At 90, Blomstedt leads CSO in performances of youthful vitality

Thu Mar 01, 2018 at 11:52 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Herbert Blomstedt conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Mozart and Beethoven Thursday night.
Herbert Blomstedt conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Mozart and Beethoven Thursday night.

Herbert Blomstedt made a bit of Chicago musical history Thursday night when the 90-year-old Swedish conductor became the oldest musician to ever direct a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert. (Takashi Asahina held that record previously, having taken the CSO podium at age 88 in 1996.)

In his first CSO stand in over a decade, Blomstedt appeared delighted to be back and was impressively spry, entering and exiting the stage with quick little steps. While he directed the music sans baton, as is his custom, his economical, swaying hand motions and surging gestures proved surprisingly effective in getting responsive musical results. And in a meat-and-potatoes program of Mozart and Beethoven symphonies, Blomstedt and the CSO delivered uncommonly vital and energized performances.

One can quibble that balancing in Blomstedt’s big-boned account of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E flat could have been more meticulous and detailing more nuanced. And the fast, aggressive way with the Menuetto was hardly an Allegretto as marked (though Stephen Williamson’s calliope-like clarinet provided apt rustic charm).

Yet Blomstedt displayed a forthright and unfussy way with this score–generous but not pedantic with repeats—and most of the performance offered such fresh and engaging Mozart that doubts were largely swept aside. The Andante was impassioned without being out of scale, and the witty, boldly projected finale was as exuberant and delightful as one will ever hear.

Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony (No. 3) followed after intermission. From the quickly punched out opening chords, Blomstedt here too showed a discerning awareness of historically informed style, leading a fleet, fast rendering that never felt rushed or breathless. Transparency and balancing were superb without drawing undue attention to themselves and this was a Beethoven reading of tensile strength and spirited dynamism.

Yet with the ensuing funeral march, doubts began to enter. While the music-making was gracious and flowing there was a lack of dramatic ballast and weight. Climaxes had due power yet the overall approach felt too easygoing and lacking in eruptive intensity for such revolutionary music.

The Scherzo was boldly projected and vigorous with mostly nimble horn playing in the trio. The finale was off at a crackling pace and effective enough building inexorably to a blazing coda.  But the headlong pace at times felt too fast for the music, missing an essential grandeur and symphonic weight, with the variations insufficiently contrasted.

Even with mixed feelings about the evening’s Beethoven, it was heartening to see a conductor who will enter his tenth decade this summer in such hale health and still able to elicit such youthful and spirited performances. Let’s hope Blomstedt will be back soon. 

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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