A Sixty-year Reprise in Grand Style

Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor

Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor

I became more fully aware of conductor Herbert Blomstedt in the middle of his career when he was principal conductor with the San Francisco Symphony, 1985-1995. (I was then working in the San Francisco area). Because of his German-sounding name, and that he had arrived to his San Francisco post after ten years with Staatskapelle Dresden, Germany, I assumed him to be from that country.

Imagine my surprise and potential embarrassment as I discovered, on February 20, 2014, that he was born eighty-eight years ago in the USA to Swedish parents who returned to their home country two years after his birth.

The occasion for this enlightenment was my attendance, accompanied by friend Vasil, at the 60th anniversary of Mr. Blomstedt’s conducting debut with Sweden’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, leading the orchestra in exactly the same pieces as before: Bach’s Orchestral Suite in B minor, BWV1067; Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1; and, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. The concert was performed in Stockholm’s Concert Hall (Konserthuset). I’ll relate my impressions of the evening’s performance after I offer more about Mr. Blomstedt.

Herbert Blomstedt has produced over 130 albums with several recording companies, conducting the works of German  and Nordic composers. For instance, he has recorded all the works of Carl Nielsen, and all the symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, and Sibelius.

He has been principal conductor of these symphony orchestras, from 1954 to 2005, a span of 51 years, with several years of overlapping assignments:

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Staatskapelle Dresden
San Francisco Symphony
North German Radio Symphony
Leipzig Gewandhaus

Mr. Blomstedt retired from the leadership of symphony orchestras in 2005, at the age of 81, but continues as guest conductor for many well-known orchestras.

Now to the program.

Bach’s Orchestral Suite in B minor, BWV1067 features the flute which was played here by Andreas Alin, the designated solo flutist for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and also the Stockholm Sinfonietta. The piece is a series of dances, after the overture:

Andreas Alin, Flutist

Andreas Alin, Flutist

1.Overture
2.Rondeau
3.Sarabande
4.Bourrée 1 and 2
5.Polonaise, double
6.Menuet
7.Badinerie

It is  a familiar piece which I always enjoy hearing but, in this instance, through a defect in acoustics or the placement of several musicians between me and the soloist (Vasil and I sat at the extreme left in front of the orchestra), I was unable to hear the flute clearly at all times. I feel certain this was not the fault of the soloist.

The ensemble for this suite by Bach, in addition to the flute, were four different strings and harpsichord.

As the harpsichord was pulled away from the stage after the performance, Vasil and I wondered how they were going to get a grand piano on the stage without a great deal of moving things around. Indeed, stage hands began clearing a space in the front center of the stage, barely in time as a portion of the stage was slowly elevated, hydraulically, to bring forth a grand piano.

The piece of the evening, Beethoven’s first piano concerto, was presented by Garrick Ohlsson, a New York-born pianist with an Italian mother and a Swedish father. Please read more about him at the link under his name, above.

Garrick Ohlsson, Pianist

Garrick Ohlsson, Pianist

The piece has three movements: 1.Allegro con brio; 2.Largo; 3.Rondo; Allegro scherzando. Mr. Ohlsson’s skill at the piano is completely authoritative. I was impressed by the delicacy with which he played Beethoven, without detracting from the power of the composer’s composition. I read, afterward, that Mr. Ohlsson was, early in his career, a leading interpreter of Chopin which, in my view, would account for this delicacy of approach. He played without  a score, and was completely at ease in front of the keyboard while waiting for the conductor to cue his next entrance to the music. The cadenza of second movement was astounding, both in composition and performance. I especially like that Beethoven uses jazz-like syncopation in the third movement, with a tune that sounds South American in origin. I think it’s a convergence, however, not an influence.

The audience gave Mr. Ohlsson long and loud applause.

There was a paus, after which Vasil and I returned to the third row to experience Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (Mathias the painter). I am not particularly fond of Hindemith’s music, but I was prepared to listen with open mind to this most-played piece by the composer, under the baton of a man who has conducted it many times. Here is from the few notes I made while listening:

Square in shape / strenuous / hint of Prokofiev / program music, but what’s the program? / I’ve lost the sense of its shape / enjoy the challenging dissonance / music for a Bela Lugosi film?

Vasil and I agreed that Hindemith was not our cup of tea. Nonetheless, we were impressed with the orchestra’s skill in performing this most difficult piece.

The reader may have noticed that through my recitation of the pieces played I haven’t mentioned the star of the evening, Mr. Herbert Blomstedt. I’m saving the best for last.

As I watched this tall, elegant, physically fit man of 88 years perform vigorously on the conductor’s podium, without sheet music in front of him, I perceived the music he led the orchestra in playing was embedded in the very essence of his being. Here he was, 60 years after having conducted these very pieces, with the same orchestra (with new players, undoubtedly) in the same city, confidently, naturally, bringing forth through the movements of his body and his baton the sounds so familiar to him. It was magical.

The audience, to be sure, was thrilled to be part of this great man’s triumphal return, refusing to allow him to retire from the stage until all were exhausted from the applause and bows. An official of the orchestra or of the theater made a speech (in Swedish, which I don’t understand well) and gave Mr. Blomstedt a box containing an award of some nature. Mr. Blomstedt was gracious in receiving this, as well as in receiving the accolades of the audience and orchestra members.

It was a grand evening.

Mr. Blomstedt receiving accolades and praising the musicians of the orchestra

Mr. Blomstedt receiving accolades and praising the musicians of the orchestra

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate Californian living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles and creative writing.
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