It’s probably safe to say that Herbert Blomstedt won’t be the New York Philharmonic’s next music director.
When Jaap van Zweden leaves the orchestra in the spring of 2024, Blomstedt will be almost 96 years old. Who would want to take charge of an orchestra at this age? Which isn’t to say he couldn’t: Blomstedt maintains a busy schedule, with a varied repertoire of long, heavy lifts that includes Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony – aptly named ‘The Inextinguishable’.
On Thursday at Alice Tully Hall, he associated the Nielsen with another symphonic testimony to what this composer would call “the spirit of life”: Beethoven’s Fifth. At a time when every guest conductor’s appearance at the Philharmonie – and the orchestra is six weeks away – feels like an audition, there was a certain relief, even joy, in hearing a concert just for him- same.
Beethoven, however, demonstrated through his music that alongside joy there is a duty to confront and engage with political reality. In recent days, cultural institutions around the world have been forced to confront their relationships with artists linked to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, following his invasion of Ukraine.
With the accounts came solidarity. The Metropolitan Opera opened Monday’s performance with the Ukrainian national anthem, and on Thursday Blomstedt led the Philharmonic Orchestra in a grand treatment of it. Gestures like this remind us that we can never truly separate art and politics, but are they enough? Imagine if, in addition to a program insert dedicating the concert “to the strength, courage and resilience of those who resist the Russian invasion”, the Philharmonie had offered an aid vehicle to Ukraine.
Otherwise, the statement comes and goes, as it did on Thursday. The audience and musicians, who had stood for the anthem, took their seats and, with a short pause, Blomstedt gave the downbeat for the Nielsen – a choice all the more shocking as the Fourth opens as if in medias res. From then on, in a program of only two symphonies and no featured soloists, the focus was on Blomstedt.
He might bristle at that. Famous for his modesty, he wields podium authority with minimal means, driving symphonic narratives that stand out less for what they say than for what they don’t say. “The Inextinguishable,” written in the shadow of World War I and reflecting it in dueling timpani ensembles, can easily be turned into drama. But Blomstedt is following the scoreline closely, faithfully, with the confidence that he will speak for himself.
This approach sometimes leaves me wanting more – accustomed as I am to the bloated grandeur of stereotypical 20th century performance practice or the lighter, faster sound of historically informed styles – but it is more often clarifying. Blomstedt’s reading of the Nielsen, controlled but unceremonious, was sublimely balanced. The wind chorus interlude of the second movement had the gentle motion and harmony of a morning walk among the trees and the chirping of birds. Later, there was a shock in the harshness of the steeply pitched strings in unison. The finale builds slowly and seems to end as openly as the symphony began: the last bar’s crescendo is not so much a sweep as a burst of lingering brilliance.
At the Nielsen, the musicians of the Philharmonic Orchestra were willing partners in their guest’s vision. Yet old habits emerged in Beethoven. It is a work, Blomstedt noted wryly in a recent interview, that he has been hearing for almost a century. But this orchestra has been playing it for much longer – since its first concert, in 1842 – and more recently it has been formed to give it hellish treatment under the baton of van Zweden.
For the most part, however, Blomstedt kept his strength in check, in a performance without excess. He never made much of a fermata — particularly in the famous four-note opening motif — and subtly dismissed notions of fate knocking on the door, relishing the symphony’s exploration instead. motivational obsession. While this is a work often described as a journey from darkness to light, Blomstedt embraced a life-affirming optimism from the outset; passages suggesting adversity were greeted with insistent dignity.
It would be easy to relate this concert to current events. Indeed, this program insert encouraged the public to do so, with a paragraph on “music’s tribute to the strength of the human spirit in the face of the fiercest adversity”. But part of Beethoven’s enduring appeal is his triumph at making the personal universal, and that’s what Blomstedt’s direction reflected: the ability of music, at its best, to speak at any moment or location.
New York Philharmonic
This program repeats through Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.