Review: At 95, a conductor is still showing new facets

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Review: At 95, a conductor is still showing new facets
A photo provided by the New York Philharmonic shows Herbert Blomstedt conducting the orchestra in New York on Thursday night, Feb. 2, 2023. Blomstedt returned to David Geffen Hall on Thursday to lead the New York Philharmonic in works by Ingvar Lidholm and Berlioz. (Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic via The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- At 95, conductor Herbert Blomstedt is still showing new sides of himself to the New York Philharmonic.

New sides that are also old ones. On Thursday at David Geffen Hall, he introduced the orchestra to Ingvar Lidholm’s “Poesis,” a work whose premiere he led 59 years ago as a rising maestro in Stockholm.

Lidholm (1921-2017) was part of the European avant-garde that sought a fresh start for music in the rubble-strewn wake of World War II, advancing Schoenberg’s 12-tone theories as a way to decisively sweep aside Romanticism and the rest of a fraught cultural past. But, ever curious, Lidholm didn’t stay a doctrinaire serialist for long, and the 18-minute “Poesis” is an exploration of elemental sound and stark drama without reliance on stylistic rules.

From an indelible, primordial start — pieces of rough sandpaper rubbed together in an unpredictable rhythm over a quivering haze in the strings — the work unfolds tensely, with groups of instruments that are not exactly in angry conflict but are all strong-willed and sharp-elbowed. Uneasy groans and light bruises of tone suddenly condense into buzzing clouds that explode in a storm of slapped bows on strings, glinting violins and roaring brasses before receding back to a mood of clenched hovering.

A pianist (here the strong, unflappable Eric Huebner) provides pounding clusters — answered by shocks of percussion and woozy trombones — and shimmering plucks and strums of the strings inside his instrument. He sometimes softly strikes those strings with a mallet for the barest halo of sound, and at one point loudly blows a whistle directly at the audience; Lidholm doesn’t shy from arresting theatricality.

In another passage, the players briefly whisper sibilants; a series of sliding glissandos in a double bass near the end, almost vocal, feels like a tiny, impeded aria. Alongside strict notation, Lidholm provides room for improvisation within bounds, giving the music a core sense of something seething and fertile.

It’s a grandly stern piece, but, like the best of its space-age era, it pulses deep down with a kind of optimism that comes off as sweetly poignant today, the underlying conviction that a fresh postwar start was possible. There’s poised elegance to its savage volatility.

So close did Blomstedt remain to “Poesis” and its composer over the decades that when Lidholm revised the piece in 2011 — making a wild central piano solo quieter and more reflective — the new version was dedicated to this conductor, whose career has continued past expectations to this age-defying, jaw-dropping point.

Having missed some concerts last year after a fall, Blomstedt walked on and offstage Thursday with assistance from the Philharmonic’s concertmaster, Frank Huang. But once seated on a piano stool placed on the podium, he hardly seemed frail; his gestures were, as usual, restrained and focused. He addressed the audience before “Poesis” with a down-to-earth wit that made Lidholm’s sometimes forbidding world more welcoming.

And after intermission he was a gracious guide through Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” This was a leisurely, mellow, thoroughly pastoral rendition of a piece that under other batons — like that, as my colleague David Allen recently observed, of Charles Munch — can be hair-raising. At Geffen Hall, terror didn’t infringe on even the final sections, the “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”

But the playing was polished, lucid and natural, the work of a conductor with no need to prove himself with inflated intensity. Referring to Huebner, the pianist in “Poesis,” Blomstedt had earlier reassured the audience about that piece’s more outré techniques. “It’s music,” he said, “because he’s a musician.” In Blomstedt’s hands, too, everything is simply, sincerely musical.

New York Philharmonic

This program is repeated through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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