»Like an Old Master in a Gilt Frame«
Patrician, charming, free of vanity, modest. In people’s daily dealings, such attributes may loom large and be highly valued. For exceptional beings – such as conductors are taken to be, or feel they are – these traits are if anything atypical, possibly even a hindrance. At any rate, the conducting profession seems to have produced more absolutist autocrats than friends or courteous, considerate colleagues for orchestral players. To some extent, the artist as Napoleon may even be a necessity: minded to impose artistic will untrammelled, and capable of forging highly qualified individual musicians into a unanimous collective. Always for the greater good of music, naturally.
But whatever idea the public has of conductors, Herbert Blomstedt stands out as an exception, precisely because his attributes are not commonly found in maestros bent on domination. Not that anyone should conclude that so affable an artist lacks the necessary assertiveness to achieve his clearly defined musical aims. Anyone who has witnessed Herbert Blomstedt’s concentration on music’s essentials, his precision in formulating the musical issues posed by a given score, his tenacity in imposing a particular aesthetic view in rehearsal, is likely to be astonished at how little tyrannical carry-on this involves. Essentially, Blomstedt has always embodied the type of artist whose professional competence and natural authority render blatant point-making superfluous. In a career of more than sixty years, this has ensured him the music world’s unstinting respect.
Since the early 1980s, the Bamberg Symphony has been fortunate to enjoy the services of this highly regarded orchestral trainer, a Swedish citizen born in the USA and himself trained in Uppsala, New York, Darmstadt and Basle. Still, not a few in the Orchestra’s ranks today would probably be amazed to learn that Blomstedt, who is clearly blessed with a phenomenal memory, experienced the Orchestra’s early days, more than fifty-five years ago, and retains a vivid impression of them today. Blomstedt even believes he detects a certain continuity in its sonic culture over all those years: »When I was twenty-two or twenty-three and still a student, I heard the orchestra play under Joseph Keilberth in Stockholm. I’ll never forget that concert, the playing was so fantastic. Obviously, back then I didn’t have the frame of reference I have now. But I was totally blown away by the Orchestra, and by Keilberth’s conducting of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, the overture to Meistersinger, and Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel as an encore. It was all so virtuosic, so scintillating, so sonically beautiful, so flexible. And I must say, with its outstanding new players, the Orchestra still has that sound and is still on that same level.«
Coming from an artist of his years and experience, the unpretentious way he talks about today’s Bamberg Symphony is like redoubled praise: »There are many exceptional young musicians in the Orchestra, who complement their elders very well. All the players I know are lovely people. In Bamberg, you can be very relaxed and yet concentrate very deeply. It’s something to do with the city itself, too, being so small, so easy to find your way around. You don’t need such sharp elbows, like in a metropolis. That’s also crucial for the Orchestra’s character.« This praise and high esteem have long been reciprocal. By the end of 2016, Herbert Blomstedt had conducted the Orchestra in 172 concerts in Germany and 24 abroad, in eight countries from Europe to Asia. In 2006, he became only the third conductor to be appointed Honorary Conductor of the Orchestra. Recently, for his ninetieth birthday, the Orchestra made him the gift which has probably touched him most: conducting Bruckner’s 5th Symphony in the cathedrals of Bamberg and Würzburg, at Niederaltaich and, for the first time, in the basilica of the Monastery of St. Florian, beneath whose organ loft is Anton Bruckner’s final resting place.
In his ninetieth year, Herbert Blomstedt stands on the Bamberg Symphony’s podium as full of vim and artistic drive as ever – and that verb »stands« is to be taken quite literally; it makes the right musical impression and is perhaps even the secret of his formidable presence, both intellectual and physical. As he himself admits, not without a mischievous pun: »I never conduct sitting down. It doesn’t sound right.« Upright before his Orchestra: that is how people know him in Bamberg, where he is now the eldest of a select band of astonishing old masters – Kurt Sanderling, Sir Neville Marriner, Georges Prêtre, Leon Fleisher, Eugen Jochum and Günter Wand – who all conducted the Orchestra well past the age of eighty. Yet more reason for that gilt frame.