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Herbert Blomstedt: a director who will uphold SFO's legacy of honest excellence

Last February, Herbert Blomstedt made a hugely successful debut with the San Francisco Orchestra in a series of two programs. As it happened, the symphony had been on the lookout for a new music director ever since Edo de Waart announced unexpectedly that he would be leaving to take over as head of the Netherlands Opera. As has been happening with alarming regularity in this country, Mr. Blomstedt was designated as music director on the basis of those two concerts.

Mr. Blomstedt, who takes command officially this September, is not a musician without a proven track record. He was the Dresden Staatskapelle's collective choice for music director in 1975. Notable among his large quantity of recordings is a complete set of the symphonies of Karl Nielsen; he is also in the middle of a Richard Strauss orchestral cycle with the Staatskapelle. Everywhere he goes, he is acclaimed for the integrity of his musicmaking, his no-nonsense podium manner, his easy rapport with orchestra players, and his simple dedication to the music at hand.

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And all these qualities were in evidence as he opened this city's '85 Beethoven Festival, which ran through Friday. The first program, repeated twice in Davies Symphony Hall, was a guaranteed sellout, because it featured the Ninth Symphony. It is, of course, impossible to tell much on the basis of one performance -- even when the piece is as visionary and demanding as the Ninth. But clearly, Mr. Blomstedt is very much a conductor who will uphold the values Mr. de Waart tried to instill in this orchestra. This was a self-effacing performance that successfully strove to put the music back into the realm of Beethoven's symphonic idiom, rather than to treat it as a vehicle for highly personalized viewpoints.

True, there were no earth-shattering revelations, but rather an impressively shaped reading that let the choral finale be just that -- the finale to a remarkable, even radical, always deeply moving symphony. The orchestra as yet has some problems reading Mr. Blomstedt's cues and gestures. And one suspects he will need some time to figure out the acoustics of Davies Hall, which, by the way, have been vastly improved since the opening. The sound in the hall is now very much superior to the sound in New York's Avery Fisher Hall.

The last word can hardly be said to be in. It will take time for maestro Blomstedt to get accustomed to the city, to the players. But the best of what was heard in this Ninth, taken with the strength of his live performances I have heard with the both the Boston Symphony and the Dresden Staatskapelle, indicates that the level of honest excellence Edo de Waart strove to regularize in San Francisco will be carried on by Herbert Blomstedt. -- 30 --{et

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