue to repay his efforts with a depth and sheen that are thoroughly satisfying, full of tight ensemble and individual flavor.

The first half of the evening was devoted to Carl Nielsen's quirky and rhapsodic Clarinet Concerto, Opus 57 (1928), starring Carey Bell, a member of the SFS, as soloist. Blomstedt recorded all the Nielsen Symphonies with the SFS, but he recorded the Clarinet Concerto only with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. This marked a special occasion for SFS fans and admirers of Blomstedt's special kinship with the music of Nielsen.

SFS principal clarinet Carey Bell proved more than capable of tackling the jazz-inspired Clarinet Concerto. He has all the stamina necessary for the truly daunting outbursts of almost uncontrolled anger that are peppered throughout the score. Nielsen adds lots of good tunes and a level-headed self-awareness that allows us to hear the essentially good-natured intentions of the piece. It takes a musician with the right attitude and technique to navigate the mood swings, and Bell was always on top of it.

There is still a chance to catch Herbert Blomstedt this week, on Friday, April 11, 8 p.m., with a signature piece (also recorded with the SFS), Bruckner's Symphony 4, Romantic, paired with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (you know, the one with the famous slow movement), with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist.

Blomstedt never seems to age a day. He will always be a healthy-looking 60 (tops). Let us take that as an indication that he will be returning to DSH and upholding the tradition for many more years to come.


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