Whose 251st Birthday Year?

Herbert Blomstedt conduced TMCO in 2019 (Hilary Scott photo)

What do you get when you combine a modern virtuoso playing his own cadenzas with the most finely aged conductor in the business (think wine and cheese)? A perfect Saturday evening under the stars in the Berkshires. Program notes are available online HERE.

Joshua Bell’s collaborations with the Boston Symphony have become an annual tradition: he has played a major violin concerto in Boston or Tanglewood every year since 1990 except four (1999, 2008, 2014, 2020). But if you guessed tonight’s offering of Beethoven’s masterful 1806 concerto was one of his typical choices, you would be very wrong, in spite of the headline in the Berkshire Eagle this week (“Beethoven, Beethoven and more Beethoven: Why So Much Beethoven?” Read it HERE).

What have we heard for him in the past? Bell has played the sonorous 1713 “Gibson ex Huberman” Stradivarius violin since 2001 (see his moving discussion of the instrument’s peregrinations HERE), using a late 18th-century French bow by François Tourte. He has delighted BSO audiences with five Max Bruchs (1985, 1993, 2007, 2009, 2011), five Mendelssohns (1991, 1995, 2001, 2005, 2010, 2017), five Tchaikovskys (1994, 1996, 2003, 2006, and opening night at Tanglewood in 2013 [watch excerpts HERE]), four Sibeliuses (1990, 1994, 2000, 2006), three Brahms (1998, 2004, 2009 [watch his extended discussion of those BSO performances HERE]), two Saint-Saëns (1997, 2016), and one each of Prokofiev’s two violin concertos (1992, 2007), Glazunov (2015), Dvorák (2019), Henryk Wieniawski (2018, recorded HERE recently with Paavo Järvi), and two American moderns: Samuel Barber (1996) and bassist Edgar Meyer (2012). He has only played Beethoven’s concerto once before with the BSO, under the baton of Neeme Järvi, almost exactly nineteen years ago (August 9, 2002). Saturday night was a welcome reunion, full of subtlety and innovation.

Always willing to break new ground, Bell began his musical life by stretching rubber bands across the handles of his childhood dresser in imitation of his mother’s piano playing. He has inspired new compositions for strings, including a Grammy-winning premiere of Nicholas Maw’s 1993 Violin Concerto (listen to the final movement HERE), his Carnegie Hall commissioning of the 15-year-old composition prodigy Jay Greenburg, and Edgar Meyer’s Double Concerto (hear his remarks about the importance of performing new orchestral works HERE). He was the subject of a notorious 2007 “Stop and Hear the Music” experiment in the Washington Metro (watch HERE), led a fiery performance of Vivaldi’s “Winter on Dancing with Stars” (see the 2012 broadcast HERE), served as a judge for the 2014 Miss America pageant, and is the subject of “Joshua Bell: A YoungArts Masterclass,” an HBO documentary filmed in his home, London’s Limelight Rock Club, and during a recording session of Bach with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (which he has led since 2011 as its second Music Director).

Diverse videos are available of Bell’s readings of Beethoven, ranging from a youthful interview and performance at the 1990 BBC Proms (watch HERE), a 2005 performance with the conductorless Camerata Salzburg (watch HERE), a 2013 duet with Yuja Wang featuring the Kreutzer Sonata (watch HERE), to his 2018 conducting debut with the National Symphony (watch HERE). Three days before tonight’s concert (on Wednesday, August 4th), Mr. Bell had just performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under the direction of Alasdair Neale at the Sun Valley Music Festival in Idaho.

For Saturday’s concert at Tanglewood, Bell brought out the same qualities that Beethoven’s lifelong friend Franz Clement, the concertmaster of Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, was known for: fantastic technical skill, gracefulness, tenderness of expression, and delicacy. Distinctive touches included the tops of several ascending lines that evaporated into the night air: these are often played fortissimo, with heavy, frequent bow changes to accentuate their difficulty, but Bell achieved a transcendental smoothness of articulation, highlighting his faultless intonation and fluid technique. Although he does often perform encores, Bell instead satisfied his large socially-distanced Shed audience with newly composed cadenzas of his own design for Beethoven’s concerto. A listener on the (very full) Tanglewood lawn sighed with satisfaction after hearing the mélange of styles, remarking “So classic!” Wisps of jazz, bluegrass, and virtuoso romantic technique blended seamlessly with the dramatic showpiece Beethoven had written for Clement 200 years ago.

This May, Bell published a commentary in The Strad about the importance of musicality in encores and other virtuoso playing: you may read his section of the extensive article HERE and see one of his Tanglewood encores HERE (Bach’s third solo partita, four years ago). For those disappointed by his quick departure from the stage on Saturday night, some of Bell’s more intense encores include Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs (see his Genoa performance from 2015 HERE ), and Vieuxtemps’s Paganini-style variations on “Yankee Doodle” HERE. Bell has also started to release video/studio versions of works featured on his professional recordings: watch him duet with pianist Jeremy Denk (playing Brahms) as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series HERE and HERE.

