‘They play better for me now I can’t fire them’: an audience with the world’s most senior conductor

He may be 93, but Herbert Blomstedt is still working, and tells our critic how overjoyed he is to be back on the podium

Back with baton: Herbert Blomstedt will conduct the Lucerne Festival Orchestra tonight
Back with baton: Herbert Blomstedt will conduct the Lucerne Festival Orchestra tonight 

Herbert Blomstedt is the undisputed possessor of the title of “World’s Most Senior Conductor”. Born in the US in 1927 to Swedish parents, he has had an unbroken career of almost 70 years on the podium, conjuring performances of taut dramatic cogency and lyrical warmth with an approach that is winningly impassioned and yet entirely unshowy. He’s led the Oslo Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, among others, and made scores of award-winning recordings.

You might think that at 93 Herbert Blomstedt would be ready to enjoy a few months of pandemic-enforced leisure. In fact he hasn’t wasted a moment – “I’ve been studying scores, you know we musicians have to keep mentally in shape!” – and he’s impatient to be back on the podium again.

Tonight, he will be, as he conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in the opening concert, a stone’s throw from where he lives. One of the world’s greatest music festivals, it was cancelled back in April, but because Switzerland’s infection rate has been so low, the director Michael Haefliger has been able to do a volte-face and mount a nine-concert series in front of live audiences. Blomstedt will be conducting an all-Beethoven programme including the First Piano Concerto, performed by Martha Argerich.

Is he not nervous about venturing into public spaces during this pandemic, which is so much more dangerous for the elderly? “No, I’m not worried, but two of my four daughters are medical doctors, and they were certainly worried! They insisted on booking a car to drive me from door to door.”

This breezy optimism is typical of the man. He has an eager, brisk air, with a birdlike alertness magnified by his way of listening acutely with his head on one side. Blomstedt is that rare thing, a conductor who all orchestral players will tell you is patient and inspiring and altogether a pleasure to work with.

Terrifying: Arturo Toscanini, who was a genius, but prone to rages Credit: Herbert Gehr

He’s also one of the few living links to the days when conducting was dominated by irascible “titans of the podium” whose word was law. Among them was Arturo Toscanini, who ruled orchestras with an iron hand and was prone to terrifying rages. “I was studying at the Juilliard School in New York, and I used to attend Toscanini’s rehearsals with the New York Philharmonic,” says Blomstedt.

“I remember he had such difficulty with language, he used to groan in this strange way, trying to urge his players on,” at which point he suddenly bursts into a startlingly accurate Toscanini-groan.

“He would rage against the players in Italian, calling them ‘asino’ (ass). It was a shame, because at the level of culture and knowledge he was a real genius, but I could see this was not a good model to imitate.”

And what about Leonard Bernstein, the vastly talented composer-pianist-conductor whose hugely emotional performances drew adoration and mockery in equal measure? “Oh, I admired him above all as a person. He was extremely knowledgeable, like a Harvard professor, but without the dryness of the professor.

“The best thing was his spontaneity, always totally genuine, never affected, he was really the warmest person I’ve ever known. But he was also one of those sad conductors who could control the orchestra but they could not control themselves. He depended totally on alcohol and nicotine in his later years, and it was sad to see. And, of course, it killed him in the end.”

We turn to the state of the musical world, paralysed by the restrictions on public gatherings, and just for a moment Blomstedt becomes sombre.

“As time goes on, with no light at the end of the tunnel, I become more anxious. In Sweden, my own country, the situation is not good. They had a different policy of almost no lockdown, trying to keep businesses open, and so we had more deaths which attracted a lot of criticism from our own citizens and from overseas. But now it is improving.

“The country that most worries me in America. They are so dependent there on ticket sales and gifts, but they have cancelled all the concerts into the winter, and into the spring.

‘Seriously, I can’t think of living without a goal in front of me’: Herbert Blomstedt

“I know the New York Philharmonic has laid off many of its staff. Whereas here in Europe we have kept going. The Salzburg Festival has managed to go on almost as normal.”

Has this crisis showed the European way is better? “Well, the economic base of the classical sector is much more secure,” he says. “In America the classical scene is much more vulnerable to the ups and downs of the economy.”

On the situation in Britain, he admits to being less well-informed. “Well,” he says after a pause, “the Brits are the masters of the art of survival.” It’s only afterwards that I realise he is talking about the Second World War.

The return to live performance in Europe has certainly been good for Blomstedt; he has a very full diary from September onwards. I wonder about his incredible mental energy at such an advanced age. Does he attribute this to his Seventh-Day Adventist faith?

“Of course. For me engaging in worship and making music are practically the same thing. They are expressions of our essentially spiritual nature.”

Does he ever think about retiring? “No, never,” he says decisively. “Of course I am lucky now, I don’t have the burden of running my own orchestra.

“I gave up the directorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 2005 at the age of 78, I felt it was risky to have a music director of such a great age – because things could end very suddenly and that would leave the orchestra in a bad situation,” he says.

“Now it’s great, I have no responsibility, I just enjoy making music, and the orchestras play better for me than ever before because they are no longer afraid of me – I can’t fire them!” he says with a mischievous glint.

“Seriously, I can’t think of living without a goal in front of me. There is always more to discover – every time I look at a score I always find something new, even if the piece is one I have conducted dozens of times. So the next concert is always an adventure.”

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra at the Lucerne Festival in an all-Beethoven programme today and tomorrow. See tomorrow’s concert live at medici.tv. For details of the festival, visit lucernefestival.ch/en/