Conductor Herbert Blomstedt
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Herbert Blomstedt (Conductor)
Born: July 11, 1927 - Springfield, Massachusetts, USA
The prominent American-born Swedish conductor, Herbert (Thorson)
Blomstedt, was born of Swedish parents, and moved with his family to
Sweden in 1929. He took courses at the Stockholm Musikhögskolan
and at the University of Uppsala. After conducting lessons with Igor
Markevitch in Paris, he continued his training with Jean Morel at the
Juilliard School of Music in New York and with Leonard Bernstein at the
Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, where he won the Koussevitzky
Prize in 1953. He also studied contemporary music in Darmstadt and
renaissance and baroque music at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and
worked with Igor Markevitch in Salzburg.
In February 1954 Herbert Blomstedt made his professional conducting
debut with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, then was music
director of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra from 1954 to 1961.
He subsequently held the post of first conductor of the Oslo
Philharmonic Orchestra from 1962 to 1968 while being concurrently
active as a conductor with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra in
Copenhagen, where he served as chief conductor from 1967 to 1977. From
1975 to 1985 he was chief conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle, with
which he toured over twenty European countries, the USA (1979, 1983),
and Japan. From 1977 to 1983 he was chief conductor of the Swedish
Radio Symphony Orchestra in Stockholm.
Herbert Blomstedt also appeared as a guest conductor with principal
orchestras of the world. As guest conductor, he has performed with
orchestras such as the Berliner Philharmoniker, Münchner
Philharmoniker, Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Boston Symphony
Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, New York
Philharmonic Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic
Orchestra as well as NHK Symphony, of which he is Honorary Conductor.
Herbert Blomstedt is Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony
Orchestra where he served as Music Director from 1985 to 1995, leading
it at its 75th-anniversary gala concert in 1986 and on a tour of Europe
in 1987. Throughout his tenure he and the San Francisco Symphony
Orchestra repeatedly appeared to critical acclaim at major European
concert venues and festivals including Edinburgh, Salzburg, Munich and
Lucerne. From 1996 to 1998, he was Music Director of the NDR
Sinfonieorchester Hamburg. With the season 1998-1999 he succeeded Kurt
Masur as Music Director of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, a post
which he maintained until the end of the season 2004-2005. Having been
appointed Honorary Conductor of this orchestra, he returns to Leipzig
regularly. In 2006, he was awarded the title of Honorary Conductor by
three more orchestras: the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Swedish
Radio Symphony Orchestra as well as the Bamberger Symphoniker, which he
has been conducting since 1982. In addition, he continues guest
conducting the world's most pre-eminent orchestras.
His extensive discography includes over 130 works with the Dresden
Staatskapelle, amongst them all symphonies of L.v. Beethoven and
Schubert. With the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra Herbert Blomstedt
recorded the complete works of Carl Nielsen. 1987 he and the San
Francisco Symphony Orchestra signed up an exclusive contract with Decca
and numerous of their recordings received major awards; his complete
cycles of the symphonies of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen enjoy
In January of 1988, Herbert Blomstedt was in Chicago to conduct the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As with many of these
conversations where English is not the first language of my guest, he
spoke very well and had no trouble with vocabulary. Grammatical
turns that reflect other languages have been fixed, but his occasional
use of a quaint word has been left in this text.
He graciously agreed to meet with me in his dressing room after a
performance, so we dove right into the discussion . . . . .
Thank you for seeing me after a long concert. Let’s start right
there. After a concert such as this, are you so exhausted that
you don’t want to do anything, or are you so up that you want to go out
and run around the streets for a while?
Not run around the streets, but I would like to do more music.
[Both laugh] It’s tiring, yes, but it’s also very refreshing and
inspiring. I could sit down and play string quartets for five
hours after this. That would be a wonderful dessert.
wouldn’t be too much concentration on pure music?
HB: I never
get tired of music.
never a time when it gets to be too much?
HB: It can be
sometimes too much of one kind. If I have to concentrate very
much on one piece for a long time, that can be very tiring. But
when I’m exhausted of one piece, if I play another piece then it’s
refreshing again. It’s not the music itself that’s tiring, it’s
the concentration on one thing.
BD: Do you
take this into account when you are building programs
— that your audience might get tired of one style or another
— so you balance each individual program that you do?
HB: No. The
composers have mostly taken care of that problem themselves. A
very long symphony, like one of the longer Bruckner symphonies or a
Mahler symphony, is very carefully planned to be able to be digested in
one mouthful, so to speak, in one evening. The diversion, the
diversity, is built into the piece. There is enough change and
difference of moods within the same style to keep everyone very alert.
concerts nowadays are almost two hours in length, and in the last
century they were three or three and a half or even four hours.
Is it better to have the concerts be just two hours now?
