The first thing you notice about Herbert Blomstedt is his shoulders: their gentle downward slope as he leans over the conductor’s podium. Conductors have all sorts of postures—rigid, hunched, antsy. None of these variations necessarily connote skill, at least not to a layperson, even a more advanced one (myself). But when Blomstedt takes the stage, he exudes humility. Perhaps this comes with age, or the utmost confidence.
I first saw Blomstedt conduct in the late winter of 2018—a mere five years ago, but sixty-something years into his classical music career. The program was Beethoven’s Third Symphony, otherwise known as the “Eroica.” As a young music student, I loved thinking of Beethoven’s Third as the erotic symphony; alas, by “eroica,” he means heroic (though in some ways, the erotic and the heroic are one in the same—each trait imbued with a deftness). The story goes that Beethoven originally meant to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon, whom he admired, only for his admiration to wane alongside Napoleon’s reputation. In turn, Eroica's dedication was amended to “the memory of a great man.”
On that snowy March night: Blomstedt, a different great man took the stage. It is easy to give in to the emotionality of Beethoven, his perceived moodiness. These are weighty pieces composed by an angry man. In Blomstedt’s nimble hands, Beethoven is given another shot, a chance at grace. The Eroica begins with two chords, a little pronouncement, before slipping into an elegant, sweeping fanfare. The woodwinds dance along. Immediately, it is the most hummable melody you’ve heard, and Blomstedt stands at the helm—the history of Beethoven heavy, but manageable on his delicate shoulders.
To understand classical music does not require a college course, nor a college education, really, but a willingness to take part in a social construct. It is a performance of self, no doubt, to take your seat and face the stage. What becomes apparent, however, is that the orchestra relies on its audience to engage, to nod, to listen. We’re all in this together, that is to say. Not only does Blomstedt want the musicians to love the music in front of them, but the audience from front row to far balcony. When this gesture is built and shown with love, well, it is hard not to feel a bit sentimental.
So, to listen to Blomstedt’s Beethoven symphonies, the remastered work with the Staatskapelle Dresden (one of the world’s oldest orchestras), is to get a refreshed and buoyant understanding of why and how classical music is necessary. Beethoven is simply enjoyable at the hands of Blomstedt. That can come through even in the most distant listening. Consider Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony—by no means as famous as the composer’s Fifth (bum-bum-bum-BAHHH) or Ninth (“Ode to Joy”), but perhaps his most lyrical. I’d never given much thought to Beethoven’s Seventh until I saw it under Blomstedt’s hands, an all-encompassing robust experience. The light call-and-response of the woodwinds, the lilt of its tempo, a power-walk of a pace.
Herbert Blomstedt is old: maybe that’s the real thing you notice about him. Not the shoulders, or his mop of white hair, but the age he carries. Born in 1927, in Massachusetts, Blomstedt predates the first Disney animated film, Scotch tape, and—where I spend most of my time listening to him—FM radio. He relocated to his parents’ native Sweden in 1929, where he was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. To this day, Blomstedt does not rehearse on Saturdays out of deference to the sabbath— performances, however, he considers “a spiritual celebration.” He also refrains from “alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and meat,” as reported by The New York Times upon his appointment to the San Francisco Symphony.
It is possible that Blomstedt’s presence appeals to some as a harkening back to “old-world ideals,” a more conservative relationship to work and life, where everyone just did what they were supposed to. But this eschews what is, at Blomstedt’s core, an embodiment of optimism and discipline. “When they watch me, the musicians play the way I am,” Blomstedt explains in a behind-the-scenes Oslo Philharmonic documentary. He does not raise his voice. He is light, encouraging, seemingly devoid of performative ego. One likes to think a certain degree of such Scandinavian mellowness can extend life.
Throughout my classical music patronage, I have mostly seen Blomstedt conducting Beethoven. It is, for lack of a better word, his speciality. It is not just that Beethoven’s compositions—his magnetic symphonies, his dramatic concertos—are timeless and popular, though that helps, but because Blomstedt is one of few living figures to treat Beethoven not as idol or icon, but as man. “The Most Vital Conductor of Beethoven Is Ninety-Four,” wrote Alex Ross in The New Yorker last year. Now, he is ninety-six. What Blomstedt offers an orchestra, in part due to his age and presumed wisdom, is “a kind of prenatural rightness.”
During the height of the pandemic years, unable to attend the symphony, I became quietly obsessed with rehearsal footage of Blomstedt, of which there is little, in part because what you see on the podium is no doubt what the musicians get as well: a knowing, easy presence, years of work amounting not to the heaviness of intelligence but the relief of confidence. The orchestra musicians—often a tricky bunch to impress—hang onto every word. “They can sense the atmosphere,” Blomstedt says, “that we love playing music together.”
Every year I’ve gone to the symphony, I’ve sought out Blomstedt, playing Beethoven or an otherwise Germanic or Scandinavian composer. In my early years of classical music patronage, I sought out the pieces I loved, the way you would turn over an old paperback to read the plot summary. To show up for the conductor is like showing up for an author, in some sense, given the real authors—composers, that is—are long dead. It’s as close as we get to touching the past. Watching Blomstedt age from his late eighties into his mid-nineties is a minor reckoning with an unavoidable fate. This past winter in New York City, I watched as Blomstedt was helped onto the stage where he conducted from a seated position. This is uncommon, but did not shake the confidence of anyone in the room. The program was not Blomstedt’s typical Beethoven symphony, but rather a personal favorite piece of mine—Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” a dazzling, overwhelming, hallucinogenic symphonic suite (no, really, it’s a piece that includes a bad drug trip). Prior to the “Symphonie Fantastique,” however, was Ingvar Lidholm’s “Poesis,” which, though formally impressive, is much less an obvious crowd-pleaser. It is a tricky, atonal piece featuring solo piano, more interested in impressions of sound than lyricism.
I’ve seen many a Thursday night orchestra-goer turned off by a more contemporary, experimental piece. It’s clear, still, that attempts to diversify orchestra programming face far more hurdles with an audience than the musicians on stage. But before the start of “Poesis,” Blomstedt did something quite extraordinary: he turned to the audience. With a smile and a laugh, he reassured everyone that what they were about to hear was, in fact, music. It was going to sound strange, even eerie or wrong, but that was on purpose. The audience melted into gentle laughter, a great comfort washing over the hall. It is not just that Blomstedt can make any piece wonderful. It’s that he’s able to inspire joy in one of our greatest human gifts: listening.
Illustration by Jason Novak.