In the presence of greatness or...when the cocoa had to wait
Last night, at an hour when most 95 year-olds would be draining the last dregs of their bedtime cocoa, a 95-year old was enchanting a full house at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank with a programme of Mozart and Bruckner. The nonagenarian in question is the conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, who has played all the great classical music venues.
It is true that Blomstedt is not 95 until July and it is also true that there were a very few scattered empty seats in the 2,700-seat auditorium. But by any standard, this was a remarkable feat. For Bruckner’s hour-long 7th symphony, he remained standing (occasionally almost dancing) on the podium. A score had been placed on the conductor’s desk but he did not open it. For the Mozart, a conductor’s score was nowhere to be seen.
Standing ovations came at the end of both pieces – the audience calling him back repeatedly. During his five or six returns at the end of the concert the Blomstedt body-language managed somehow to convey appreciation and gratitude for the applause – but without feeding on it! He channelled so much of the applause, first to the soloist in the Mozart piano concerto and then to the orchestra and to the sections prominent in the performance of each piece. Eventually, the orchestra twice refused to stand at his direction insisting that he alone should take a bow.
Strangely enough, and for reasons which would take too long to explain, we feel we can call the maestro a friend. This is not the first time he has surprised us with complimentary tickets before his concerts. This time we accepted his invitation to go and meet him backstage afterwards – after all, we thought, who knows when we’re going to get this sort of opportunity again! When we arrived, we found him standing at the exit from the stage– rather like the vicar at a church door after the service, shaking hands with every single member of the orchestra as they left the stage. The mutual warmth was palpable. Mike said to him: ‘There’s a lot of people out there who love you’. ‘And I love them’, was his immediate response. And it’s clearly true! The member of the orchestra on guard at the stage door said to us as we left, ‘What a wonderful man. The musicians love him. We have had such a good time with him in rehearsals this week.’ Obviously, we were not alone in feeling that we were in the presence of greatness of some kind.
Today, Herbert left London for Switzerland where he has four concerts next week. The pace he keeps up would exhaust us, let alone many other people in their 90s. We asked him once how someone at his advanced age could still find the energy to undertake such a demanding role. He talked about the wonder of music-making together. Then he talked, as he always does, about his Christian faith sustaining him in the highly demanding world of professional music-making at the highest level. He believes that it is God who gives him the physical and emotional strength to navigate his way through the music and any tensions among the musicians. In his writing and speaking he regularly reminds his audience that music is a gift of God and that it is God who gives such rare gifts to composers. When we thanked him for the music, he responded with one word, ‘Heaven’!
We would add a slightly different perspective. Amid all the distractions and temptations of a high-profile musical career, Herbert Blomstedt has somehow managed to hold on to his humanity. We are inspired by the expression in his life of the belief that music-making is a shared enterprise in which everyone matters. And that, perhaps, is religion at its best.
And so we returned home inspired and happy. To drink our cocoa. Which was served rather later than usual.