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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Concert Review: The Original King of Comedy

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Herbert Blomstedt at the helm of the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 New York Philharmonic.
The two symphonies that Beethoven wrote while convalescing at a spa in 1812 occupy a cherished place in the orchestral repertory. No. 7 and No. 8 have consecutive opus numbers, (No. 92 and 93, respectively) and represent a composer determined to grasp the idea of joy with both hands even when facing serious health problems and considerable personal hardship.

These two symphonies occupied the entire concert program at the New York Philharmonic this week, under the steady and unerring direction of visiting Swedish maestro Herbert Blomstedt. Mr. Blomstedt is an infrequent visitor to the podium in David Geffen Hall but is always a welcome one. He chose to present this pair of symphonies in reverse order, with the shorter Eighth opening the concert.

At Friday's matinee concert, Mr. Blomstedt employed an unusual seating arrangement for the Philharmonic players. Normally, the violas are to the right of the conductor along the lip of the stage. That place was occupied by the second violins, which enabled Mr. Blomstedt to produce the antiphonal effects that are written into the first movement of the Eighth. By seating the violas behind the first violins, it was easier for this larger group to play en bloc against the massed voices of the rest of the orchestra.

The Eighth is one of Beethoven's shortest symphonies and finds the composer at his most playful. It has no slow movements, but bubbles along in a sense of celebration and dance. The second movement, with its manic, comic portrayal of a metronome on the verge of nervous collapse draws a smile. It was followed by a warm and folksy menuetto and the sprinting finale, in which conductor and orchestra pulled out all the stops in pursuit of a comic apotheosis.

The Seventh also relies on dance rhythms, though its message is far more serious. The symphony opened with a majestic introduction, a slow crescendo, a deep breath and then a launch into a rapid-fire Allegro. This is a perfectly formed sonata movement, shot through with distinctly Viennese dance rhythms as it races through statement, development and a thunderous recapitulation.

The Adagietto followed, one of the best known and most quoted Beethoven movements, having been used for everything from French revolutionary hymns to accompanying the climax of the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech. Mr. Blomstedt kept his foot firmly on the accelerator here, avoiding the usual Jurassic tread to give this grief-wracked music a chance to breathe in a fresh and spontaneous way.

The last two movements are dances, building to a manic finale. At its conclusion the horns and valve trumpets came charging through the gap provided by the strings and winds. This rondo mounted into a celebratory frenzy, the sound of the Mount Olympus village band drunkenly celebrating a win over the Norse pantheon. The players partied down on their own virtuosity, as a tintinnabulation of bell-like chords celebrated the power of music to defeat depression. In the final coda, the band turned merrily to march up the street, ending with a series of cheerful final chords.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.