HB: I think
so definitely for our public today. It corresponds more to our
level of concentration. I’m sure also we listen more intensely
yes. I’m sure. When the concerts were three or four hours
long, there was much more talk and coffee drinking and so on, even
during music. Between movements there was applause, as you know,
which is considered a sacrilege by most of us today. But that was
also a diversion. Concerts were not only musical occasions, but
they were also social occasions in the eighteenth century and the
beginning of the nineteenth century. There were lots of
diversions in the concerts.
BD: For you,
where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the
diversion-ability of each piece?
HB: For us as
performers, the achievement is our top concern, of course. We are
one hundred percent concentrated on our task, which is such a
challenge, and the challenge of every bar, every part of the bar, even,
is changing. There are many, many things in every bar to be taken
care of, so that keeps both needs well filled — the
need for concentration on the one hand, and the need for diversity.
BD: You have
this huge amount of repertoire to choose from. How do you select
which pieces you will do, which pieces you’ll put off for a while, and
which pieces you might never do?
things play a role in this. The ideal situation — that
a musician sits down and plans an ideal repertoire for the coming ten
or twenty years — doesn’t exist. We are
dependent on many other factors, not only what we want to do, what we
like, what we like most, and what we also like but not so much.
We are dependent on those orchestras we play with. They also play
with other conductors who have other needs and other wishes. Also
the public has their wishes, which are legitimate. The composers
who live in our midst have their wishes, which are legitimate, and we
also need to build up a repertoire for ourselves as musicians at a pace
that makes sense, not playing all big pieces at once. Going from
simply learning our repertoire and the richness of the music, we cannot
take it in at once. That’s the work of practically a lifetime
before you feel that you are once through at least important part of
the repertoire. Then you should repeat it, because only with
repeated performances can you learn more. You learn by your own
mistakes, and enrich new performances of old pieces with the
experiences you have gained meanwhile.
BD: Is there
a chance that the vastness of the repertoire is simply too much to cope
HB: It is not
possible for any musician to play everything there is. That’s
just a fact. Even the classical repertoire — what
we call the classical, romantic repertoire from 1700 to 1988
— is so vast so nobody can do it. Haydn wrote one
hundred four numbered symphonies and some others which are not
numbered. Mozart wrote forty-one symphonies and several that are
not numbered. They are all interesting in their own way, and we
simply cannot take all of it. There are, of course, examples of
musicians who do complete recordings of even such things like Haydn
symphonies and Mozart symphonies. They are few, and that also
takes a price; then you have to refrain from doing some other
things. The repertoire is enormous and also thinking of what is
being written today at this very moment. Practically every
college of some reputation in this country has its composer-teacher,
and they are composing symphonies and concertos and chamber music all
BD: You are
one who would include music up through the present day as the classical
symphonic repertoire, which is in itself very rare. What do you
look for in the new pieces to decide whether or not you should learn
them or program them?
depends very much, first of all of course, on workmanship or
craftsmanship, whatever you call it. Is it a well-built
piece? Is it a real professional composer that wrote it?
That should be able to be recognized when you browse through the
score. Then lots of scores go to the side once you have decided
in what category it falls, but the pile of scores written by real
professionals, serious composers, is so vast! So you have to look
for more internal qualities of the work, and that takes time to
discover. Then there’s personal likes and dislikes. I think
the composer has the best chance of a good performance if the musician
that has chosen to perform the work feels in harmony with the style and
the technical demands of the piece. In the end, that plays a
great role. A conductor should have the most catholic tastes or
decisions, since he has responsibility towards a large public and
towards an orchestral association that is a great power in musical
BD: Too much
it’s a great influence; perhaps that’s a better word. Everyone
that has an influence also has power, of course. We have to have
quite catholic tastes. We cannot say, “I don’t like the composer
so I don’t perform it.” That’s not valid, really. We have
to be very, very broad and not exclude any style. That goes for
the total planning of a symphony season. Any musician, be he
conductor or violinist or oboe player or whatever, when he really
chooses the repertoire that he wants to take to his heart to perform
many times and deepen himself in again and again and again, then he
should be very choosy.
BD: Are we
getting the new pieces coming along which are being added to this
HB: I think
you’re optimistic about where music is going?
absolutely! There’s lots of wonderful music being written today.
advice do you have for composers who are writing either for the
orchestra or a chamber group?
HB: One of the
nicest things in America today is the composer-in-residence program,
where a composer becomes attached to a symphony orchestra for a period
of time — two years, three, four years, any time
that is agreed upon — and during this time he
lives with the orchestra practically. He listens to the concerts,
gets impulses from the players, acts as advisor on the question of new
music for the repertoire for the orchestra, and perhaps most important,
writes pieces for the orchestra — at least one piece a year that is
then performed by the orchestra. He knows that he has some secure
performances, and even takes them on tour abroad. It’s a large
commitment that the orchestra makes that should stimulate the composer
very much. Then the composer, on the other hand, influences the
players and the conductor. He should be full of the concerns of
the modern situation, the actual situation for composers today.
Adams is the composer-in-residence in San Francisco?
