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Interview with Conductor Herbert Blomstedt

Thursday, 3 January 2013 , ora 9.10
I consider it a privilege to spend even a few minutes in the company of a personality of Herbert Blomstedt's stature. We have not had the chance to hear him conduct in Romania, but we have often heard him in recordings received through the European Broadcasting Union. He is a charismatic conductor, but not in the theatrical sense: he feels music deep inside and knows how to make it available to the audience in the way its composer is likely to have ideally imagined it.

In 2012, Herbert Blomstedt, the conductor born in America to Swedish parents, turned the venerable age of 85. At 27 he got his first job as the conductor of a Swedish orchestra. The long-term collaborations with the Danish and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra respectively followed, Herbert Blomstedt succeeding Sergiu Celibidache as conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Many years of successful activity followed while he worked as conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Herbert Blomstedt is considered a specialist in the music of German maestros: Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. His albums have won him two Grammy awards, as well as numerous other music industry awards.

Therefore, it was only natural that I should first of all find out what were the principles underlying Herbert Blomstedt's long and successful conducting career.

On principles and success

'I see the conductor as an advocate of the composer. So, we must firstly observe the truth of his work, make sure that everything it involves is observed - and I'm not only talking about technical aspects, but also about the artistic, emotional and philosophical ones. We must make sure everything is expressed. Secondly, we must turn his work into something interesting for the audience, because we perform for an audience - all music, as a matter of fact, has been composed for an audience. Sometimes a conflict may arise - you may think you can achieve a better effect if you don't observe the score, or you can choose not to achieve a certain effect, but be faithful to the score. I think that this is what distinguishes between the two types of composers: one is the composer's advocate, while the other one is only interested in achieving effects, which is not a bad thing in itself, because you want to offer the audience an interesting experience. But if I were to choose between offering an experience and not being faithful to the score, I would be happier if I observed the score, trying at the same time to offer the audience a memorable experience.'

When I asked you about your principles, you replied, 'my principles as a conductor?' I think it is time you revealed to us your principles as a person as well.

I think they are the same. My purpose has not been to achieve success, but to enjoy the experience of life by being part of other people's lives. I personally think that I am here to serve those around me. One's purpose is not to get as much money as possible, achieve as much fame as possible, or be as beautiful as possible, but to be helpful and also an inspiring role model for others.

You have mentioned the audience and its importance. How has the audience changed since the beginning of your career until today? Has it changed or not?

It has changed a bit because we are never the same, changing from day to day. Of course, there are also traits which remain the same as 2,000 or maybe 5,000 years ago. We have the same basic needs: security, peace, happiness, and being part of a community. The audience today has changed with the development of technology, which has occurred incredibly fast. During the last one hundred years, the development of technology has taken place a hundred times faster than what happened during the previous 2,000 years. So the circumstances in which we live are different today. The audience wants to gain as much satisfaction as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. This means that we live on the run: we are not as patient as we used to be; as we witness so many changes around us, we expect changes to happen, we demand more changes, and we need more changes. This hinders some aspects of human life which demand more patience. I think that many adults today behave like children: they have a short concentration span, they always need to be entertained, they are restless, and even find it boring not to experience something interesting all the time. As I've recently read in an interview, there was a German rock star who summarized this as follows, 'My music has to be like a punch in the stomach', otherwise we get no effect whatsoever. It must hit you with force. Of course, this would have seemed sheer brutality or barbarism to our grandparents. Today we must be careful not to go too far in this direction because we could destroy the more sensitive sides of our humanity.

A conversation during Beethovenfest Bonn

I had a conversation with Herbert Blomstedt on the afternoon of 14thSeptember, 2012, in Bonn, Germany. I was there at the invitation of the Beethovenfest organisers, and that very evening Herbert Blomstedt was to conduct the Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen while they performed Missa Solemnisby Ludwig van Beethoven.

