Late starts are not unusual, given the Boston Symphony’s older, Friday-afternoon audience, but something felt different. The packed house had been settled in its seats for some time, as had the orchestra. A buzz built in the crowd and the players began to exchange glances and crane their necks towards the stage doors. With a conductor who turns 91 in July scheduled to take the podium, some began to fear the worst. Others noticed a more benign reason for the delay: the scoring outlined in the program called for two horns and only Principal Horn, Jamie Somerville, was onstage. Sure enough, after about fifteen minutes, the second horn sheepishly took his seat, the orchestra tuned, and the stocky Truls Mørk ambled onstage followed by the reedy Herbert Blomstedt, taking small quick steps and flashing a broad smile. The contrast recalled Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, not a bad image for the droll, good humor of the conversation between orchestra and soloist which followed in Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major.

Truls Mørk, Herbert Blomstedt and the Boston Symphony © Winslow Townson
Truls Mørk, Herbert Blomstedt and the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

Blomstedt deployed a chamber group of eight violins, divided to his left and right, three violas next to the violins on his left, two cellos next to those on his right, the two horns and two oboes in a row facing the podium and slightly behind the violas and cellos, and a lone double bass behind and to the right of the righthand violins. They provided a cushion of warm, mellow sound for Mørk’s impeccable bowing and fingering and his distinct, vocalistic characterizations of the concerto’s three movements. The first was stately and a bit pompous.The dour look on Mørk’s face suggested a self-important someone holding forth, the chattering passages of rapidly repeating notes in the cello’s highest range and equally rapid shifts in register his voice. The overtly singing quality of the Adagio with the cello’s initial long-held note, its unbroken ribbon of sound, dynamic variety, and masterful softer passages convinced that the movement only lacked a text to be an aria worthy of any of Haydn’s operas. The final movement found Mørk teasing and toying with the orchestra’s declarations and often nodding towards the first violins with a roguish twinkle in his eye. Neither he nor Blomstedt forgot the concerto’s origin as a court entertainment and enjoyed themselves.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Boston Symphony © Winslow Townson
Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

Blomstedt used a full orchestra for Brahms’ First Symphony, once again splitting the violins with the violas where the second violins would be and the cellos taking the violas’ usual place to his right. The eight double basses onstage guaranteed their line would be heard and the darker, more troubling hues of this symphony’s palette boldly brushed. By just raising his arms, bent at the elbow, to chest level and cupping his hands, Blomstedt spawned an otherworldly groundswell of condensed, mahogany-tinged sound which initially poured out to the systolic beat of the timpani. The balance, rhythmic contrast, and devotional intensity of the first movement held for the cresting waves of the following three, even the more introspective middle movements. Favoring a hearty string sound did not overwhelm the solace of John Ferrillo’s oboe nor the yearning of Tamara Smirnova’s silken violin solo in the second movement nor the central role of the woodwinds in the third. Conducting from memory and with minimal gestures, Blomstedt maintained an appropriate dramatic tension throughout, which shed a light of inevitability and transcendent triumph on the the tricky finale so intense that several members of the audience could not wait for the final chord to whoop and applaud.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Boston Symphony © Winslow Townson
Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

The BSO is offering free tickets starting with this program and continuing until the end of the month to employees of the federal government “furloughed” by the senseless shutdown. Blomstedt’s Brahms cannot put food on the table or money in the bank, but it could well inspire any who attended to look beyond petty politics and take hope in what endures and persists including themselves.

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