Conductor Blomstedt still a force at 84

Herbert Blomstedt will conduct the Philadelphians in three concerts.
Herbert Blomstedt will conduct the Philadelphians in three concerts. (GERT MOTHES)
Posted: January 19, 2012

Call it the Wolfgang Sawallisch effect. At age 84, conductor Herbert Blomstedt has conducted throughout Europe and the United States with inspired solidity for a half century. And, like Sawallisch in his final Philadelphia years, the professorial Blomstedt isn't fading into old-age mellowness; instead, he has acquired forceful intensity.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is the latest topflight ensemble to have Blomstedt as an honored guest, in a career marked by serial music directorships from Dresden to San Francisco to Leipzig. When that artistic uptick is brought to his attention, his explanation is simple: Now that he's not tethered to any one of those orchestras, "I know of no musician anywhere who is afraid of me, because I can't do them any harm," he says. "I can only make them happy. And that's a good feeling."

Thus, he's also less preoccupied with administrative matters when conducting Beethoven, as he will Thursday through Saturday with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes at the Kimmel Center. "I feel much freer," he says.

Born in Massachusetts and raised in Sweden, Blomstedt made his name in the former East Germany after several Czech conductors working there abruptly quit in 1968 when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. The East German orchestras scrambled for conductors and latched onto Blomstedt, sight unseen. For years, he hesitated to take an official position under the Communist regime, but the mutual love affair between him and the Dresden Staatskapelle wasn't just irresistible: During his 1975-85 tenure, it yielded a series of recordings that conferred upon Blomstedt an international career.

The San Francisco Symphony (1985-95) and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (1998-2005) established him as a musician of unimpeachable authority. And though no conductor is universally adored - to some, Blomstedt is just not that exciting - one Cleveland Orchestra musician wrote (at www.clevelandorchestramusicians.org), "He is in control of every nuance in every bar of the score, yet grants the players freedom and spontaneity. While conducting, his face often glows with a giddy smile, as if thinking, 'This is fun.' "

There may be a simpler reason why musicians like him. "[In rehearsal] you have to know when to stop," the conductor says. "Otherwise, you'll kill people."

With no community presence to maintain in any given city, Blomstedt now seems more prone to say exactly what's on his mind. So let's cut to the chase: What does this 84-year-old think of all the hot young conductors suddenly getting fabulous careers? He can't comment on Yannick Nézet-Séguin, not having encountered his work, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Gustavo Dudamel has crossed his screen.

"I've watched him a few times. I visited him once in Caracas . . . . He's certainly gifted, but has big holes in his outfit. He should've done what Simon Rattle did: When he started to get opportunities to conduct the big orchestras, he took a year off and studied at Oxford," said Blomstedt. "Success is a dangerous thing. I think it was [the literature Nobelist] Elias Canetti who said success is the rat poison of society and very few survive it."

One could predict that an elder statesman would have a problem with the younger generation - don't they all? - though the compulsive scholar in Blomstedt has kept him quite up to date with current performance trends. He embraces modern music; working with Charles Wuorinen was one of the great joys of his San Francisco period. His Beethoven subscribes to the current fashion for following the composer's metronome markings. Recent Bach performances on YouTube show he's completely in sync with the historic-performance community.

Also, the very thing that makes conductors want to retire - the current horrors of air travel - is no problem for him. He loves being away from phones and e-mail: "I have a wonderful time!"

This itinerant life would seem, in some ways, to fill the void left by the death of his wife, Waltraud, in 2003. But unlike Sawallisch, whose late-in-life bloom with the Philadelphia Orchestra came out of the abrupt 1998 loss of his wife, Mechthild, Blomstedt's trajectory was less affected by his more protracted loss.

"I know that he was very dependent on Mechthild. She made many of the decisions he should've made. My wife was a wonderful supporter but not a power lady. She was low-voiced, could be stubborn, and I respected her enormously," he said. "But in her last five years, her mind slipped. She didn't know where she was. She hardly recognized the children. I sort of lost her gradually."

Blomstedt also has a strong faith to fall back on. A Seventh-Day Adventist, he has always refused to rehearse Friday night through Saturday, a position that has sometimes cost him jobs. "But Jesus observed the Sabbath," he says, "and I want to be like him!"

Similarly held convictions mark his approach to music, starting with the arrangement of the string section. For decades, he felt that first and second violins should be placed on either side of the conductor and separated by cellos because so many works have a dialogue between the two. But in recent years he decided this was essential for music from Beethoven to Mahler. Now, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra contractually binds all conductors to adhere to that.

"Sometimes," he notes with twinkling eyes, "you have to be a little bit rude."

Meanwhile, he turns down opera. "For a long time, anytime I heard vocal music on the radio, I detested it," he said, imitating the wide vibrato of his least-favorite Wagnerians. "If I played like that on violin, they would throw me out. But a singer can be world-famous and, well, it's horrible. Things aren't much better today. You know, I'm staying here at the Ritz-Carlton, and I went to that big store that sells CDs [f.y.e] . . . and someone put on the second act of Fidelio. The tenor was incredibly bad. And it was . . . the Vienna State Opera!"

Only late in the interview does he own up to his contrarian nature. "If something is popular, there's a 90 percent chance that it's not good. Stay away from it!" he says. "Sometimes that attitude has had a negative influence on my career, but that's the way I am. What everybody does, I don't want to do."

But then, during his San Francisco years, Decca pressured him into considering that most vulgar of classics, Orff's Carmina Burana. He fought the idea but eventually looked at the score, loved it, and recorded it.

"And we won a Grammy!" he says, laughing. "That's one example that I should not always follow my instincts!"


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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