'Well, particularly in this work, which is his greatest one, both in terms of size and content, every bar is loaded with meanings, not just one meaning, but many - its title tells us it's a religious work. The text is religious, it's taken from the Bible, but transfigured in a human sense. The way Beethoven expresses his thoughts and faith is purely symphonic, he demands the choir to sing as if they were an instrument, and sometimes he demands that the instruments should be played as if they were a human voice as well. Beethoven uses all possible means of expression in this mass. It started as a church work, but in the end it became something completely out of the ordinary, which is not fit to be performed in church - the text is suited for this, but not the music, because of the great orchestral apparatus which would create acoustic confusion in a normal church. However, I think that this was the normal course of events in Beethoven's time. If you are to analyse Bruckner's music, for example, you will notice that he was a man of God due to his profession. He was almost born in a convent, he grew up in one, and he lived as a monk in a convent for thirty or forty years - he was the cathedral organist and yet he believed that the Church was too small for his music. That is why the message of his music is conveyed through symphonies, not through masses, motets or organ works, but through symphonies, because in this way he could a reach a much wider audience, not only the people who went to church, but all the common people who might know something about the Church and its message, or who might not know anything at all about this topic, but who could be touched by the message of music. In fact, the Church should watch over human needs. We want peace - it's a basic need, and the mass concludes with that prayer which is supposed to grant us peace - "Dona nobis pacem". Another basic need is security, because it is only in a safe environment that we can raise and extend our families; and the first words of the mass - 'Kyrie eleison' - express precisely this: "Lord, have mercy upon us" - because we don't feel secure, but we need security, "forgive us and tend to our needs". I believe that even those who don't go to church on a regular basis can find in this music answers to some of their fundamental needs. I hope that this message will reach the audience. It's not that easy nowadays; Beethoven's intention was very clear however, as he wrote on the first page of the score: "From the heart: may it go to the heart", which is a very personal message; it's by no means a dogmatic statement, but a message from one heart to another.'

A more rarely performed work

'And yet, Missa Solemnisis very rarely performed today - it has never been performed too often, but it's very rarely performed particularly today. Most conductors nowadays don't perform it at all for several reasons: it's very difficult and complex. However, other conductors don't avoid performing works that are just as difficult and complex. Another reason for this situation is the fact that its score doesn't guarantee success. Many find it difficult to approach it because of its complexity. Even the instrumentalists in the orchestra need more time to assimilate Missa Solemnisthan to learn Beethoven's symphonies, for example, which they perform all the time. There may be another reason why Missa Solemnisis rarely approached: some musicologists' arguable criticism, to say the least of it. Many say, "It's a very long, difficult and problematic work. Beethoven himself thought it was his best work - we, on the other hand, doubt that." You can find such opinions even in the programme of a concert held in Bremen the other day, which, naturally, doesn't make the audience's task any easier nor does it arouse their curiosity. However, I believe that a good performance, and I expect us to give a good performance in Bonn, can make this attitude change. It truly is the most important work by Beethoven, the most personal one. Most instrumentalists in the orchestra have never performed Missa Solemnis, not even the older ones, many have not even listened to it, and yet we are dealing with an orchestra specialised in Beethoven's symphonies, which has toured the world performing Beethoven's complete symphonies. Therefore, I consider that we have an important task - to give this work the status it deserves, including in people's consciousness.'

I'd like us to talk about Bruckner as well - he is one of the composers you have chosen for the
Herbert Blomstedt 85th Anniversary Albumreleased in 2012, which also includes works by Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms. Why have you chosen precisely these composers?

