Blomstedt & the glories of the Ninth
by Philip Campbell
Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony and SFS Music Director for a decade (1985-95), turns 90 this year. That's a big number for anyone, but the best and happiest cause for celebration is the maestro's amazingly ageless demeanor and undiminished energy. His tradition for years has been a fortnight of return appearances in Davies Symphony Hall, where he has increasingly focused on composers famously associated with his solid interpretive powers.
If you struggle with the mighty byways of Bruckner or feel the need for a little dry-cleaning with some musty Brahms or Beethoven, then the man Gramophone magazine "ranks high among the living giants of the podium" can almost certainly freshen your interest. I disagree with the British mag when the interviewer goes on to say that Blomstedt is not a glamorous personality. His sly wit and deep musical passion may not be readily apparent in his physical presentation, but it is all there in the results, and seeing his musical sureness onstage provides an annual source of enjoyment and renewed admiration.
Many SFS musicians worked with Blomstedt back in the day, and it is an additional pleasure to see how easily they respond to his clearly delineated and unfussy lead. Two weeks ago, the maestro devoted an entire evening to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, opus 125 (1824). It was good to see many new faces in the audience, most of whom probably only know of the maestro's tenure from older listeners, if they know of him at all.
Any performance of the Ninth, or Ode to Joy (as concert advertising usually dubs it), is a special occasion, and even infrequent classical music listeners know and appreciate it. The message of universality, not to mention the glorious choral Finale, endures and resonates, especially in times of stress and uncertainty.
Blomstedt, Ragnar Bohlin's wonderful SFS Chorus and the Orchestra could probably give a credible reading with their eyes closed, but no one is immune to the power of Beethoven's inspired composition, and everyone onstage joined with the audience in a warm and committed bond of fellowship.
The conductor hasn't changed his approach much, but he has tightened things up a bit, and he moved things along with a swiftness that disappointed some and satisfied others. There was a lot of detail that emerged as the movements unfolded briskly. What the interpretation lost in mystery, it gained in impetus. By the time bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams made his entrance, we sensed the mounting sense of tension release.
The quartet of soloists was situated in the terrace with the Chorus, and it worked well to integrate their individual contributions. Soprano Kiera Duffy, mezzo-soprano Sara Couden and the aforementioned Foster-Williams blended well and were easily audible. Tenor Nicholas Phan was perhaps more singularly impressive, but didn't upstage them.
Separating the strings right and left is common and effective practice for Blomstedt, and they sounded predictably full and intense. Naturally the Chorus crowns the Ninth, and this was another chance to thrill in the sheer joy of singing Bohlin's crew shares.
After talking about Blomstedt's everlasting youthfulness – I mean he still really looks like publicity photos from 30 years ago – the old lion took a spill during rehearsal for his concerts last week, and he had to be helped onstage by his soloist Yefim Bronfman to perform the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4. It was a shock initially, but Blomstedt carried on. Bronfman was less successful with a well-articulated, fitfully interesting reading of the poetic score.
The best part of the program, if not the entire two weeks, was the transcendent performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 3 that concluded the visit. Dividing the richly textured strings paid off again, and watching the conductor energetically shaping them from a chair on the podium added exceptional beauty and tangible emotion to the experience.
Blomstedt remarked to a Symphony spokesperson that he is "invincible." We are so accustomed to seeing him stand ramrod straight, it is easy to believe his confidence. See you next year maestro, when there are 91 candles on the cake!
Lou Harrison in the Mission
Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison – Pacific Rim Centennials (Other Minds) on Saturday, Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m. at Mission Dolores Basilica is the latest celebration of the great gay composer artist and activist Lou Harrison's centennial. American conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies, visiting from Linz, Austria, presents music by two composers who integrate the influences of Europe and Asia: Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995), his friend and colleague.
Curated by Other Minds, Charles Amirkhanian, Artistic Director, the evening includes small and larger chamber works, featuring Harrison's beautiful 1951 Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra as the concert finale. Dennis Russell Davies conducts and participates at the keyboard in other works. The choice of venue is also appealing.