Conductor Herbert Blomsted: ‘I feel like a beginner’

A leafy and car-free suburb of Lucerne, cream-colored plastered apartment blocks with rows of letterboxes and nameplates. H. Blomstedt is number one – as ordinary as can be.

Those who love glamour, have always come to the wrong place with conductor Herbert Blomstedt (95). Blomstedt – side-parted in white-gray hair, woolen sweater, blue eyes under bushy eyebrows – has always been regarded as the reliable, optimistic and subservient among the great conductors. And the affable. Someone who puts music before everything and abhors egomania: as a practicing Seventh-day Adventist (no work is done on Saturdays), he does not serve his own fame.

Who or what? God? The music itself? After an afternoon-long conversation, Blomstedt tirelessly explains his primary motives. “As a child, it amazed me that most other churchgoers had little regard for music during services,” he says. “How could they remain unmoved by sounds that evoked such intense emotions in me? Over the past seventy years I have hopefully managed to enthuse some people about music. I also think: anyone who feels something about music, or perhaps during the moment of silence before the closing applause, has been in the courts of the Lord for a while.”

He chuckles and strokes the Persian tablecloth with long, bony fingers. “You can encounter God there, but of course you don’t have to. My father was a preacher and a strict believer. That’s not me. But I do share his missionary drive a bit. I am not so naive as to think that listening to Beethoven immediately makes you a better person, but music can make you think and feel, and thus make you invent your own religion or life path.”

Herbert Blomstedt was born in 1927. His answers – sharp, well-read and verbose – are peppered with anecdotes that refer to the 1930s and 1940s in technicolor. Conductors such as Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), Bruno Walter (1876-1962) or Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) are loosely reviewed. Not as legends, but as valued teachers and former colleagues.

Secret tip

At 95 years old, Blomstedt is the oldest active conductor ever, certainly at this level. Bernard Haitink worked until he was 92, Leopold Stokowski until he was 94. But Blomstedt is not yet thinking about retirement and this year he will lead the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, among others.

Stopping, he says, is just not necessary yet. “A blazer gets stiff lips, a violinist gets stiff shoulders. But a conductor is not dependent on anything. Your emotions should be fresh and your brain clear, but otherwise old age is only a plus. And most importantly, I like my job. Especially the contact with the musicians. As a boy I hesitated what to become: priest, doctor or musician. Subsequently, as a conductor, I needed all my attention for the score for decades. But with 70 years of experience I can finally pay attention to the people behind the musicians. Everyone is so different! And then every person is also subject to moods and in fact more people in one day – myself included. A concert therefore never feels like warming up an old interpretation, although I am often asked for the same pieces, such as in Amsterdam for Bruckners Fourth Symphony. But that doesn’t matter to me. You can know notes, people and circumstances are always different. They also bring new insights, which I think about when I’m alone again, or when I’m lying in bed. I still discover new things in every piece. I feel like a beginner every time.”

Blomstedt’s quality as a conductor has long been an insider tip for enthusiasts. They played his recordings of Carl Nielsen’s symphonies, the Schubert and Beethoven cycles he recorded during his time as chief of the Staatskapelle Dresden (1975-1985) or feasted on his balanced Bruckner interpretations: flourishing textbook examples of logic and knowledge .

For a long time it seemed as if Blomstedt’s nose for balance also kept his fame on the ground. But in recent years his concerts possess an extra dimension that cannot be put into words, which also typified performances conducted by Bernard Haitink when he was in his 90s. Concentration, sizzling beauty of sound, a goodwill factor that vibrates more than just strings, wood, reed and copper.

Musicians really play much better for me now that I’m very old. They listen more carefully

A statement? Blomstedt always prefers to start with the rational answer. “As a young conductor you want to prove that you take your work very seriously. When you’re old, you don’t have to; you just tell what you know and that’s more than ever. The fact that old conductors make smaller gestures is not just because they are more rigid. They understand that a good orchestra doesn’t need much.”

But is that really all? No, he nods, „I also find something mysterious in the interaction between myself and orchestras. Musicians really play much better for me now that I’m very old. They listen more carefully, walk on tiptoe. It feels like all I have to do is channel the love that comes my way.”

To play sports

Since he broke a hip last summer, Blomstedt (a widower) has been walking with a cane. He points to the thing in his hall, happily walks in without it. He emphatically regrets the loss of mobility. “I like to move. As a child I liked sport even more than music, now there is no more than half an hour of walking a day. Fortunately, my four daughters come to stay in turn to help out.”