HB: He has
been; he is not anymore. He was the first of that kind in San
Francisco. Then Charles Wuorinen was composer-in-residence for a
period of four years, and we are now looking for his successor.
[See my Interview
with Charles Wuorinen] It’s a wonderful program, and I think
some ten orchestras or so in this country subscribe to this program or
benefit from this program.
Corigliano fills that position here in Chicago. [See my Interviews with John
Corigliano] Now, when Mr. Wuorinen gets through in San
Francisco, should he look for a similar position with another
orchestra, or should he go out and be on his own?
HB: I don’t
think composers look for positions like that; institutions look for the
BD: What I’m
asking is should these composers who are already doing this turn down
offers for a similar kind of thing, and should the orchestral
associations always try to find new talent, rather than have the same
few composers just be shuffling from city to city?
HB: It’s open
in all directions. It’s up to the composer, of course, to say yes
or no. He might not be interested in going to all orchestras for
many reasons — because of location or the
standards of the orchestra or the type of conductor they have or
whatever. It’s a little bit of a marriage situation. You
have to really like each other in order to get the benefit maximum from
such a collaboration. It’s not compulsory; if we don’t find one,
we don’t engage anybody. It’s just a benefit we have. If we
can find the right man, we are very happy to have him.
BD: So there
are not so many around that there is guarantee there will be someone
We might not find anyone. That would be tragic, but I’m sure
we’ll find someone.
BD: I can’t
imagine there being a situation where you would say, “There is no one
of sufficient caliber or sufficient talent or sufficient emotional
quality for that position.”
HB: There are
so many composers in this country, and very qualified people of
different categories! Some might be young, very promising,
starting, interesting personalities, with perhaps not so much
experience. They can benefit greatly from a program like this,
and the orchestras make no bad deal if they put their graces on such a
man, because they will be helping to form his future, and also put
their imprint on the way he composes. Willingly or unwillingly,
this will happen. How wonderful would that have been if the
Chicago Symphony could have had Beethoven as their
composer-in-residence when he was twenty years old! It would have
helped to form Beethoven as a composer.
BD: The other
side of that argument, though, is that he was certainly able to form
yes. It’s a mutual benefit, and that makes the program so
wonderful, but also, there might be an established composer that also
would be happy for such a collaboration. It gives security for a
time. I imagine for many composers such a situation is ideal, not
only for practical reasons, since this is also regulated income, but
they will feel that they are writing for somebody, not just writing out
in the open air with the hope that somebody will like it sometime,
perhaps long after they are dead. This way they are really
working for somebody that they can look in the eyes and shake the hands
of. That makes the composer have a definite role in
society. We are rather repeating, more or less, a situation that
has been in the time of Haydn. He was composer-in-residence for
all the orchestras have this, or just the major symphonies?
HB: I think
all symphonies could have it if they would like it. It’s a matter
of money also, of course. It costs money. Very close to San
Francisco there is the San Jose Symphony, which is a very good symphony
and a very ambitious symphony. There’s lots of public around, and
this could stimulate the interest of the public for new music.
back to the art of conducting, do you do all of your work in rehearsal,
or is there a little bit left for the inspiration of the moment during
HB: It’s very
much left. Rehearsals are absolutely necessary, of course.
We cannot do without them, but the real thing happens only at the
concerts. Rehearsals are played with great seriousness and it’s
hard work, but the real thing is the concerts, and the concert might be
entirely different from the rehearsals. The rehearsals lay down
the framework and serve for mutual understanding of the piece as the
object of our love for the moment.
allows for an understanding of where it can go?
HB: No, where it
should go. It is the general frame of laying down tempos,
balances, phrasings, articulations, and so on, and then at the concert,
small but very important variations of this is taking place all the
time. Not a single concert is the same. If you repeat the
program four times, as we do regularly in Chicago, no two performances
will be alike.
HB: Looked at
from a distance, it will not differ very much for the general
public. For us, who feel every small deviation either as a thorn
in our flesh or as a source of immense joy, the differences are
BD: Are there
usually more joys than thorns?
HB: I think
both have to be there to be true to life. The Chicago Symphony is
a great orchestra, and that guarantees that there would be lots of
joys. But any musician is a human being and is, to a certain
degree, subject to the frailty that is typically human, and anything
can happen during a concert. That is really what makes concerts
so exciting. They are not gramophone recordings that repeat
themselves every time you plug in the switch. They are all the
time different, and music is meant to be like that. Music is not
like a painting or a lithograph; it’s something that is constantly
being recreated, and therefore is so immensely alive and makes
everybody involved — listeners or players — so
BD: For you,
what is the ultimate purpose of music in society?
