A comment I heard from a middle-aged woman seated behind me at Disney Hall last Friday night summed up rather aptly the qualities of that evening’s guest conductor. As he walked towards the podium with a healthy stride, I heard the woman behind me remark to her husband: “Oh, I wish I’d look that good in my seventies.” One wonders what she would say if she had known that the man in question, Herbert Blomstedt, was but three months shy of his 91st birthday.

Herbert Blomstedt © U.K. Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© U.K. Lengemann

Some might expect the nonagenarian Blomstedt to be a throwback to the days of the glamourous podium auteur of decades past, seemingly conjuring the music as he and orchestra perform. Instead, his art is one of scrupulous control and textural attentiveness. Architectural nuances or shadings in part writing that go unnoticed in other’s hands suddenly emerge as if in relief, while the conductor’s sense of pacing allows the music to unfold naturally. His hands, which swooped and caressed the air over the musicians, drew a finely blended sound with plenty of body from the Los Angeles Philharmonic strings. This was grand conducting in the best of the Kapellmeister tradition that has become a rarity today. 

And grand the scores were, too: Beethoven’s Second Symphony followed by Sibelius’ second, both no stranger to Blomstedt – and both conducted from memory. It was an astute pairing. Beethoven’s symphony among his more underappreciated ones, Sibelius’ arguably the composer’s most famous. Each work had been the most ambitious works their respective composers had created up until that point – and each would never compose anything like them again. 

The lovely Larghetto second movement in the Beethoven evinces a warmth, even a sensuality rare in his output. Blomstedt, aware of this, took a measured approach that tempered the music’s ardor with adult eloquence. The same could be said for the first and fourth movements, where the rushing exposition in the former dazzled with the speed and unanimity of attack that also allowed for crisp articulation, thereby ensuring the music would be bright without blurring. 

Likewise the rhapsodic, sprawling Sibelius Second Symphony was allowed room to breathe without ever allowing it to distend. If the work harkens back to Tchaikovsky’s heartfelt emotion and long-breathed melodies, Blomstedt kept the work firmly planted on earth. Tempi were on the fast side, phrasing was tidy. It was as if you could hear – for once – that not only does the score look back, it also sometimes starts pointing the way towards the terse, economic gestures of the mature Sibelius yet to come. If the finale’s soaring melodies set anchor firmly in the shores of Russian Romanticism, the terseness of the scherzo gives a taste of the economy and tightness of the Third Symphony yet to come. 

There was no restraint in the finale, however. The coda was resplendent with the luminous collective tone of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the brass in particular sounding bright, though never overpowering. At any rate, one was left with the distinct impression that age, even 91, is only a number, and that in these scores, Blomstedt has found his fountain of youth. 

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