Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Aristocratic yet earthy concert fare


Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, returned to Davies Hall. Photo: Martin U.K. Lengemann
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Like a favorite relative who visits only once a year, Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony and SFS Music Director for a decade (1985-95), returned to the podium at Davies Symphony Hall recently to start a welcome two-week stay.

The esteemed maestro turned 90 last July, but his legendary focus and energy are undiminished. When he took a tumble in rehearsal for the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 at DSH last February, he still conducted soloist Yefim Bronfman (who had to assist him onto the stage) in a fine performance, sitting in a chair on the podium.

At the time, Blomstedt remarked to a Symphony spokesperson he is "invincible." His dizzying concert schedule continued unimpeded, and he was cheerfully proved right. Don't think he was being immodest. He was only characteristically droll and realistic.

I remember the privilege, many years back, of sitting in on a recording session with Blomstedt and a youthfully willful Olli Mustonen. The veteran conductor was both cordial and indulgent with the talented new pianist, but he kept a sensible eye on the clock and decisively knew when the take was right. He managed to harness and guide Mustonen's passionate energy with a kind but firm understanding.

That unerring judgement and confidence also helped create the marvelous decade of collaboration Blomstedt shared with the SFS. The resulting awards and highly praised recordings helped the Orchestra regain an international reputation, but also forged a warm bond between professionals devoted to great music.

Last week, another pianist joined Blomstedt for another Beethoven concerto, but the old lion entered without a helping arm, and assumed the podium with customary vigor intact. He only looked a little smaller because Garrick Ohlsson provides a big physical contrast.

Ohlsson is one of only a few who appear in scale beside an imposing Steinway grand. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Opus 73, "Emperor" proved a good choice for the admired artist, noted for boldly strong interpretations.

Beethoven is a recognized Blomstedt specialty, and he supported the soloist with a sturdy framework. Dividing the richly textured strings, as often done in the past, was also helpful. Ohlsson gave his own power to the outer movements, but showed a poetic side in a clear and delicately etched central Adagio.

Ohlsson's encore, the entire slow movement of Beethoven's "Pathetique" Sonata, set the seal on an engaging and satisfying first half of the concert bill. It was satisfying enough to possibly explain the noticeable attrition of audience members after intermission.

If only they had stayed for (Karl) Wilhelm (Eugen) Stenhammar's Symphony No. 2 in G minor, another side of Blomstedt's "Speak softly and carry a big stick" artistic philosophy would have been revealed.

Always a champion of Scandinavian composers like Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius, the conductor, born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and later moved by his Swedish parents to their country of origin, has waited a long time to bring Stenhammar to the SFS. It wasn't an earthshaking debut, but still a pleasure to hear an unfairly obscure composer, and a vindication of Blomstedt's loyal admiration.

Aristocratic and earthy might seem contradictory terms in describing the broad and lyrical landscape of the Second Symphony, but Stenhammer's language is late Romantic and vividly descriptive at the same time. Echoes of Nielsen and Sibelius bring it most obviously into the 20th century, but Stenhammer also enlivens the score with moments of folksy abandon.

Blomstedt has said the Symphony No. 2 is not unlike a wandering walk filled with thrilling vistas. He certainly conveyed the feeling with the entire committed SFS in obvious sympathy.

The maestro has also said his visits to San Francisco are like coming home. The annual reunion continues this week with Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, "Eroica," and Mozart's Symphony No. 40.


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