HB: That’s a
big, big question. Taking it from the most serious aspect, music
can be an enormous ethical force in society. (I’m speaking now of
the kind of music we are dealing with.) Music can also be a curse
— and I’m sure music is a curse in part of society
— but the music that we are talking about can be an enormous
ethical force. The performance of music should result, ideally,
in everybody that listens or performs it to decide to make something
different, to be different, to change something in his life. To
be confronted with ultimate beauty is a challenge to what is actually
happening in my own life. Beauty has so many aspects, and beauty
is not just nice sounds. (I’m speaking of “beauty”
in the broad sense.) The Rite
of Spring of Stravinsky is a beautiful work. It has lots
of very strange and even ugly sounds when superficially looked at, but
it’s a beautiful ugliness! It’s an intended ugliness when it is
ugly. It’s really a wonderful beauty within, and the
confrontation with such beauty, when it is well-performed, always
touches the listener and makes him wish something that he perhaps might
not be able to define at the moment — or even
want to define at the moment. I’m not so naïve that I think
that everybody goes out of the concert hall after a Bruckner symphony
saying, “I won’t do so many bad things tomorrow. I’ll treat my
wife nicer,” but something in this direction, I think, is really
true. To experience the order and beauty of great music brings
the listener in contact with something that is greater than himself,
something that is meant to be perfect and beautiful and positive, and
this is one of the greatest blessings of great music. This, I
think, is the most important. It also brings other things, of
course. It brings people together with good intent. It
brings lots of joy. It’s also entertainment. It’s a good
way to perhaps get away from some frustrations in life, but those are
all things on the fringe. I think the main raison d’être for serious
music, and for our involvement in serious music — certainly for mine —
is that it has a potential for changing lives, for helping lives to
reach ultimate happiness or meaning.
you mentioned recordings. Do you conduct differently in the
recording studio than you do in the concert hall?
really. The technique of working is a little bit different;
perhaps it resembles more the rehearsal situation. We repeat
things. Perhaps a five minute-long passage might be done three
times or four times and it might be a little bit different every time.
BD: A little
HB: In some
ways better, but certainly in all instances different! [Both
laugh] It’s a matter of what is “better”
in music. It may be an obvious case where
we have a sour note or somebody starts too early or doesn’t play at
all. That can happen, but it certainly will be different, and
it’s up to the conductor and the producer to choose what we really
prefer. It has to be very intense, and it certainly is intense
during a recording session. It must recreate the spirit of the
actual performance in the concert hall. It should be unique and
not just one choice of several possibilities. It should not be
heard like that, and that, of course, is a contradiction because a
recording is a choice of many versions.
BD: Do you
feel that a record which has eliminated all of the mistakes and had all
the sections chosen for the best possibilities sets up an impossible
standard that you can’t duplicate in the concert hall?
HB: A little
bit, but I don’t feel that’s a great risk at all. A few mistakes
in a concert — granted the performance in all
other respects is very alive and concentrated and beautiful
— really doesn’t mar the experience of a listener. I
don’t think so. On the contrary, it might even make the listener
realize for a while he was human after all. Many people went to a
Heifetz concert just to hear him possibly make a mistake — which
would happen once a year or something — and
having been present at that concert when he played F sharp instead of
an F would be very unique, something to boast about. But a
mistake now and then by an artist that is so perfect as Heifetz, I
think, even makes the public feel rather good. After all, he was
BD: Do you
ever feel that the concerts are like contests, where the audience is
waiting for you to fall over?
HB: I don’t
think so. I never experienced that. After all, in a
symphony orchestra the fault factor is multiplied by a hundred.
There are a hundred Heifetzes sitting in the orchestra, so faults will
happen a hundred times more often. It does happen all the time.
BD: Are the
hundred players really on Heifetz’s level?
that’s just an odd comparison since we were speaking of Heifetz.
The orchestral musician today has a technical and musical level that is
astonishing. I am pretty sure that orchestras a few generations
back had no idea of how high the technical standards would develop, as
they are today.
BD: Are they
HB: I think
BD: So twenty
or thirty or forty years from now they will be even more astonishing?
HB: I think
so. That’s one of the wonderful things with this marriage of
technique and art that music is. There’s really no limit because
music is not just technique. If it’s just the absence of mistakes
that counts, then you can rather go into Olympics or computer
science. But it’s married to art and the way you shape
things. There are a million ways of avoiding mistakes, and not
all of them are very good. The sensitivity of players is
constantly growing. The demands on them are growing. The
competition is growing.
technical level keeps going up. Is their musical level also
continuing to rise?
necessarily always; that goes in ups and downs. Speaking of
orchestras, it is absolutely clear that the technical level has been
rising, and even during my short lifetime there is an enormous
difference. But we know that the technical advancement in music
does not necessarily parallel musical advancement. Technical
advancement can also happen at the cost of musical sense.
Unfortunately, that’s possible.
also been professor of conducting for many years. Is there any
way to teach musical sense?
yes. If it was not possible, then we would be in for very sad
times. But there are many ways of teaching it. You cannot,
of course, teach musical sense in the same way as you teach a class in
BD: I assume that
the baton technique is the least of your worries.
