During Herbert Blomstedt's 1985-95 tenure as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic would regularly call on him the way you and I might a plumber. When intonation was mucked up, sectional balances not quite right, nothing flowed as it should, he'd fix it.
As a result, we tend to respect Blomstedt as a serious, dutiful orchestra builder, a rock-solid musician who blandly goes about his business. In San Francisco, he's known for having straightened out a sloppy orchestra, for having prepared the way for Michael Tilson Thomas.
Saturday night, Blomstedt led the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Expectations weren't high. The Concertgebouw's colorful and venturesome departing music director, Riccardo Chailly, is not exiting gracefully and opted out of this final American tour of his 16 years on the job. The programming of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Fourth indicated that Blomstedt was uninterested in stretching beyond the routine. And since when does this Dutch ensemble -- long one of the world's handful of top orchestras -- need a Mister Fix-It?
Yet it was a great concert.
Blomstedt brings little new to the table as an interpreter, so the experience wasn't like hearing the "Jupiter" or the Tchaikovsky Fourth for the first time. Instead, it was like hearing them for the zillionth time, only better. It was all about quality.
The quality began with the orchestra and how it responded to Blomstedt. For all of Chailly's having enticed a highly conservative group of musicians into, first, the 20th and then the 21st century, it was no secret that they found him too flashy for their tastes, and they didn't always give him their best.
Clearly, though, they like Blomstedt's gravitas. And interestingly, they responded with such superbly dexterous playing that it made the sober Blomstedt seem livelier than I'd remembered him.
What was perhaps most surprising about Blomstedt's performances was how well this Swedish American conductor brought out the Concertgebouw's inherent Dutch characteristics. In the Mozart, which he conducted without using baton or podium, the way specialists in early music do, Blomstedt paid heed to the fact that Amsterdam is the capital of original-instrument period practice. With clean, nearly vibrato-less string tone, crisply smart brass and spring-water-fresh winds, the "Jupiter" sparkled.
For Tchaikovsky, Blomstedt ascended a cherry-red podium that clashed with Segerstrom Hall's burgundy walls. The effect was almost as if OCPAC wanted to give us a visual sign that its functionally antiseptic acoustics stand in contrast to those of the Concertgebouw, the incomparably mellow Amsterdam hall in which the orchestra plays and from which it takes its name and sound.
Another surprise, then, was that Blomstedt got something remarkably close to the Concertgebouw home sound for this Tchaikovsky. The colors were clearly Dutch. The rich, dark power of Rembrandt could be sensed in the extraordinary brass call that opens the symphony; the lustrous, homey warmth of Vermeer came through in the sumptuous winds (the bassoon solos by Gustavo Nunez were smooth as butter) and silken strings. What didn't work quite so well in Segerstrom was the percussive bursts or the show-offy piccolo; in the Concertgebouw, these would probably sound less grating.
Most impressive of all was the way Blomstedt kept everything tightly together. A more expressive Tchaikovsky conductor can find a world of emotion in individual lines; a more exciting one can give this symphony a more striking impact. But in letting the symphony and the orchestra speak for themselves, Blomstedt conveyed an eloquence that was in a class of its own.
In the fall, the expansive, if uneven, Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons will become the Concertgebouw's sixth music director in its 116-year history. But the orchestra would do well to keep Blomstedt around as well. Even the best orchestras need regular tuneups.