A Stroll Through Palo Alto
There’s nothing more pleasant than taking a leisurely walk through town with a friend discussing various subjects of mutual interest.
It doesn’t get better than when that walking partner is the great Swedish-American conductor Herbert Blomstedt and the wandering is through the streets of Palo Alto, California on a warm and sunny mid-winter day.
Maestro Blomstedt stays with a friend in Palo Alto during his annual visits to conduct the San Francisco Symphony where he holds the title of Conductor Laureate. He confided he feels more comfortable in small cities than big ones.
Herbert Blomstedt is one of the great stories in classical music. The man is 90 years old and livelier than many half his age. He told me it was not so much his age that was a gift but that he is so good at 90. Last year, the 90 year old conducted 90 concerts.
But longevity is only part of the Blomstedt story. The maestro is like the Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi who only got better with age.
When Blomstedt became Music Director of the SFS in 1985, he already was a celebrated conductor with many offers from excellent US orchestras. Now at 90 the very best orchestras in the world are vying for his services. He conducts regularly in Amsterdam, Vienna, Berlin, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc.
Knowledgeable people consider Blomstedt to be the best Bruckner conductor in the world, the leading authority on Scandinavian composers and one of the very best for Mozart and Beethoven.
Blomstedt’s conducting of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony on the second San Francisco program was revelatory in several respects. It revealed that MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) has built an orchestra in San Francisco that has the potential to play Beethoven on as high a level as any orchestra in the world. MTT does not get nearly enough credit for this.
It revealed Maestro Blomstedt to be a kind of master conductor capable of bringing that potential to the fore. This may have been the best Eroica I have ever heard in my life.
And it revealed the true greatness of the Eroica Symphony as one of the all time masterpieces of symphonic music.
Blomstedt’s conducting of the famous ‘Funeral March’ second movement--profound, intense and moving--left me totally exhausted. So did the grandiose fugue in the fourth movement.
When I met Blomstedt after the performance looking cool as a cucumber he joked; it’s the audience that must be exhausted after a performance of the Eroica, not the conductor. And so it was!
Blomstedt’s evolution into one of the world’s very best conductors is captured by a story he tells about his relationship with the legendary Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The maestro’s debut with the Vienna Philharmonic did not come until he was in his mid-80’s, a consequence of the fact that in certain quarters Blomstedt’s reputation had been slow to catch up with current realities.
The scheduled conductor for a Vienna Philharmonic concert suddenly took ill, sending the orchestra scurrying for a last-minute replacement. So they went for Blomstedt and the 85-year old made a great success of it, so great in fact that he has been asked back every year since.
A triumph at age 85 is the best kind.
On our walk, Blomstedt talked about the Vienna Philharmonic and compared it with the Berliner. Technically the Berlin players are the best he told me—they can do anything and play in any style.
The Vienna Philharmonic on the other hand is famous for the core sound it maintains no matter who conducts them. When I heard MTT conduct the Vienna band in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony last summer, it sounded ‘Viennese’ and certainly not like the Beethoven 7’s I have heard MTT conduct in San Francisco.
Other European orchestras with distinctive core sounds Blomstedt mentioned are Dresden and Leipzig
The time passed quickly during the hour and a half we were walking together and before I knew it we were back in front of his house to say our goodbyes. I thought to myself as I left—what a wonderful person and what an inspiration.
From the wildly enthusiastic audience receptions to the Maestro’s two programs on this Davies Hall visit, I had the unmistakable feeling that Blomstedt is not only a much admired figure in San Francisco but also a much loved one.