It’s probably safe to say that Herbert Blomstedt will not be the New York Philharmonic’s next music director.
When Jaap van Zweden leaves the orchestra in spring 2024, Blomstedt will be nearly 96. Who would want to take on the burden of an orchestra at that age? Which is not to say that he couldn’t: Blomstedt maintains a dauntingly busy schedule, with a varied repertory of long, heavy lifts that includes Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony — named, fittingly, “The Inextinguishable.”
On Thursday at Alice Tully Hall, he paired the Nielsen with another symphonic testament to what that composer would call “the spirit of life”: Beethoven’s Fifth. In a time when each guest conductor’s appearance at the Philharmonic — and the orchestra is in a six-week stretch of them — feels like an audition, there was a certain relief, even joy, in hearing a concert purely for its own sake.
Beethoven demonstrated through his music, though, that alongside joy is a duty to face and engage with political reality. In recent days, cultural institutions around the world have been forced to confront their relationships with artists who have ties to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, following his invasion of Ukraine.
With reckoning has come solidarity. The Metropolitan Opera opened Monday’s performance with the Ukrainian national anthem, and on Thursday, Blomstedt led the Philharmonic in a grand treatment of it. Gestures like this are rousing reminders that we can never truly separate art and politics, but are they enough? Imagine if, in addition to a program insert dedicating the concert “to the strength, courage and resilience of those resisting Russia’s invasion,” the Philharmonic had offered a vehicle for aid to Ukraine.
Otherwise the statement comes and goes, as it did on Thursday. The audience and musicians, who had been standing for the anthem, took their seats, and, with little pause, Blomstedt gave the downbeat for the Nielsen — a choice made all the more jarring because the Fourth opens as if in media res. From that moment, in a program of just two symphonies and no star soloist, the focus was on Blomstedt.
He might bristle at that. Famously modest, he wields authority at the podium with minimal means, leading symphonic accounts that are notable less for what they say than what they don’t. “The Inextinguishable,” written in the shadow of World War I and reflecting it in dueling timpani sets, can easily be milked for drama. But Blomstedt follows the score closely, faithfully, with the trust that it will speak for itself.
This approach occasionally leaves me wanting more — accustomed as I am to the bloated grandeur of stereotypical 20th-century performance practice or the leaner, speedier sound of historically informed styles — but it is most often clarifying. Blomstedt’s reading of the Nielsen, controlled but unmannered, was one of sublime balance. The second movement’s wind choir interlude had the gentle movement and harmony of a morning walk among trees and bird song. Later, there was a shock in the starkness of strings bowed heavily in unison. The finale built slowly, and seemed to end as openly as the symphony had begun: the closing measure’s crescendo not a sweep so much as a shine with lingering radiance.
In the Nielsen, the Philharmonic players were willing partners in their guest’s vision. Yet old habits emerged in the Beethoven. It’s a work, Blomstedt wryly noted in a recent interview, that he has been hearing for nearly a century. But this orchestra has been playing it much longer — since its first concert, in 1842 — and most recently has been trained to give it a hellfire treatment under van Zweden’s baton.
For the most part, though, Blomstedt kept its force in check, in an interpretation free from excess. He never made too much of a fermata — especially in the famous four-note opening motif — and subtly rejected notions of fate knocking at the door, relishing instead the symphony’s exploration of motivic obsession. If this is a work often described as a journey from darkness to light, Blomstedt embraced life-affirming optimism from the start; passages suggesting adversity were met with insistent dignity.
It would be easy to link this concert to current events. Indeed, that program insert encouraged the audience to do so, with a paragraph about the music’s “tribute to the fortitude of the human spirit in the face of the fiercest adversity.” But part of Beethoven’s enduring appeal is his triumph in making the personal universal, and that’s what Blomstedt’s conducting reflected: the ability of music, at its best, to speak to any time or place.
New York Philharmonic
This program repeats through Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.