This week’s Cleveland Orchestra concert program looks like the syllabus from a music appreciation course: Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor, and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”. It is the most standard of repertoire, yet these core works – drilled decades ago to Cleveland Orchestra perfection by George Szell – were given vibrant new life under the veteran Swedish-American guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt, former music director of the Dresden Staatskapelle, San Francisco Symphony and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, among others. Blomstedt is completing a two-week residency in Cleveland. I heard the Thursday evening performance of the program, performances of which continued through Sunday.

Herbert Blomstedt © CAMI
Herbert Blomstedt
© CAMI

Blomstedt conducted the Mozart symphony with a greatly reduced orchestra, no podium, standing at the same level as the orchestra, with no baton, and from memory. He made himself an integral part of the orchestra. He is not a conductor of huge, sweeping gestures; he shapes phrases efficiently, with a twist of his hand or the flick of a finger. The result was a performance of warm orchestral sound but unanimity of phrasing and rhythm, with each phrase carefully considered, but never a loss of momentum. The second movement (Andante) was delicate, the wispy grace-note figures and passages in which Mozart trades motifs among the sections had subtle changes of dynamics. There was something new to discover on each page of the score. Unlike many other symphonies of the period, Mozart did not change to a major key for the last movement of this symphony: the fourth movement continues in G minor. The jagged, arpeggiated theme is developed at length with bold harmonies, showing Mozart at the cusp of the Romantic age, which Beethoven took up a decade later. Blomstedt led a no-nonsense performance, with a brisk, but not rushed, tempo.

Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, composed in 1892–93 while Dvořák was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, is infused with both the American folk music and black spirituals that he heard during his stay, as well as the unmistakable late-Romantic sounds of his native Bohemia. The question of what, if any, real American tunes are embedded in the symphony is an ongoing conjecture; the famous Goin’ Home theme of the second movement has a striking resemblance to the rhythm of the spiritual Steal Away to Jesus. But Dvořák’s soundworld, whether quotation or creation, has created an enduring masterpiece. The symphony is unified by several themes that recur throughout.

Herbert Blomstedt led a performance that caused the listener to hear new things throughout: moments of melody and counterpoint; clarified orchestral textures; rhythmic tension and release. Blomstedt did not allow the second-movement cor anglais tune, here gracefully played by Robert Walters to linger, yet it didn’t seem rushed. There was considerable play with the pulse of the movement.

The third movement had a sense of urgency, but more relaxation in the slower middle section. Blomstedt left barely enough time for the orchestra members to turn the page of their parts before he launched into the last movement. In this movement Dvořák ties the whole symphony together, musically and dramatically. This performance was impassioned, with moments of utmost serenity. It may be hard to imagine calling a performance of a warhorse like the “New World” Symphony thrilling, but Herbert Blomstedt and the Cleveland Orchestra made it so this time. It was apparent to the audience as well, with people leaping to their feet at the conclusion, for an extended ovation and several curtain calls.

There were two unusual features at the end of the concert. During one of the later curtain calls, Blomstedt motioned to the orchestra to rise; instead, they stayed seated, stomping their feet and tapping their bows in the audience’s ovation with a mark of their own respect for this distinguished conductor. Then, in an extraordinary deviation from usual Severance Hall protocol, Blomstedt and the orchestra offered an encore, Dvořák’s lively Slavonic Dance, Op. 46 no. 1, in C major (Presto). One can harding imagine a more fitting conclusion to this memorable concert.