In 2018, outgoing Berlin Philharmonic music director Simon Rattle told the orchestra’s in-house magazine, 128, “You probably need to be 90 to conduct this orchestra correctly.” Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt, age 95, proved the truth to this remark in a concert with the orchestra at the end of September. The Berlin Philharmonic is known for giving guest conductors—even music directors like Rattle—the cold shoulder. But on that evening, in a program of Schubert’s Third Symphony and Beethoven’s Seventh, the orchestra played with and for Blomstedt, hanging on his every gesture. Though Blomstedt had broken his leg in a fall in June and had to conduct sitting down, the two symphonies sounded so transparent, lean, and alive in his hands that it was as if they’d just emerged from a fountain of youth. It’s a phenomenon unique to Blomstedt: The older he gets, the fresher his interpretations sound. There’s no stubbornness, dogma, or egotism in his music-making, just eternal curiosity.

Blomstedt has been described as the “world’s oldest conductor,” but he’s not an artist to whom superlatives generally attach: Never the most famous or the most expensive, never the fastest or the slowest. Instead, he has a near-unique ability to hold the center and find the music’s inner light. Works never fall apart in his hands; they don’t fray, tear, or get bogged down in extremes. The piece is never overshadowed by gushing pathos or personal hubris. Instead, the listener senses that everything is in its right place, a prerequisite to musical pleasure. I met Blomstedt the morning after the first of his three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic at his hotel close to the concert hall. 

VAN: How are you? 

Herbert Blomstedt: Really good; obnoxiously good.

How many times have you guest-conducted the Berlin Philharmonic by now? 

This is probably the 15th time [the actual number is much higher—Ed]. 

It was moving to see how willing the orchestra was to follow you and play for you. I assume that’s something you’ve been experiencing a lot lately? 

Yes, I’m the oldest one now and everyone reads my lips—even though I’m the same person I was 70 years ago. Last week I was in Stockholm, I made my debut there in 1954 [with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra—Ed.]. When I was young, I had a bad experience with the orchestra. My teacher [Tor Mann—Ed.] was music director and he wanted to give me a chance with the group, and maybe also show that he had a talented student. He told the orchestra, “I’m going to end my rehearsal half an hour early and you can get to know this young man.” Of course, I was very excited. I sat in the green room and waited for someone from the orchestra to come tell me when they were ready. At some point the principal horn came and said, “We’re sorry, but we’re not required to play under students.” It was like a slap in the face. But he was right, of course. My teacher hoped they would be a little more flexible, a little more curious. On the other hand, an orchestra needs self-respect. Leading a collective like an orchestra comes with certain expectations: You have to have the ability, the experience, and something to say. That doesn’t just happen. Those kinds of experiences are valuable, they teach respect. Today that orchestra is my best friend.

There are a number of orchestras with whom you have a similarly friendly relationship these days. Some you’ve been leading regularly for decades, you only recently started leading others. Why? 

You can’t always know why. Some reach out early, some late. I never ask. The Vienna Philharmonic was the last orchestra. As an opera orchestra, they don’t have many symphony concerts, maybe ten or 12 per season, and they don’t need 40 conductors a year. Besides, they have their own habits and traditions, so there’s rarely time for new faces. 

You made your debut with them in 2011, at the age of 83…

Yes, as a substitute for Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I believe it was a concert in Salzburg. Sparks flew right away.

You’ve never conducted the New Years’ concert in Vienna.

And I probably never will. It’s not my repertoire. [Laughs.] Strauss waltzes are fantastic music, but I rarely have the opportunity to play them, because I’m usually booked for the big symphonic works: the First Viennese School, Brahms, Schumann, Beethoven, Bruckner… 

Do you regret that? 

No. Many of my colleagues have the ambition and the desire to play everything, because they think otherwise they wouldn’t be a “complete” conductor. [They play] a little bit from every style. That’s understandable, but it’s not my goal. I play what I find most deep. 

"Many of my colleagues have the ambition and the desire to play everything…That’s understandable, but it’s not my goal. I play what I find most deep." An interview with conductor Herbert Blomstedt. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

You rarely conduct the Russian symphonic repertoire. Does that mean it isn’t deep? 

