Conductor Herbert Blomstedt lets the music speak for itself

February 17, 2012

Herbert Blomstedt manages to be, at once, one of the best conductors in the world and one of the music world’s best-kept secrets. Sure, he’s headed some of the world’s leading orchestras (the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig), but he has none of the mystique, or even name recognition, of a Riccardo Muti or Claudio Abbado. He’s unflashy, and rather unromantic. He just makes music.

And, as Blomstedt showed at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night, he makes it with such integrity and straightforwardness and love that for those in the know, it’s a joy to watch him.

Yet it’s hard to get people to be in-the-know if your offering is a rather unspectacular midwinter concert without even a big-name soloist to lure the public. Blom­stedt’s program bracketed the 19th century: At the beginning was Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which is not traditionally considered one of the highlights of the composer’s “mighty nine”; and at the end was Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben,” which is flashy in its way but not particularly unusual orchestral fare.

No concerto, no special attraction, no crowd-pleaser: just a slender, 85-year-old, American-born Swede with thick, gray hair, moving with the back-locked stiffness that some musicians acquire with age, taking the podium and opening the Beethoven so slowly and unremarkably that it — like him — was deceptively colorless.

It wasn’t, of course, colorless, because Beethoven isn’t colorless, and this performance offered Beethoven’s vivid essence. Blomstedt’s failing as a conductor — and I say “failing” with tongue planted firmly in cheek — is that he’s not an entertainer in the sense that, although he can be very entertaining, he has no interest in showcasing himself. He doesn’t signal from the start that something special is going to happen, and he doesn’t telegraph his feelings to the audience.

What happens, instead, is an honest act of devotion: a performance in which every drop of the music is manifested. Details emerge that you are seldom aware of — phrases bursting out like popcorn kernels in the buildup to the recapitulation of the first movement or the tangy, crunchy contrasts between the sounds of different instruments as they pass around a single tune at the end of the second movement — all in the course of a narrative told so clearly, there’s never a doubt where in the piece you are.

There’s a widespread misconception that music is about feelings, and such works as Strauss’s tone poems would seem to further the notion. Strauss, in “Ein Heldenleben,” gives us his autobiography, an idealized life peopled with querulous critics, squawking in the woodwinds and dominated by an idealized helpmeet as portrayed by a long and wide-ranging violin solo against the lush, throbbing tones of the full orchestra. (Nurit Bar-Josef, the NSO’s concertmaster, got a chance to show off her ravishing lyrical sound.)

But music is above all about music, whatever its subject. Feelings may or may not be engaged in its service, but it is not always best-served when it’s used as a vehicle for a given performer’s emotions. Blomstedt demonstrated this by leading full-blooded, full-bodied Strauss that conveyed the whole score without ever treading near the kind of kitsch that sometimes endangers Strauss himself. Blomstedt may be unromantic, but he’s a perfectly competent romantic.

Blomstedt’s music is all about music, and his approach mingles sophistication with an innate sense of wonder. That’s not the kind of thing that sells tickets, but it is the kind of thing that reminds those who understand just what music is really all about.

The program will repeat Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 3 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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