LENOX — Over the years, the Methuselah-like longevity of conductors has been a subject of popular myth, scientific research, and, naturally, self-help guides (wave your arms daily and you too will drink from the fountain of youth! I kid you not.)
Yet listeners at Tanglewood on Saturday night were confronted with a specific example of this phenomenon all the more moving for its twinned modesty and majesty: Herbert Blomstedt, age 94, vigorously leading Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Blomstedt’s days as a music director (at the San Francisco Symphony and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, among other ensembles) are well behind him, but he maintains a busy schedule as a guest conductor. On the podium, he now cuts a slight and angular figure, but if his gestures are small they also speak volumes. No baton is necessary to amplify his intentions. They shine from his eyes. There is nothing left to prove, there are no effects to manufacture. There is only music to be made with a structure that is clear, an approach that is humble, and a beauty that is true.
How else to explain the deeply gratifying account of Beethoven’s Seventh with which he and the orchestra concluded Saturday’s program? The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s string sound, with antiphonal violins and cellos seated near the very center of the stage, was richly integrated and balanced. Woodwinds sang out with mellow warmth, brasses and timpani were boldly profiled. The slow movement was almost operatic in its play of tension and release. And the ecstatic finale had a joyful verve that never tipped over into breathlessness. You understood exactly why Wagner famously called this work “the apotheosis of dance.”
Blomstedt’s dignified approach also seemed to bring out the best in the evening’s soloist, Joshua Bell, who opened the night with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Humidity can be cruel to the intonation of string instruments, but Bell persevered and turned in a characteristically smooth and resourceful performance with nary a jagged edge in sight. A certain rhythmic freedom in some of his first-movement passagework felt new to his interpretation of this perennial favorite. Bell also plays his own cadenzas these days. Fritz Kreisler need not worry about being displaced anytime soon, but Bell’s cadenzas were a welcome change of pace, and they fit his technical gifts and musical style like a bespoke suit.
On Sunday afternoon, a combination of soloist and sunshine (Yo-Yo Ma and abundant, respectively) brought out a huge crowd. The concert also marked the keenly anticipated debut of the young American conductor Karina Canellakis, who has been earning raves and rising quickly in the orchestral world. No one present at Sunday’s performance would have wondered why.
With taut podium gestures and laser-like focus, Canellakis led an audacious and outstanding performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, from the opening brass fanfare to the closing pages of the finale, which built in force like a powerful wave. Principal oboe John Ferrillo also deserves special mention for the glowing, lambent beauty of his solo to open the slow movement.
Prior to the symphony, Ma delivered an eloquent, impassioned account of Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” and capped his showing with a thoughtful encore, the “Cavalry Ostinato,” from “Lamentations” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Opening Sunday’s program was Missy Mazzoli’s “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” an airy, looping and hypnotic work that plays imaginatively with the ancient notion of a cosmic music of the skies. Canellakis and the orchestra gave it a duly sensitive reading.
All told, she and Blomstedt, two conductors on opposite ends of their careers, put on quite a show. He will return next weekend to close out this unforgettable Tanglewood season, the summer of music that nobody could take for granted.