Herbert Blomstedt, former music director (conductor laureate) of the San Francisco Symphony, returned this week for his annual visit, this time with a heightened level of nostalgia as the Symphony invited all its surviving past leaders to partake in the current Centennial Season (Edo de Waart is on the schedule, Seiji Ozawa is not, due to health issues). Blomstedt, approaching 85 years old, looks spry for his age and somewhat mindblowingly, he took to the stage tonight to lead the 80-odd minute Bruckner 5th Symphony without a score. Okay, it is his specialty, but the man is almost 85 and it's 80 minutes long.
If you're already suspecting what could be great about this this scenario, and more importantly, what could go wrong with it, go to the head of the class. In reality, nothing was wrong with it all on a musical level- the orchestra continues to be playing at the extraordinary level its displayed since this season began. In fact, improbably, they seem to be getting even better as it goes along. As I was listening tonight I realized for the first time this orchestra has created a very distinct sound- others probably noticed this earlier, perhaps years ago, but I really heard it for the first time tonight- all the more interesting to me because MTT wasn't on the podium.
The current orchestra isn't remotely like the one Blomstedt worked with during his tenure. Sure, there are numerous veteran players who go back to his era, but their sound has evolved dramatically over the years. However, Blomstedt's annual visits have kept him well-versed in these changes and he's highly in tune with the musicians and knows how to get what he wants from them. In other words, the band was pretty flawless tonight, with special kudos to the brass, Tim Day's flute, Bill Bennett's oboe, Luis Baez's clarinet, Stephen Paulson's bassoon, and magnificent strings led by Nadya Tichman.
Blomstedt, known for his advocacy of Nielsen and Bruckner, has always aimed for icy precision and clarity over sanguine passion and tonight was no different- the crispness of the playing in the first movement could have easily drawn blood if it were a knife, despite one moment of brassy fuzziness which disappeared and didn't return. In the second movement, the pizzicato of the strings was like the ticking of a stopwatch marking the loss of something deep and profound- and it was here I noticed that distinct SFS sound really come through for the first time- odd given the music, but there you have it. It was also here that Day and Bennett really shined for the first time during the performance, but not the last.
The scherzo of the third movement does indeed sound like a joking waltz after what's come before, but it did contain a number of exciting climaxes.
But here's the thing- by the time the scherzo finishes, the piece has gone on for about an hour, with music from each movement revisited in the next. The fourth movement brings back all the same music again, for another twenty minutes. In fact it starts where the the whole thing began. And here's where things went awry. Instead of taking the music we've heard for the last hour and doing something new with it, Blomstedt gives us another 20 minutes of what we've just heard in the last hour. Yes, it was beautifully played, but it was, I'm sorry to say, also boring.
Not overly familiar with the piece, though possessing some acquaintance, I sat in in my seat listening and imagined what it could sound like instead of what it did sound like- which lacked variation, new emphasis, and further investigation from what came before. In the end it sounded like a straight recapitulation of the main thematic material of the first three movements. Is that all Blomstedt's fault? No- some of it obviously belongs to Bruckner, but in displaying his mastery of the score, in the end the conductor neglected to bring an interpretation to match it. Still, for that first hour, it was pretty fantastic music.
There is one more performance this Friday night.