Blomstedt Flourishes at Tanglewood: Mendelssohn, Mozart, Brahms

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Alum Herbert Blomstadt Conducts TMCO. Photo Hilary Scott.
Alum Herbert Blomstadt Conducts TMCO. Photo Hilary Scott.

Blomstedt Flourishes at Tanglewood
Koussevitzky Shed, Monday August 9, 2021

Mendelssohn, Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Mozart, Symphony no. 31 in D major, K 297/300a
Brahms, Symphony no. 3 in Fmajor, op. 83

The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra conducted by Kevin Fitzgerald, Adam Hickox, and Herbert Blomstedt

Herbert Blomstedt is that rarity: a modest maestro. His most conspicuous distinction is his obvious love of music and music- making. That love is so substantial and sustaining that it has kept him on the podium operating at full throttle into the eighth decade of his career (and the tenth of his life). It is so intense that he conducts the entire standard repertory from memory and apparently does not need a baton; his formidable equipment consists of his arms and his face. These are enough for him to communicate in the most subtle and refined ways to his players, and, more importantly, to communicate his own inspiration directly to them. This is not only a general phenomenon, but one particular to every note and phrase.

I believe that Blomstedt was underestimated for a long time, at least in America; I have read that when Michael Tilson Thomas took over the San Francisco Symphony from Blomstedt, he “revived” it; but go back and listen to the recordings Blomstedt made with that orchestra. This was not an ensemble in need of revival; it is one that knew how to communicate intensity, transparency, and rhythmic buoyancy along with phrasing that clarified structure and had an unfailingly beautiful sound. Composers like Mendelssohn, Nielsen and Hindemith are among the beneficiaries. The recording of the Schubert C major Symphony (“The Great”) is my absolute favorite, despite the powerful competition. One detail as an example: the first movement concludes with a grand restatement of the main theme leading directly to the final cadence. Most other conductors throttle down the tempo to make this more grandiose and rhetorical; but Blomstedt goes full speed ahead with the throbbing triplets raising pulses and convincing us that this moment is the structurally inevitable outcome of the entire movement, not just an add-on.

This was the third time I heard him conduct a Brahms symphony. He does not use a score; I think he learns and thinks about the music as a whole. His shaping of each phrase is only a fraction of the larger arc of the composition which is always present to him; he conducts syntactically, knowing where the verbs and nouns, the clauses, chapters and paragraphs are located, and how they add up to the whole narrative. Essential to this way of thinking is an understanding of the larger as well as smaller phrase shapes and divisions of time; in order to make the overall dimensions cohesive, the details (beats, measures) need to maintain their flow. This is not to say that his beat is rigid, à la Toscanini; in fact, his Brahms Third was totally flexible, with beautiful modulations of tempo at appropriate moments like the lyrical second theme of the first movement, beautifully played by TMC’s lead clarinetist. Here, it is clear that Brahms’ double thematic structure calls for a moment of relaxation before the oboe takes over; this was conveyed with a subtle gesture that allowed the music to breathe without interrupting the pulse. Brahms builds expressive freedom into his construction of the rhythmic flow, with displaced accents and phrases that seems to add a beat here, subtract one there, but that depends on the performers remaining rock-steady in order for these to balance each other out rather than to feel arbitrary. Blomstedt rarely subdivides his beat; he relies on his players to know how to do that and his job is to keep the waves of music rolling steadily along. This must take a lot of confidence in his musicians, since the score is full of tricky passages with off-beats and on-beats interacting that require absolute precision. Fortunately, the TMC players pulled these off better than many “professional” orchestras. Blomstedt’s facial communication is all about sharing his support and appreciation rather than dictating or asking for mind-reading (unlike another famous conductor who kept his eyes closed). His expressions are naturally mobile and vivid, often with a goofy grin that conveys happiness and, frequently, good humor.

Brahms’ Third may be the trickiest of the four to perform. Its sequence of movements and keys is unusual: the first movement is in an F major shadowed by its own minor, the second begins in an almost naïve C major in the winds as if we were hearing a hymn or folk-tune played by a village wind-band.  The lighter tone is carried over into the expansion into full orchestra and the variations; this is a warm and generous piece that has a few shadows but always returns to the sunlight. It is followed almost immediately by the third, not quite a minuet or scherzo, but more like an intermezzo, with one of those melodies on the cellos (think the famous tune toward the end of the First Symphony that high schools like to use for their Alma Mater) that set audiences sub-vocalizing along with the orchestra. Again, there is no pause before the final movement sneaks in with a complex theme in the low strings, in minor. Brahms is reversing the classical procedure where a minor key piece ends with a movement in major (think the Mozart G minor Quintet). This is in many ways the most complex movement, with thematic references to the other three, disguised variations on the opening theme which is treated in fragments, and ending with augmented reprise of the opening of the first movement that appears so seamlessly that it seems inevitable, at least in Blomstedt’s/TMC’s performance. This is the only Brahms symphony that ends quietly, another reason why it is heard less often.

Keeping Blomstedt as the main focus, I will only say a few words about the rest of the program. Of the two student conductors this summer, Adam Hickox has proven to be the more impressive. Kevin Fitzgerald fulfills the faint praise of the term “workman-like”—his Mendelssohn held together but did not possess the mystery that must be produced for the score to fully reveal itself. A failure to keep the bass instruments of the orchestra in check produced a muddy and unbalanced sound alien to this work and composer. The Mozart was much better—lithe, alert, and fun. This is a clever symphony that does not seem to take itself too seriously, although Mozart was serious about wooing the Parisian public, an enterprise at which he failed. Hickox got the sweep and humor of the music, if not the last word in stylish articulation, from the players. In the end, the quality of this orchestra was only fully revealed by their work with the modest maestro.

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