His concerts – now conducted sitting down – he has slightly scaled back in number. From 110 concerts a year when he was chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig (1998-2005) to 80 concerts a year now.

Time travel is still easy for Blomstedt. For example, back to his childhood in Sweden, dreaming of a career as a violinist, but also deeply happy behind the church organ. Or the summer holidays he spent with his grandparents in the Swedish countryside long before the Second World War. “They had a Telefunken radio there, a brown box. Then we received the German radio, every Sunday at 7 o’clock in the evening. I hear the announcer’s voice again. ‘You heard Regers Mozart Variations with Karl Bohm’. I thought: this is heaven, it doesn’t get any better.”

Blomstedt received a broad education: conservatory in Stockholm, musicology in Uppsala, later contemporary music in Darmstadt, baroque in Basel and orchestral conducting in New York. When you then consider that he is of the same generation as Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016) and many other pioneers of historical performance practice, you wonder why he did not go in that direction.

“Hmm,” he says. “I like German baroque very much and Bach was the musical father of my youth. But it was Harnoncourt’s unique gift that, in addition to being a passionate musician, he was so good with language. He could articulate his insights like no other.”

Those insights were sometimes “a bit extreme” for Blomstedt. “I also find it funny that all those authenticity specialists – Gardiner, Norrington, Herreweghe, you name them all – just came to different views. And that other conductors sometimes got angry about it. Sir Colin Davis, a great conductor, hated those baroques. You can clearly hear what he disliked from the way he performed Mozart: slow and beautiful, oh so beautiful…. They loved it at the Staatskapelle in Dresden. They specifically asked him for that. They didn’t have to keep up with fashion.”

Blomstedt navigated his studious streak in a different direction: fidelity to the score and, as a result, an interest in the latest scholarly editions. He also liked to buy old top violins, which he mostly donated to orchestral musicians, just as he recently donated his large library to the university in Gothenburg. He had a good baroque organ installed in the church around the corner from his house in Lucerne.

“I would define my responsibility as a conductor as a search for the truth,” he says. “But what that truth is – really seeing through a score – is neither easy nor self-evident. I try again and again to find a good balance between intellect and feeling. The audience then feels whether a performance is ‘right’ and whether you have something to say. Once, when I was a chef in San Francisco, a great Russian violinist auditioned for a spot among the first violins. He played everything perfectly, but no one voted for his appointment: his playing sounded mechanical. Music also has to be personal. Nobody is interested in pure nuts.”

Underdog

But how personal can or should you be? In 2023, Blomstedt’s strict modesty may seem like a relic from a bygone era, but his autonomous thinking makes him especially timeless. It is nothing new that many young musicians and conductors take self-promotion seriously, he says. “Modesty has always been rare among musicians; it is our day job to think of ourselves and keep improving what we can do. Then if you don’t blow your own horn, no one will. But if you ask me, I’ve always loved the unselfish the most. They stimulate my sense of justice. The highly exalted Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) refused to perform his music until he had proven himself in other people’s music. Who still plays it now? Believe me: it is really not the quality of his music.”

Blomsted’s own career took him through numerous teachers. Toscanini, Kleiber, Walter, Busch, Furtwängler: he saw and heard them rehearse. “Many were not nice to the musicians, to put it mildly. Bruno Walter was the most exemplary to me, for besides being a great conductor he was also a noble and fine man. But hey, you learn a lot. Also from mistakes and from wrong people.”

He himself became a conductor with increasingly better orchestras. First in Scandinavia, then Germany, later the US. “The biggest milestone, looking back, was my appointment in Dresden in 1975,” he says. “I had never conducted the Berliner and Wiener Philharmoniker then. The Staatskapelle was by far the best orchestra I had ever led – a sensational experience. And I also thought it was brave that an ancient and then East German institution insisted on calling me, ‘a capitalist’. While part of their core repertoire, the Strauss operas, meant nothing to me. To do so, of course, to discover how wonderful that music is. As it often goes. To know more is to appreciate more.”

Could. Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Herbert Blomstedt in cooperation with Janine Jansen. Mozart, Violin Concerto No. 4 and Bruckner, Symphony No. 4. Concerts: 19, 20, 22 Jan. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Including: concertgebouworkest.nl

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