Blomstedt Puts a New Shine on the Old Classics
For me, the highlight of the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) concert seasons is the annual visits of former SFS Music Director Herbert Blomstedt.
The man is a treasure and a blessing—when he came out at the beginning of the concert I attended, a woman in the balcony cried out, “We Love You!” Very touching! There was great applause.
Only Blomstedt can make the SFS sound like a great Beethoven orchestra, or a great Mozart orchestra or a great Bruckner orchestra.
What makes his annual appearances extra valuable to the San Francisco players and audience alike is that the 91-year-old’s talents and skills lay precisely in the areas in which the SFS has become seriously undernourished—what my colleague Stephen Smoliar calls the ‘bread and butter’ repertory.
Are the old warhorses—the ‘core classics—still appreciated in edgy, avant-garde San Francisco?
The proof is in the pudding: Davies Hall was packed for a program of Beethoven and Mendelssohn despite a nasty storm raging outside.
Perhaps the large crowd that braved the weather remembered last year’s terrific performance led by Blomstedt of Beethoven’s Symphony #3—the ‘Eroica’—that was as moving and exciting as you are likely to hear in any concert hall in the world today.
This year the Swedish-American maestro brought with him the score for Beethoven’s Symphony #6—the ‘Pastoral’—which is such a great, great symphony you hardly hear it played in the concert hall anymore.
Mendelssohn’s Symphony #3—the ‘Scottish’—came in the program’s second half.
The ‘Scottish’ Symphony’s stirring first movement, marked “Allegro Agitato”, has a dark Verdian feel to it. Written in the key of A minor that Verdi often used for his dark brooding music, the first movement has an overriding atmosphere of controlled anxiety about it often encountered in Verdi operas.
One particularly gorgeous melody comes up again and again. That’s what smart composers do when they find a great melody--they keep repeating it.
The second movement is a scherzo and may be the best in the symphony.
The experts tell us that this movement actually does not employ folk melodies from Scotland or anyplace else.
No difference; while there may be no direct quotes from actual folk melodies, the music has generic folk-like qualities to it that clearly conveys the folk atmosphere Mendelssohn is trying to create.
The San Francisco string section played with particular spirit and gusto in this lively movement, being led by an unfamiliar presence in the concertmaster’s chair who cut an impressive figure—the new Assistant Concertmaster Wyatt Underhill. A fine new addition to the band.
The third movement is a somber adagio, reminiscent in parts of the Funeral March in Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony.
The fourth and final movement is what can be called ‘attack music’ that gets off to a stirring start but after a few minutes starts to meander.
Then we have an abrupt, awkward change of pace to a majestic finale which is perhaps the Symphony’s weakest moment though Blomstedt did his best to bring the Symphony to a rousing conclusion.
The concert’s entire first half was given over to the ‘Pastoral’.
God Bless Blomstedt’s ‘Pastoral’!
The conductor is a religious man and the fusion between God and nature came through clearly in a performance that was full of reverence, awe, joy, thankfulness, and, yes, during the famous Tempest scene, excitement and terror (shades of Fidelio).
Blomstedt’s great skills as a conductor were very much in evidence during this lustrous performance. Blomstedt’s climaxes are never bombastic and loud. The secret appears to be that he starts them from a hushed quiet and then intensifies.
The adagio was on the slow side—but that enabled a delicacy and transparency that were a joy to behold.
Contrasts are important. The merry gathering of the country folk didn’t have to be manic because the ‘Andante molto mosso’ was precisely that—molto mosso.
And the restrained merry gathering made it possible to have a dramatic Tempest without earth-shattering thuds from the timpanist.
Next season Blomstedt is coming back with Brahms. I can hardly wait!