Witnessing a Life-Changing Moment Through Brahms

United StatesUnited States Blossom Music Festival [4] – Mozart, Brahms: Cleveland Orchestra / Herbert Blomstedt (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 28.7.2018. (MSJ)

Mozart – Symphony No.41 (“Jupiter”) in C major K.551
Brahms – Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98

Under ordinary circumstances, one might lament the warhorse programming of this Blossom Music Festival concert. But after a tumultuous week in which the Cleveland Orchestra put its legendary concertmaster William Preucil on suspension—pending the outcome of an independent investigation into allegations of impropriety brought to light in a Washington Post article—and after the trauma of one of the orchestra’s other violinists having two violins stolen from him during an armed house invasion, the comforts of familiar music were especially welcome. And when the conductor is 91-year old podium veteran Herbert Blomstedt, who is to begrudge his taste? If anyone has earned the right to play only the most well-worn favorites, he has.

Some conductors of Blomstedt’s age go through a radiant Indian summer, gradually winding down like a spring-mechanism clock, getting slower and slower until they stop. Not Blomstedt. I listened to his 1982 recording of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony with the Staatskapelle Dresden for reference, and if anything, this performance was faster, lighter on its feet and more alert.

Though Blomstedt’s approach may not have been influenced by the historically-informed performance movement, there were reduced forces and limited use of vibrato, with attenuation at the end of some phrases. But like any shrewd conductor, these elements have always been present in Blomstedt’s Mozart, and over time have become increasingly deft and lithe.

The first movement was surprisingly brisk—never overstated, yet never glossed over on autopilot. Blomstedt seemed particularly aware of the constantly changing play of light and shadow that is key to late Mozart: a wealth of clear sunshine, but never forgetting that any moment could reveal a glimpse into the abyss. In this regard, the slow movement was particularly moving; Blomstedt found the ideal flowing tempo, and the heft to make somber moments register. The minuet was elegant, and the finale lively, though unhurried. Others may show more fire, but Blomstedt was content to limn the counterpoint. The orchestra responded with poise and glow.

As fine as the Mozart was, it won’t be what was seared into the memory. As we settled in for the second half, I noticed a large group of students a few rows ahead. My first mischievous thought was, “Wow, who hates children enough to bring them to Brahms’ Fourth?” I noticed a young boy, about twelve. As the music started, he tried to listen attentively, but sagged as Brahms slowly built up his castle-like structure. To most children today, who may have grown up surrounded by syncopated rhythms and polyrhythms, Brahms must seem distressingly square at first—all those symmetries of two and four beats, sometimes offset, but still square. But of course a closer listen reveals layers of contrasting rhythms, often three-against-two, all naggingly obsessive. The harmonies begin to warp toward the dissolution of tonality that happened in the expressionist scores which came after Brahms’ death.

After this darkness, no wonder Brahms wrote no more symphonies, likely because he was terrified at what he saw coming. Though the score is completely abstract, one feels that the composer was looking at human history: Castles and elaborate social systems in the first movement, some ancient folk song or Renaissance madrigal in the slow one. Even Brahms himself described the third movement scherzo as “Alexander’s march through Asia.” By the time the stern labyrinth of a finale arrives, it can be daunting stuff for a young listener.

Blomstedt led with rare music-making—classical and unexaggerated, yet nothing like the rigid, mechanical time-beating often passed off as a classical approach. He focused with unquestionable integrity, yet he knew exactly where to ease into a transition or make the melodic line subtly flexible, transforming Brahms’ dense, Bachian counterpoint into startlingly human expressions. It became a personal drama, yearning and—like the Mozart—constantly shifting between shadow and light in the aspiring first movement. Blomstedt didn’t need to push the tempo toward the end of the movement as some do to “whip up” excitement. His concentration lit the players, and when one of the greatest orchestras in the world catches fire, it’s a force to behold.

The slow movement started with a perfect balance of regret and lyricism, constantly opening up into new worlds. The third movement blew off steam, yet Blomstedt kept it tied to the rest with volatile harmonic transitions and the dreaminess of the central slow passage.

Then came the finale, a passacaglia on a fragment from Bach, a universe compressed into ten minutes. Blomstedt shrewdly measured his pace, turning concentration tighter toward the end, and slow enough to show off the otherworldly flute solo, played with quiet vulnerability by Marisela Sager. Each time a new room appeared, harmonies tore it apart with the relentless passacaglia bass line, but Blomstedt’s focus moved it unstoppably forward.

As tension and tempo began to converge toward the inevitable grim ending, I happened to look again at that young student who had been struggling earlier. Now it had him. His eyes were riveted on the stage and he had started conducting along with one hand, the other hand treading water. When Brahms suddenly pulled back for that last fleeting glance of sweetness before the brutal coda, the boy grabbed his program and began furiously flipping through, searching the notes for an explanation. Before he could find one, the final crush resumed, and he returned to marking time—as if his life depended on it.

And it does. Our life relies on the magic of visionaries like Brahms, etching secret wisdom that only a Merlin-like sage like Blomstedt can unlock. Forget our stupid, crass, sex-obsessed, corrupt, blunt society: seeing a young mind light up reminded me that humanity is still capable of life-changing moments.

So, don’t despair at all that has gone wrong in this world. There’s hope for us yet.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Mark Sebastian Jordan’s reviewing activity in 2018 is supported by an Individual Excellence grant in Criticism from the Ohio Arts Council.

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