HB: It’s very
important for one specific reason, and that’s that the conducting
technique is such a relatively recent profession. We play the
violin more or less the same as we did three hundred years ago, more or
BD: But you
don’t have Lully beating the stick on the floor anymore. [Both
HB: The way
you lead the musical group has really been changing very much, and that
parallels, of course, the way the compositions are written for
orchestra. The demands on the orchestra are different, and they
demand other qualities of the conductor. In order to parallel the
enormous technical advancement of the orchestra, the conductor should
parallel that; he should go with that. A conductor with a
technique that is of the Stone Age cannot be of full service to an
orchestra in the Jet Age, to put things very bluntly. So it is
very important, and I think every orchestra musician would agree to
that. Much too often the conductors they are exposed to don’t
have the technical facilities that they really need in order to help
the orchestra do their job. But that’s only one side of the
conductor’s work. More important is the musical abilities he has,
the imagination he has, the sensitivity he has for musical sounds.
vision he has?
vision he has, the personal attitude he has towards the music, the
loyalties he feels towards the composer, how he evaluates himself,
where he puts himself in the triangle — the work, the public, the
orchestra. Where does he fit? What is his job,
really? Also very important is the way he can work with a group
BD: You keep
saying ‘he.’ Are there some women conductors that you have had in
Yes. I have even had some very talented ones.
BD: Is there
any difference at all between the conducting abilities or talents or
reactions from men to women?
HB: I think
so. It’s difficult for me to imagine any of the women conductors
that I have known to be in charge of a great orchestra.
[Genuinely surprised] Why???
HB: I cannot
imagine that those persons that I know could do it. It’s not
because of their sex, it’s because of the persons.
BD: Oh, I
see. So there might be an equal number of men about whom you
would say exactly the same thing?
HB: Oh, yes!
couldn’t imagine them in charge.
no. It’s such a special set-up of abilities, attitudes and
character, apart from musical abilities that is needed to make a
conductor. I cannot see any theoretical reason why a woman should
not have those. There is no theoretical reason why she
shouldn’t. What I said were just the facts of those people I
know. It’s not because they are women, it is because they are the
women they are. It’s a very interesting question. Music
makes so many different demands on a conductor. Speaking of the
very limited experience I had with some women students, some of them
have been doing wonderful things with pieces like Firebird Suite of
Stravinsky. Colorful pieces require lots of flair and
intuition apart from the technical abilities. On the other hand,
I have never seen one of my women students who have been really
successful in a Beethoven symphony, for instance. It requires,
perhaps, more power, and I don’t mean physical power. There is a
mental force that must be behind the conductor in shaping some of
Beethoven’s music. But I see no reason why a woman that I don’t
happen to know yet should not be equipped with that. After all,
there are lots of men who are also very feminine in their attitudes,
and many women who are quite masculine in their attitudes.
BD: So it’s
all completely individual, then?
Really. It’s individual from case to case.
BD: Is it the
responsibility of every conductor to find something new in every score?
wouldn’t put it that way. If that was our responsibility we would
start at the wrong end. I would vary your question a little
bit. If you allow me to say that if the conductor —
or whatever the musician is — does not find
anything new in the score, then that person is not the right musician
for the piece.
BD: Is this
what makes a great work, that there’s always something new to be found,
which separates it from a lesser work that can be plumbed very easily?
HB: In a way,
yes. The richer the work is in composition, in how it’s put
together, the richer it is in emotional values, the richer it is in
vision and depth, the easier it is to always find new things in
it. But to hunt for them would be to often take a very
superficial view of the lake, so to speak. If you are going to
the lake and just looking at the bottom for some clams that nobody has
found before, you might miss the whole lake just staring for some
details. But when you go through the lake — or
whatever piece of nature you choose to take as a comparison
— with open eyes and open senses, you are bound to discover
new things all the time.
BD: I want to
be sure and ask you about working in Dresden. Is it special to be
with this orchestra which has such a long continuous history?
HB: The long
history of the Dresden Staatskapelle is, of course, part of their
character, part of the specifics of the orchestra, but it’s not the
dominating part of it. Dresden is a very special city.
There are few cities in the world that have been so completely
dominated by the arts as Dresden. Perhaps only a couple of other
cities in the world have been like that — Munich,
Vienna, Venice. Dresden was the capital of Saxonia and the
Saxonian kings were very powerful and very vain, as most kings of that
time. They wanted to show off their riches and their power with
valuable objects of art, wonderful opera performances, the costliest
trappings, and they spared no money and effort to get the best
musicians for Dresden.
BD: Were they
looking for the right things for the wrong reasons?
HB: Perhaps you
could say that. But I think some of them got to love music as a
result of this. What was the device of the Roman Emperors? “Give
the people bread and circuses and they will not revolt.”
The Saxonian kings cared for their people, gave them jobs and bread and
defended their borders, but they also gave them entertainment of a high
order. Especially for their visitors who wanted to see their
splendor, they put on the very best. It’s like a parade of the
greatest names when you look at the history of the orchestra.