They are contemporary with one another and they represent, I might say, the last flowering of the symphonic tradition. They wrote music for big orchestras, they had a virtuoso discourse, but, naturally, they are very different from one another. Brahms and Bruckner have some things in common, but not too many - both their names start with the letter 'B', and they both lived in Vienna. Brahms attended the premieres of the most important symphonies by Bruckner at the Musikverein, but he didn't like them, he didn't understand them. Brahms was by no means stupid, he was a very intelligent man, but his understanding was rather that of a musicologist - he had a thorough knowledge of the music of Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Bach, Handel, and Schubert. We must also take into consideration the fact that he owned a publishing house - he is the one who published the first edition of Schubert's complete works. Brahms had a very good understanding of music. His first job, apart from playing the piano, was to conduct a women's choir who performed a repertoire belonging especially to the 16thand 17thcenturies. However, he didn't understand Bruckner's music, as he found it too long and difficult. Brahms was sarcastic, and he had a keen sense of humour. He used to say, 'If this is the music of the future, it will be forgotten in two months' time.' As you can see, even great composers can sometimes be wrong. I think that one of the explanations is the fact that Brahms's music was so different from Bruckner's. Theoretically, they both are the continuators of Beethoven's symphonic style, but each in a different way. Brahms had a more concentrated style, and he wanted to say everything in the shortest time possible. Bruckner allowed himself space and time to develop. That's why Brahms felt that Bruckner didn't know when to stop. Bruckner would often hear his friends and critics say this about him, so he tried to refrain himself and write music in a more concentrated manner, but it didn't turn out very well. He would delete ten or fifteen bars here and there, but, if you know his original intention, you realise that something is missing, that the balance is lost, so this wasn't a good solution. He knew it, that's why he used to say, 'I'm doing it for those who are now, not for those to come'. When he wanted to compose a short work, Bruckner was perfectly able to do it, just look at the drafts of his sixth symphony, for example, but when the themes were more complex, he needed enough space.

Herbert Blomstedt and Romanian Musicians

As I come from Romania, it's impossible for me not to ask what Romanian musicians you know, what Romanian musicians you have collaborated with, and, perhaps, what Romanian musicians you appreciate.

I know quite a few Romanian musicians because many of them left Romania during the difficult communist period, and there are also so many ethnic groups who have left Romania - I know so many Germans who have come from Romania. A few years ago, I attended a religious service in Cologne; more than half of the people in church were Romanian. And the music they sang was very beautiful. They belonged to the German minority in Romania. As far as musicians are concerned, there are quite a few of them: Radu Lupu, for example, with whom I have often given concerts. He's a very interesting person, a philosopher of the piano. Of course, there is Sergiu Celibidache, who lived much of his life both in Germany and Scandinavia.

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As a matter of fact, you have conducted the same Swedish orchestra as Sergiu Celibidache, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Yes, I have, though he never was music director of this orchestra, as he didn't want to have this title. In fact, he was. He dominated everything for ten years. I can still feel his presence when I collaborate with this orchestra. Even if most of its present-day members have not performed under him, his spirit is still present there, both with its positive and negative aspects. He was very domineering, and he didn't allow music to be made in a different manner than his own. Under his direction, musicians learned how to listen to one another, which is wonderful. However, as a music group, the orchestra didn't progress, not even the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. He influenced the whole orchestra, but it didn't progress - when the collaboration with Celibidache ended, it wasn't better than at the beginning of the collaboration, but the members of the orchestra performed the way he wanted. This was what he demanded of them and what he got. Celibidache had an extraordinary musical ear, and he taught the orchestra how to listen to what they performed. I also know a dozen Romanian violinists who have left their country and moved to Sweden, Germany, or Denmark.

One last question: is there a secret to having a life as long and successful as yours?

You see, secrets are not everything. Saying in a few words, 'This is someone's secret' is appropriate for a journalist's style, but everything is much more complex than that. I remember a reception in Los Angeles. I was the Philharmonic's guest and the Swedish consul in Los Angeles set up a reception to which he invited thirty or forty people. I was standing near the door in order to welcome them and suddenly a lady asked me, 'What is your secret?' I thought it was odd to be asked such question at the beginning of a reception. An hour and a half later, when she left, the lady told me, 'Now I know your secret: clear thoughts, clear actions, and no exaggerations.' This is what she thought the answer was. I've tried to be a very disciplined person. I divide my time very judiciously, in order to use it productively. I hate noisy discussions or wasting my time away. I like to relax, but at the same time I want to do something productive, such as going for a walk in the forest, eating a good meal, spending time with family or friends, or teaching my children. I think that discipline is very important when working with an orchestra, but I'm not talking about a military discipline, namely the 'don't do that' kind, but rather one which involves saying, 'keep your ears open in order to listen to what others do, see how others think'. This is the kind of discipline I like.

Cristina Comandașu
Translated by Cristina Firoiu and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC graduates, Bucharest University