At 94, Herbert Blomstedt is back on the Boston Symphony Orchestra podium this week, and it’s a beautiful thing. The music, yes — Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony — but also the sheer profusion of grace, humility, and sincerity.
It’s a truism that, with decades of fame under their belts, many conductors exude an unmistakable air of self-importance. That’s why that old joke sticks around — the one about the confused musician who, upon arriving at an orchestral performance in heaven, asks St. Peter about that curious maestro on the podium, waving his arms so grandiosely. “Oh that’s God,” explains St. Peter. “He thinks he’s Herbert von Karajan.”
Blomstedt’s presence spins this joke around and flips it on its head. He is a deeply religious man who grew up as the son of an Adventist pastor. His conducting strives to create a space in which the numinous world can be accessed right here on Earth. And even while performing, he seems to find an almost boyish sense of wonder in the art form’s elemental radiance. Many musicians talk the talk of humbly serving the music, but Blomstedt appears to mean it. He has lived this approach. And orchestras can tell the difference.
Or so the BSO’s playing would suggest. Last summer he led a beautifully-proportioned Beethoven Seventh at Tanglewood. On Thursday night, it was Bruckner’s Fourth, fleet yet focused, assembled before our ears in all its glowing majesty.
Blomstedt led with forward-leaning tempos and an uncanny sense of how to build large musical structures from the accumulation of small details. The brass choirs were warm, focused, and well-defined. Woodwind playing was characterful. A score sat on the conductor’s stand: the rather lighter-treading 2018 New Bruckner Edition, edited by Benjamin Korstvedt and dedicated to Blomstedt. He never opened it.
Plenty of conductors lead from memory, but Blomstedt’s understanding of this music feels particularly internalized. It was easy to wonder, because Bruckner’s art is famously steeped in the composer’s own religious devotion and piety, whether the conductor’s commitment to a life of faith has also granted him, through the years, a special elective affinity with this music.
The evening began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 (K. 453) in an eloquent performance by soloist Martin Helmchen. During both the concerto and his encore (the slow movement from Mozart’s Sonata No. 12, K. 332), Helmchen’s playing was distinguished by its rhetorical clarity, forthright rhythmic definition, and pellucid lyricism.
In a brief interview on Thursday, Blomstedt recalled with uncanny precision that as a listener, he first heard the Bruckner Fourth performed in Gothenburg, Sweden, 80 years ago, on Oct. 22, 1942. Asked who had conducted that night, he waved the question away. No one important. “But,” he said, his eyes lighting up, “at that time I knew the name of every member of the orchestra. They were my heroes.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Feb. 19)