Their first music director was Johann Walter, who was the musical
collaborator of Luther. The first German opera was written by
Heinrich Schütz, who is mostly known as a composer for the church
a hundred years before Bach. He was in charge of the various Staatskapelle for over fifty
years. Of course, at that time the orchestra was not a symphony
orchestra; it was a royal chapel of players and singers, at times very
small. That was the time of the Thirty Years War. Sometimes
the glorious opera orchestra would go down to just a few members, a few
singers and players, but it was continuous, and that is why the Dresden
Staatskapelle has a long history. It was continuous all the time.
BD: Do you
think that Schütz is looking down and is pleased with what he sees?
HB: I’m sure
he’s not pleased with everything. Then there was Hasse, the great
opera composer. “The Great Saxon”
they called him in Italy. He was more famous than Mozart.
BD: Now do
you make a point of playing music of Johann Adolph Hasse?
it’s not so easy. There is a jubilee coming up right now for
Hasse, and we have been making efforts to revive some of his
operas. That has not been very successful, though. He used
a very trendy way of composition that exposed the voice — very often of
the castrati — as much as possible, and the
richness of the composition was sacrificed to the admiration of a
single vocal line. We look upon Hasse a little differently today
than he was looked upon in his own day, but it is interesting to note
that in his days, he was considered the great opera composer in
Germany, not Mozart. Then Weber was the music director of the
Dresden Orchestra, and he was the one that instigated the typical
German opera. Der
Freischütz is a typical Dresden piece. The
inspiration for it is just outside of Dresden a few miles, where the
cave can be seen which fostered his idea of molding this ammunition of
BD: Do you
ever go out there and call on Samiel to give you a little assistance?
HB: Oh, yes,
I’ve been there! [Both laugh] Wagner was music director of
the Dresden Orchestra for several years until he was thrown out because
he was too revolutionary in 1848. Dresden was the venue where
Strauss premiered most of his operas at the beginning of this
century. The orchestra has a tremendous history, and very great
conductors and composers are attached to their histories. So of
course that’s a special challenge for every player in the orchestra,
and for every conductor of the orchestra that is an immense
stimulus. But that would be just floating free in the air if it
was not built up by a continuous need for great music in the city of
those who live there. They demand it! You don’t have to
educate them to go to concerts. The problem is not that; the
problem is to get them the chance to hear enough music. In
Dresden nobody can have a subscription for more than three concerts a
year because the demand is so great. That way they can
accommodate a little bit more people. If you are lucky, you can
inherit the season ticket of three a year.
BD: Is the
temptation great to give more and more concerts, and overwork the
HB: They work
very hard, it’s true, but they cannot work any more than they do.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Oh, but a man with a computer print-out might say,
“Let’s give one more performance of each concert, and we can
accommodate another few hundred people.”
HB: [With a
big smile] Well, it doesn’t work like that, fortunately.
They have very few computers — at least when I
BD: Is that
one of the things that is ruining the American orchestras, the
computers are used too much?
HB: I don’t
think so. I think they are helping the American orchestra if they
are well used. The Dresden Orchestra is an opera orchestra.
They play opera every night, practically. They play three hundred
opera performances a year! Before the old opera house was
restored in ‘85, they played in two venues, a big house and a small
house. The orchestra is a hundred forty-five members, so it can
be split. They can play two operas on the same evening.
BD: Or an
opera and a concert?
symphony concerts are on, there’s nothing else. But there can be
a recording session for the St.
Matthew Passion and a concert at the same time. That’s
BD: Have you
done much opera?
Dresden I did lots of opera.
BD: Why no
HB: Opera is
not my first love. I never conducted an opera until I came
to Dresden, and perhaps I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t gone to
BD: It didn’t
grabbed me, definitely, but only under certain conditions; only when
the conditions are ideal, and they were ideal in Dresden sometimes, but
very rarely. The orchestra was always good; they always
concentrated. They were fabulously musical and as powerful in the
opera pit as they were in any concert or recording session. The
moment it was on, there was an enormous concentration, even if we
performed without rehearsal. Premieres are always rehearsed very
carefully, but then once a piece has premiered, it’s repeated without
rehearsal a week later, two weeks later, a month later.
BD: Even with
a different cast?
HB: Even with
a different cast. The conductor rehearses with the singers at the
piano, but even if the orchestra plays night after night a different
opera that they hadn’t played in a week or a month or three months or
four months or even a year, it’s perfect. That was, of course, a
joy. The standards of singing were not at all as high, as most of
the singers were already in the west and there was no money to get them
back, and the dominance of the producers was a constant itch or
BD: The one
opera recording you’ve made is Leonora.
Why Leonora and not Fidelio?
there are so many Fidelios
around and no Leonoras.