Back to Beethoven

Conductor Herbert Blomstedt is a very funny person. The backstage area at the San Francisco Symphony (where I have spoken and sung since 1995) is full of quotations, caricatures, and humorous photos of the man who led them from 1985-1995 as Music Director. He came to San Francisco from the legendary Dresden Staatskapelle, with whom he recorded a complete set of Beethoven’s symphonies. In announcing Edo de Waart’s sudden departure in 1985, Blomstedt told a shocked SFS audience, “San Francisco has had its Edo period;” he proceeded to bust up the expected June all-Beethoven festival with new commissions and immediately announced groundbreaking tours to Europe and Asia and a recording contract with London/Decca. When discussing SUNY and later Yale professor/composer Ezra Laderman (whom the SFS staff referred to as Laserman), Blomstedt quipped, “He might be contemporary, but he is not that contemporary.” He once remarked about a colleague’s rehearsal technique that it exemplified “an iron fist inside a velvet glove, minus the iron fist.” Highlights of his century-long career include leading orchestras behind the Iron Curtain such the Gewandhaus zu Leipzig and the Berlin Philharmonic (“I was careful not to interfere or make any political statements. I was a guest, so I should act ‘as a guest.’”). German orchestra members have complemented him throughout his career for his humility, modesty, depth of knowledge, and sincerity. And he still loves the motto of the Gewandhaus orchestra, “Real joy is a serious matter.”

Blomstedt is a native son of Massachusetts, born in 1927 in Springfield to an American mother and a Swedish father. He returned “home” after a youth spent in Sweden and Finland to attend New England Conservatory on a fellowship from the Swedish-American Foundation and to study at Juilliard and Tanglewood (through a scholarship arranged for him by Leonard Bernstein). On Bernstein, he responds carefully, “I studied with him, but ah, how should I say this? He did not teach me any conducting. He taught me through his personality. He was a totally sincere and very spontaneous and true person.”

Blomstedt won one of Tanglewood’s first Koussevitzky Conducting Prizes in 1953 after coming to conducting “rather by chance”: during his violin studies at the Royal Conservatory in Stockholm, he sang in the university choir and was asked to help out by leading two movements from Brahms’ Requiem. His humor, skill, and fluency in English, German, and Swedish served him well during a stint as the leader of a Swedish music education TV program as the character “Uncle Baton.”

Joshua Bell (file photo)

In a recent illustrated career retrospective filmed for Germany’s DW Classical (watch it HERE), Blomstedt emphasized, “I like challenge. Easy things… does not interest me. In that way I am a hopeless youngster.” He discussed how music “itself has a good effect on people. But not like a remedy: you listen to a Beethoven symphony and you go out a very good person… it doesn’t work like that. If music is one of your personal languages, it makes you think differently. You have a keener feeling for proportion and beauty. Don’t go too far. Don’t break the overall purpose of your life. Like in a piece of music: it has a beginning, and it has a goal, an end. Especially in the music of Beethoven, you have a feeling that from the beginning, you want to travel to come to the solution… [which] you get at the end.”

As a charismatic, yet reserved performer, who shuns flashiness on the podium, Blomstedt cultivates a spiritual approach to the arts: “Through music we can sometimes travel to that part of the human soul where we are closest to the finest aspects of ourselves. You want the music you produce to echo in our souls and touch our feelings and fertilize our thoughts.” A devout Seventh-day Adventist, Blomstedt does not typically rehearse on Friday nights or Saturdays, but he does conduct concerts, since he considers actual performances to be “celebrations and spiritual communications” rather than work. He comes to life on the podium, remarking, “As soon as I hear the sound of the orchestra, I am transformed — there is no body, no age, only the music and the joy of it.”

For Saturday’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 7, Blomstedt led the BSO without a baton, the score closed before him (“out of respect”). He acted as a gentle guide, so dynamic contrasts emerged in reaction to a simple lean forward or the opening of a palm. Beethoven’s effervescence was always ready to bubble to the surface through a nod, quick flash of Blomstedt’s wrist, or a comic sudden stop, eyes gleaming. He was able to mold a coherent, though subdued, reading from the strings while showcasing his woodwind section, dominated by Principal Oboe John Ferrillo, who almost danced out of his chair during Beethoven’s flourishes. The many large video screens, both in the Shed and visible above the Shed to lawn-dwellers, allowed everyone in the audience to observe minute details from both the featured guests and individual players in the orchestra throughout the evening.

Blomstedt typically conducts 90 concerts per year: in early 2020, he finished a six-week tour of the U.S. by leading the last live concert of the Chicago Symphony before everything shut down. He caught one of the last flights back to Switzerland and spent the rest of the year in isolation in his home in Lucerne. When asked recently whether he is starting to plan for retirement, after 70 years on the podium, he responded with a Puckish smirk, “I have no plans to that end. Even today, during Corona times, I prepare the scores as if I had the rehearsal tomorrow. So, I’m ready whenever it’s possible to play, and I enjoy it immensely. I think the body will tell when I cannot do it anymore: my colleagues in the orchestra will give me the right understanding.” He returns next weekend to close the BSO’s season at Tanglewood with an all-Brahms program featuring violinist Leonidas Kavakos (August 15th at 2:30pm).