Herbert Blomstedt returned to Davies last week for his annual visit and it was like that moment during the holiday meal when the favorite relative shows up just in time and saves the day because everyone was about to start screaming at one another over all the horrible things they've been silently harboring for years. Leading a program that could easily have been called "Radicals," Blomstedt led off with the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and followed without pause into an instrumental version of the "Liebestod" from the same. Now, if you were to tell me you think the prelude to Tristan is the greatest piece of music ever written I wouldn't argue. I may even agree. Furthermore, if you said the greatest aria ever written was the "Liebestod" from the same opera, again, you'd get no quarrel from me. However, having said that, there are some things about which I'm a little picky.
Blomstedt decided to split the strings and I think this was a mistake as the huge swells the music can achieve never fully materialized. The prelude should, in the right hands, produce something akin to a vertiginous effect- a feeling of standing on the edge of an emotional abyss, tempted to let yourself fall without remorse. It needs a certain level of terror coursing through it to make the next few hours worth it. When it's done right- it really is the greatest piece of music ever written. When it's missing that sensation of throbbing longing at its center it's merely beautiful- which isn't bad, but it's also not the same thing. And that's what Bloomie gave us.
When it was over Blomstedt played the role of avuncular, jocular uncle at the family gathering, and he was not only interesting, but intensely entertaining as he spoke to the audience while stagehands set up a piano for Ingvar Lindholm's Poesis, which inexplicably was receiving its American premiere with these concerts. Blomstedt conducted the world premiere back in 1964, so he knows a little something about it, and what he discussed and demonstrated turned out to be true- not a single melody was evident, but musically it was a fascinating bit of work and as it built to the point where it collapsed in climax, the orchestra achieved a level of volume that was scary and thrilling at the same time. It was quite possibly the loudest I've ever heard them play. An added delight was the Davies debut of Keisuke Nakagoshi as the featured pianist on the piece, who rocked the keys and a mohawk.
After the intermission came Beethoven's Eroica, and Blomstedt led the band in a ruddy version that had a more heroic tone that MTT usually brings to it. Details were sacrificed for a measure of gravitas, and whether or not one found that to be a good approach is entirely subjective. It was only here that I noticed there was a new timpanist onstage , whose control, sense of timing and appropriate awareness of volumes convinced me that San Francisco audiences really won't miss a certain notorious whiner who recently occupied that space but may have moved on to Chicago.
Blomstedt is still in town for concerts tonight through Saturday featuring Beethoven's Violin Concerto with soloist Augustin Hadelich and Nielsen's Symphony No. 5. They should be well worth attending.