This was planned for the 1977 anniversary of Beethoven, two hundred
fifty years after his death, and we thought we needed to take a new
look at Leonora. We
asked exactly the opposite question as you asked, “Why always Fidelio? Why not Leonora?” Leonora is the dramatically weaker
version, but what I was not aware of was that it is the musically
richer version. It’s more symphonic, and in that way, perhaps,
suited even better for recording than for the opera house.
pleased with that recording?
HB: It was my
first and my only opera recording. I haven’t listened to it, I
must say, but it was a joy to do it.
BD: Are you
pleased with all the symphonic recordings you’ve made?
little pleases me. Once something is done I tend to forget it,
and at times when I go back and listen to an old recording of mine, I’m
always very frustrated because it doesn’t fit with what I want to do
now. All artists are completely changing all the time.
Ideals change; even if we are basically the same persons, our outlook
is gradually shifting all the time. We pay more attention to
certain things and less attention to others, and that makes us always
wanting to do things differently — not for the
sake of forcing something different on our public or on ourselves or
our musicians, but because we have become different.
BD: How does
the Chicago Symphony stack up with Dresden or the Danish Orchestra or
the San Francisco Orchestra?
Well, every orchestra is so different. Everybody knows that the
Chicago Symphony is a great orchestra, and I love the orchestra, but
it’s not the Dresden Orchestra, neither is the Dresden Orchestra the
Chicago Symphony. Also the San Francisco Symphony is a wonderful
symphony, but it’s not the Chicago Symphony.
BD: So you
can do different things in each one?
sure. It’s like they are like persons; they’re all
different. Each has a collective personality, which I mean in the
good sense. I don’t mean that they are faceless and anonymous at
all, but they are really dominated by a few personalities. That’s
true. I noticed that often. In all the orchestras I’ve been
associated with, the character of the orchestra is dominated by perhaps
a dozen musicians who are not a kind of Mafia at all, but through their
attitude and their personal best-dressed influence as individuals.
BD: Do they
tend to be the first desk players?
HB: They tend
to be the first desks, but not necessarily. Their attitudes are
so strong — for good and for bad — that
they dominate the orchestra. This is very interesting to notice,
and I think it’s true of all orchestras. In Dresden
— and I mean this in a good way, not in a bad
way that he was always talking or intriguing or something — one
of the most dominating players was the assistant concertmaster. I
mean musically dominating, simply through his musical strength.
He never sat in the first chair. In earlier times I’m sure he
sometimes did, and in fact I had him in the first chair sometimes in
the opera, but he was not the typical solo player. He was mostly
sitting in the second chair. He was a fabulous musician, small,
tiny-sized, but with influence over his group. That was
absolutely stunning! Just through a small movement of his head or
his shoulder, he could change the sound of the whole group. He
was not a man of great gestures and talks, and he never said anything
during rehearsal. This was all just through his attitude.
If he felt the group was playing too loud, he would just do this
[hunches over a little bit]. The sound of the group changed
immediately. That was a wonderful help for me to grow into this
orchestra and to understand their traditions and their values. I
did not come to Dresden to change that orchestra. It was a great
orchestra. I think I contributed something very positive to
them. I don’t need to talk about that here, but I certainly
wanted to learn the ways and tradition of this orchestra because I felt
that I had lots of things to learn there. I was very happy for
the association with the orchestra.
BD: Are you
doing the same thing in San Francisco now?
another way, yes. I think if the conductor is not learning, he is
dead. But the situation there is completely different, of course,
than with Dresden. Getting back to your question, however,
orchestras are like different persons and you cannot say that you value
some more, you like somebody better or even worse, that this is better
or this is not so good. If your question implied is the Chicago
Symphony as good as the Dresden Orchestra, I would not try to answer
such a question. Or is the San Francisco Symphony as good as the
Chicago Symphony? I wouldn’t even try to answer a question.
understand, and that is perfectly fine. But as you perceive them,
what are the differences?
HB: The San
Francisco Symphony is, in a very special way, a young orchestra.
Not only is the mean age of the player lower than some of the other
great orchestras in the United States — which it
is — but I’m thinking more of the spirit of the
orchestra, which comes from the fact that they have been in this
existing set-up for only eight years. Before that they were
associated with the opera, and they played opera and concerts.
Now since 1980, it’s strictly a symphony orchestra that plays no
opera. There’s another orchestra which plays the opera.
BD: Is it
better for them, or is it going to mean they will miss something?
definitely better for them, and it has been better for the opera, too,
to have an orchestra of its own that they don’t have to share with a
concert-giving orchestra. So it’s been better for both
institutions. Certainly the symphony orchestra has grown
immensely through this split. It’s the orchestra that is young in
outlook and attitude and ambition. I think I can speak for them
when I say the feeling is that they are better than their reputation,
which is a much better starting point than the reverse. [Both
laugh] This is an orchestra with a great name, but they have
problems right now. That can happen to anybody, and is perhaps
not so tragic when you find a way out of it. But the situation is
wonderful when you have a great group of players who are still not
recognized to their true greatness. This stimulates and excites
the player very much, and this is what makes them so young in
attitude. You feel that they are coming, coming, coming.