No, that has other reasons. There are so many Russian conductors, and they get booked for that repertoire—which is a good thing. I love Tchaikovsky, he was a fantastic composer, even the pieces that are played rarely should be more popular. For example, I’ve never conducted the Third Symphony, “Polish.” That’s a shame. But I don’t have the time to do everything.

In Berlin recently, you led Schubert’s Third Symphony and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. How did you decide on this program? 

It’s what the Berlin Philharmonic wanted. Everywhere—not just in Berlin—orchestras are dealing with a problem: Part of the audience isn’t coming back. The pandemic is still resonating. That’s why they wanted a popular program. Popular programs are common, but it has to be a good popular program for me to do it. And a lot of good pieces are popular, but popularity itself doesn’t interest me at all. I’m only interested in the musical quality of the work. Whether the audience likes it or not is up to them. The orchestral repertoire is so enormous: Why should I conduct a mediocre piece—especially if I’m only a guest? 

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What pieces do you think are popular but not good? 

When I was young, the Liszt “Symphonic Poems” and Piano Concerto in Eb Major were popular. They were never popular with me. 

And what pieces aren’t popular enough? 

Bruckner, maybe. Many conductors and even more listeners avoid him: Too long, too complicated, he never gets to the point… It’s amazing how many people can’t connect with Bruckner. That’s true in Sweden, too. More than once I suggested a program to my orchestra, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and they answered, “No Bruckner, please!” They were worried not enough people would come. [Laughs.] It was very Swedish. 

When I was a student in Stockholm, in 1950 or 1951, the Vienna Philharmonic and Furtwängler came to town and played Bruckner Eight. I wanted to approach him, because I really admired him, so I waited for him at the artist entrance. About a half an hour after the concert, he came with a group of four or five people, and even from a distance I could hear him shouting angrily: “I’m never doing Bruckner in Stockholm again!” His arms were shaking, as they always did when he was upset. He felt there wasn’t enough applause. At the time, I thought to myself a little stubbornly, “I’ll change that.” I didn’t succeed. I’ve done a lot of Bruckner in Stockholm, but I still hear “No Bruckner, please!” all the time. 

Blomstedt at a conducting course in Salzburg in 1950 • Photo Courtesy of Herbert Blomstedt

You sat in on rehearsals and heard concerts by conductors like Furtwängler and Toscanini. Many of the conductors of that generation were tyrants… 

Yes, they were treated like demigods, an attitude left over from the genius cult of the 19th century. Toscanini, whom I heard often in New York, was a tyrant in an almost funny way. He abused his musicians with words, multiple times in every rehearsal, calling them donkeys when they didn’t understand him immediately: “Asino!” When he was angry he always switched into Italian. 

Furtwängler wasn’t a tyrant in the same way, he was too cultivated for that. His last wife, Elisabeth, once explained how Furtwängler’s father, who was a famous archeologist, spoiled him, saying: “You’re a genius, and an artist blessed by God stands above other people.” Elisabeth thought that took away something from Furtwängler’s sophistication. He was spoiled. The role of the conductor was put on such a pedestal that everyone followed his wishes. There are a few good aspects to that, but many more bad ones. I knew many people in his generation who were the same way. 

Why not you? 

I was raised to respect all people, even those who weren’t to my taste. I’ve seen conductors who have no respect for musicians. A very famous conductor came to Stockholm once and led Max Reger’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart” Op. 132. The piece has extreme dynamics, including at the soft end of the spectrum, up to five or six ps. It’s very delicate; apparently it wasn’t quiet enough for the conductor. He got so angry in the rehearsal that he screamed at the musicians [slaps his knee and shouts]: “Pianissimo, gentlemen!” He was out of control. That hurt me so much that I walked out. I can’t stand when people treat musicians that way, no matter their level. You have to respect anyone with a skill. And when someone doesn’t have a skill, they can still learn it. 

You’ve described growing up in a rigidly moralistic household—especially your father, who was a pastor. Did you rebel against that? 

“Rebelled” would be an exaggeration. My father was very conscientious. That was normal 100 years ago. When I became a teenager, I stopped going along with some things, but I never really rebelled. I admired my father: He was smart and very consistent. I don’t think that affected me in a bad way. I’m adverse to exaggeration. My mother was a pianist, a very different kind of person. My father was a bit of a lone wolf, but my mother was soft and sociable, both as a musician and in life. It was a good combination. I had wonderful parents, they were ideal for me. In some ways I’m completely different from my father, but that’s normal—what son doesn’t think differently from his father? 

