There are many young exciting conductors on the classical music scene today. But there are still some exciting old conductors as well. And if Sunday’s LA Phil concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall is any indication, Herbert Blomstedt is near the top of the list. The nonagenarian (he was born in 1927) was in town to conduct the Phil in two D-major second symphonies — the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36 by the 32-year-old Beethoven and the Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 by the 37-year-old Sibelius. These symphonies written almost exactly 100 years apart represent youthful symphonies by their respective composers.
Blomstedt looked his age as he walked to the podium, but once there he looked like a much younger man. Conducting without a score (although he kept a small copy of the Sibelius score on the podium during that performance — see below) or a baton, Blomstedt led the Phil in two inspiring performances.
Right out of the gate with the opening fortissimo D chord in the Beethoven, we knew we were in store for something special. With the up-tempo and muscular treatment of Beethoven’s second symphony, Blomstedt gave us a hint of what was to come in Beethoven’s third and revolutionary symphony. And this old, slight and somewhat frail-looking man showed why you don’t need to be young to conduct works by young composers, or by any composer for that matter.
The end of the Beethoven elicited a standing ovation and cheers from many audience members, which is unusual for the first piece of a concert.
But we were in for an even bigger treat with the Sibelius. This performance was truly revelatory, because even though this is Sibelius’ most popular and often-played symphony, it was like hearing it for the first time. As with the Beethoven in the first half, Blomstedt breathed fresh life into the Sibelius. It was an inspired and rousing performance.
In both works, Blomstedt showed why the conductor doesn’t need a baton and what a conductor can do with his hands. It was as if the music was flowing from his hands into the players’ instruments.
And boy, did the orchestra play for him. I can’t remember when I’ve seen the LA Phil moving and swaying to the music as they did on Sunday.
At the conclusion of the Sibelius, the audience rose to their feet and cheered, showing their appreciation for the opportunity to witness such a event. Blomstedt started his appreciation for the orchestra by having the double bases stand first. I mean, who has ever seen that? Then he moved through the orchestra like a young, excited boy shaking hands and asking other players to stand, all the while the musicians were applauding and stomping their feet for him. Then, the trombones, tuba and trumpets played a brief tribute to the man that everyone obviously respects and admires, not only for his devotion to the music (before he walked off the stage for the second or third time, he picked up the score to the Sibelius to acknowledge the music), but for his modesty and his humanity.
What might have been just another performance of two well-worn popular symphonies turned out to be one of the highlights of the season.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA