Last night Herbert Blomstedt returned to Davies Symphony Hall to begin the first of two weeks of programming in his capacity as Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Blomstedt has consistently used these visits to breathe new life into compositions that many in the audience thought they already knew with great familiarity. His insights have always been consistently perceptive and unfailingly stimulating.
Last night he led the first of four performances of what many would call the warhorse of all warhorses, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor. While many composers are known for the achievements in their ninth symphonies, this is the one that can get away with being called “the ninth” without any additional descriptors. The subtitle refers to the final movement, for which the SFS musicians were joined by the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) and four vocal soloists, soprano Kiera Duffy, mezzo Sara Couden, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams.
Even before he raises his baton, Blomstedt is a conductor who distinguishes himself with scrupulous attention to the layout of his resources. In the string section his preference is to have the first and second violins face each other. Last night the cellos were positioned behind the first violins with the violas behind the seconds. The basses then filled out the remaining space behind the first violins. Those who were at Herbst Theatre on Tuesday night would have recognized this as the seating plan used by the Telegraph Quartet (without the basses). It has become preferred seating by many string quartets concerned with the audibility of all four lines of counterpoint at their most independent; and that issue of audibility is just as applicable to the symphonies of Beethoven (as well as his predecessors, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn).
That layout was then reflected in the Terrace by the disposition of the choral resources. Two rows of basses stood behind two rows of sopranos on the left, complemented by two rows of tenors behind two rows of altos on the right. The soloists were then placed front and center in the Terrace section, joining the choral resources rather than standing at the edge of the stage in front of the orchestra.
This was the plan according to which Blomstedt arranged for the audience to have the ability to hear everything that Beethoven packed into his score. Beyond the “familiar bits” there were no end of subtle devices involving the distribution of thematic material across the full breadth of instrumentation, constantly kept vivid through no end of unexpected perturbations of rhythmic patterns. For Blomstedt the themes that Beethoven conceived (familiar or otherwise) were not as interesting as the broad diversity of techniques through which he would transform and prolong them through instrumental coloration as well as harmonic progressions and contrapuntal textures.
By the time all of this “action” had progressed to the final movement, the spirit of joy was already at the brink of bursting at the seams. The vocal treatment of Friedrich Schiller’s ode was so exhilarating that, when the soloists were not singing, they could barely contain their delight in all the sonorities that were literally surrounding them. That was the prevailing spirit that spilled off the stage and filled every tier of the Davies space.
However, it is important to emphasize that the full impact of this effect had to be attributed to Blomstedt’s attention to clarity. That is why his goal of “awareness of everything” was so important. As a conductor Blomstedt understands the metaphor of listening as a journey of discovery. Last night he was determined to make sure that every listener was aware that there were new things to be discovered along even the most familiar paths. To that end he knew exactly how to manage his full palette of instrumental and vocal resources, and it was abundantly clear that every participant was determined to follow Blomstedt’s lead through every step along that journey.