Their greatness is still in their future, and they are growing
extremely fast. It’s a wonderful atmosphere in the
orchestra. This is my first experience with the Chicago Symphony,
and it has been wonderful for me to make music with them! The
situation is completely different than in San Francisco. Chicago
is an orchestra with a tremendous experience. They claim the
great conductors. They have been carried on the hands of the
world public for many years. That can be also dangerous for an
orchestra to have such a history, but I have not found that this has
been negative to the orchestra at all. They have the same love
for music-making and the same appetite for great music as a young
orchestra. Their humility versus the work of art that they are
dealing with — the composition — is
wonderful. There are true artists at every desk. This is
one of the great joys of a conductor, to deal with an orchestra that
has both the undisputed greatness, and at the same time the humility
and the desire to make the best of every opportunity.
BD: One last
question. Is conducting fun?
HB: If you want a
yes or no, I cannot answer the question! [Both laugh]
Conducting gives me immense joy for many reasons. First of all, I
can deal with the greatest music. Some of the greatest music is
written for the orchestra. A great deal of the greatest music is
written for orchestra. There’s lot of wonderful music written for
string quartets, for the piano, as we all know, but some of the
greatest composers have reserved their greatest efforts for the
orchestra. I think that’s undisputed. That’s a great
privilege. Then there is the joy of dealing with absolute
masterworks and dealing with orchestras that are so refined and so
wonderfully equipped with wonderful musicians — as
for instance the Chicago Symphony. It puts its stamp on every
musician that is associated with this kind of music and with this kind
of musician. How can you devote your life to studying Beethoven
symphonies or Bruckner symphonies without being a little bit colored by
the object of your love? I’m not saying that we are perfect and
that we are any way saints, but I cannot imagine what our life would be
without it. It has put its stamp on our values, on our sense of
beauty, and we are so much richer with it. For the conductor
especially there is special satisfaction of being, in a very special
way, in the midst of all this music-making. We get to look into
the eyes of a hundred musicians who all love the same music we are
doing with the same fervor, and have only one desire which is to make
as a rich and fully experienced and perfect a performance as
possible. These are musicians who are willing at any moment to
sacrifice his or her own vanity — which we all have — for the sake of a
neighbor who happens to have a solo right now, and to wait for your
opportunity a couple of bars later when it’s your turn, not only
because the conductor demands it but because the music demands
it. To see the musicians experience this and who are willing to
subdue personal likes or dislikes for a moment for the common value, to
see how this is done with absolute conviction and abandon is a
wonderful experience! I feel always very attached to my
musicians. Making music with them is like touching their most
holy parts. How could it be otherwise? The emotional
contact is so intense that it’s unforgettable. That’s why I
cannot forget a musician that I have played with. It’s like being
married to this person when we have made music together, and that is a
very special joy. But all this, of course, also has its
hardships. It’s enormous hard work. You have to sacrifice
many other things, perhaps things that you also love to do, such as
being able to devote more time for hobbies, or above all, for your
family. You have to concentrate on one thing, then arrange a set
of priorities in a way that is sometimes painful for yourself and also
for your family and others. So it’s not a dance on roses.
You also have to cope with failure. After all, a hundred
musicians can make a hundred more mistakes than one musician. The
apparatus is so complicated! It takes lots of skill and some luck
to make it work, and as time goes on we get more and more sensitive to
the mishaps that happen. Our standards become very high. I
don’t mean that in a haughty way at all; we just simply notice more
mistakes the more experience we get. We have to cope with
that. It’s really terrible to have the feeling after every
concert that this was not so good, this was not so good, this was not
so good, this could have been better. If that dominates our
feeling, conducting is a nightmare.
BD: I trust
you don’t find that dominates your feeling!
don’t. I don’t find that at all. Sometimes I’m very
unhappy, of course; every musician is. But most of the time the
joys and the beauty far outweighs the weariness or the failures, which
is one of the wonderful things with the music. It stimulates so
much. It’s a perfect blend of beauty and of truth, a sort of
absolute, un-discussible truth that really speaks of some ultimate
truth that is difficult to formulate, but I know that everyone is
BD: Thank you
for being a conductor, and thank you for spending the time with me this
afternoon. It has been very enlightening.
HB: Thank you.
As noted below, I presented special
programs featuring Herbert Blomstedt three times on WNIB. 1992
marked his 65th birthday and it was celebrated with many of his
recordings scattered throughout the month, as well as segments from the
interview. It was all listed in the Program Guide, and I sent him
a copy. A few weeks later I received the following reply . . . .
. . . . . .
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded backstage at Orchestra
Hall in Chicago on January 8, 1988. Sections
were used (along with
recordings) on WNIB in 1990, 1992 and 1997.
It was transcribed
and posted on this
website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.