Alida and Adolf Blomstedt with their children Herbert (left) and Norman, around 1929 • Photo Courtesy of Herbert Blomstedt

You said, “I’m adverse to exaggeration.” That’s true of your interpretations, which draw their excitement from their very balance; the whole is always audible, not just the details. Have you always been able to do that, or was it something that came with age? 

As a person I’m actually somewhat hot-tempered. I had a brother who was three years older than me, and who was a role model for me until his death. He was very even-keeled: a doctor, utterly selfless, who only cared about others. My mother told me that when I was little, I sometimes bit him when I wanted to defend myself, but he wasn’t allowed to retaliate: “The little one can’t defend himself, you have to be careful with him.” He always stuck to it. But I always wanted to get my way. And it stayed like that for an astonishingly long time. 

When and why did that change? 

When I was 13 or 14, I realized I was causing a lot of suffering [by insisting on getting my way]. In music, my interest in science helped me out later on. After conservatory, it took another four years before I made my debut. I decided to make use of the time and get a degree in musicology [at Uppsala University—Ed.]. That prevented me from doing stupid things in my interpretations and helped me judge music more objectively. My violin teacher in Gothenburg, an excellent musician and concertmaster of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, had suggested that I go to university right after high school. “Many people can play well,” he said, “but you also need to be able to think about music independently.” I was glad to hear that. I’d considered studying math after high school—it was my favorite subject. But, at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, which was the only conservatory in the country at the time, not all my teachers were thrilled by my interest in math. They heard about it, and said, “The students who come here want to devote their entire lives to music. You’re a boy who’d also like to study math. You’re taking a spot from those who’d give their lives to study here.” But I still love science. 

As a conductor who leads up to 100 concerts a year, all over the world, you’ve been living the jet-set life for decades. What’s the thing that you had to give up that hurts the most? 

There’s a lot you have to give up, but mainly your family has to give you up. We always lived in Stockholm, even when I was the boss in Oslo, Copenhagen, or Dresden. That means my wife spent a lot of time alone with our four daughters, which wasn’t always easy for her. My wife was a philologist and liked teaching, but she stayed home until the kids moved out, and didn’t teach again until they were gone. That was very hard for her sometimes. One of our daughters was a diabetic. Giving her the shots every day from the age of two, keeping an eye on her blood sugar, all the tricky situations… As a father, it gives you a guilty conscience. I tried to make up for it, [my wife and I] always had a wonderful relationship. When I was home we made the most of it. And when I was traveling, I wrote her a postcard every day. I still have seven shoeboxes full of those postcards.

Do you ever read them?

Sure.

Are you concerned with your musical “legacy,” with what you’ll leave behind as an artist?

That idea never really took root in me. I’ve gotten pretty old, but I don’t think about it. I feel like a student, there’s so much to discover. I don’t think about what I’ll leave behind. Although I am sometimes amazed how much I’ve recorded, maybe 400 compositions… 

Is there a gap that you’d like to close?

There are many gaps, but you have to live with that. [Laughs.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as you get older?

One gets more tolerant and more relaxed.

You’ve gotten more tolerant and more relaxed.

Yes. You see, there are all kinds of visions of beauty and quality that are not your own, but you must accept them. I’m not the best person in the world. It’s a variation on the feeling that you need to respect others. As a musician, there’s so much competition, every success meets mistrust from your colleagues: “Why is he getting this opportunity? I’m so much better.” Those thoughts are deadly. [Laughs.] Each person has their talent and has a duty to make the most of it, it’s as simple as that. Orchestras are full of talented people, sometimes far more talented than I am. I can learn from them, but I also have a voice, because I have my own experience. You don’t say that, of course, but the feeling is always there. You get more confident as you get older, you have nothing to lose. You do dumb things, you keep on doing them when you’re old, but it doesn’t matter. My career is behind me. You take things a little easier.  ¶

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Subscribers keep VAN running!

VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.

Hartmut Welscher

... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.