Review: At 91, a Conductor Inspires the New York Philharmonic

Review: At 91, a Conductor Inspires the New York Philharmonic

If you didn’t know that the esteemed conductor Herbert Blomstedt was 91, you never would have guessed it from observing him in action with the New York Philharmonic on Thursday at David Geffen Hall. Still trim and agile, with thick white hair and plenty of stamina, he led vibrant accounts of works by Grieg and Dvorak, moving steadily and cuing the players with elegant, unfussy gestures.

Naturalness in music-making is a hard quality to define. But there is no better way to describe the glowing, unforced performances Mr. Blomstedt drew from the Philharmonic.

In a way, it was risky to begin with Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1. How do you rescue this beloved staple from predictability? Actually, conductors may be avoiding it for that very reason: This was the first Philharmonic performance of the suite in almost 16 years. Mr. Blomstedt’s rendering abounded in freshness and character.

In “Morning,” the first piece, he shaped the lapping melody in the strings, which gently dips and rises, with lovely flow and directness. By acutely voicing the sonorities in the subdued yet tragic “Ase’s Death,” Mr. Blomstedt made a case for Grieg as an inspired harmonist. “Anitra’s Dance” sparkled and teased. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” — music known to anyone who watched cartoons on television as a child — was all the more ominous for the hulking, eerily restrained and heavy-footed way it began here, building inexorably to brassy terror.

Another Grieg staple, the Piano Concerto in A minor, was offered next, with the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet conveying the music’s rhapsodic sweep and bold contrasts as soloist. There was plenty of Mr. Thibaudet’s trademark refinement in his playing of lacy, ruminative, lyrical passages. He dispatched bursts of arpeggios and spiraling figures with virtuosic élan. Yet I especially liked the way he tore into vehement episodes: He tossed off bursts of double octaves with steely fortissimo sound, and brought earthy rawness to the driving left-hand chords and crunchy theme that opens the finale, which sounded like a dark Norwegian dance.

Mr. Blomstedt ended with a spirited account of Dvorak’s hearty Eighth Symphony. It can be hard to make the episodic final movement hang together, but he found common ground between sections in which the stately theme is played with Brahmsian majesty and sudden outbursts when that music is turned into a rowdy Bohemian dance. This performance captured the musical variety while making the movement seem structurally integrated.

The players enthusiastically applauded Mr. Blomstedt, along with the audience. He is not on the Philharmonic’s guest conductor roster for next season, alas. That he’ll be busy elsewhere seems a pretty good bet.

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