On Thursday I texted a friend, "I'm risking it all for Beethoven tonight." The joke rattled with nerves. I was made self-conscious by the recognition that I actually was willing to make a poor public health decision, not for Beethoven in general, but for Beethoven's 5th. Like Hamlet, the 5th is iconic without actually being overrated. Like Van Gogh, it's entry-level but grows with you. You don't trifle with it. Omicron had technically peaked, so I was going to go.
The conductor that night was Herbert Blomstedt. Blomstedt is 94 years old and can conduct whatever the fuck he wants, and for this run of shows he chose the 5th, along with Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable," both of which are closely associated with his long career. I didn't know this going in, since until that day I didn't know what conductors did, and was suspicious of them. It offended my class sensibilities that the musicians needed to submit their own styles and habits to the will of one person, who would gather up their genius into a bouquet and toss it into the adoring audience. It bothered me on other levels that that person was nearly always a white man. These things still bother me, but watching Blomstedt work has taught me what a conductor does.
The parallel isn't conducting, as in driving. It's conducting, as in electricity. The conductor uses and directs power, but they're not a wizard; they're a wire. They are the circuit that channels sound into heat and light – the person responsible for creating a single, unified interpretation made by a Borg cube of eighty people.
What effects would this job have on your body? What effects would it have on your mind? Because it is just a job -- one of the many very strange and strenuous jobs musicians can have. You can't play some of these instruments without spreading your legs. Some of them are almost impossible to lift. Others require you to carry a piece of wood around your mouth backstage and keep it wet. Being a timpanist involves explaining to people at parties that while, yes, your only job is to hit a drum, you have to hit it in special hyperevolved ways that only a few hundred people can really do right. Being a bassoonist involves the bassoon! There's really no end to the bodily stresses and social embarrassments of musical work.
I've already written an essay about attending the symphony where I stressed its effects on my body, rather than my intellect or my imagination. In some ways, this is the only way to be sincere about symphonic music, which is so intensely bodily. In other ways, it's a bit of a cop-out. We take a risk when we speak of great and sincere feeling, even if we're writers and feeling is our business. I was raised to be self-deprecating and circumspect about enjoying what's called "high culture." Where do these pressures come from? From the sense that this kind of music is powerful, maybe even a little dangerous, and you're safer being sarcastic about it – or sentimentalizing it.
It is easy to sentimentalize artistic brilliance, and easy to sentimentalize the very old. And Blomstedt, let's not forget, is old. He was already famous in 1952. He has been thinking about his art for an almost inconceivable amount of time. Most artists don't live long enough to play this many levels of Tetris; I can only imagine the glitched-out landscapes where that man chases ghosts. He is also not above allowing himself to be presented as old, and old specifically, on purpose. The cover of his 2017 recording of Beethoven's nine symphonies, made with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, is a close-up photo of his monochrome face, looking kind of expressionlessly wise, lit to bring out the skull, with the unfocused gaze in his left eye very apparent. Age is one way that a person can become marginalized who originally was not, and while I wouldn't describe most orchestra conductors as marginalized, I did think a lot about how age makes one vulnerable to sentiment.
People don't see the very old as quite human, which is why they are endeared when they see them having fun. It's a thing the old have in common with nuns and children. Sentiment dehumanizes, which is why you should watch out for it – and sometimes for critique of it, when people erroneously use the term to use "showing too much emotion for my comfort." What sentiment really is, though, is off-the-rack emotion, not tailored to circumstance. It's fast emotion, and unlike fast food or fast fashion, it's not primarily aimed at people too broke and tired to afford the slow version. Most of us were born rich in feeling, and can afford better.
All of which is to say that it was impossible to sentimentalize Blomstedt's work that night, even though he's open to it along a couple of vectors. The body rebelled against the impulse to try.
I realize that, in 900 words, I haven't once told you in a literal sense what Blomstedt did. The answer is that he didn't appear to do much. He made a series of exquisite gestures, like Scott Fitzgerald writing in American Sign. He conducted without a baton, to grant his hands their maximum expression. He appeared, sometimes, not to be telling the orchestra what to do, so much as showing the orchestra to the audience – asking us to pay attention to the violinists or the cellists or the clarinetists, at the crucial moment when we might notice something about the music that we'd always reduced to background noise. In other words, he performed an art of recognition. Blomstedt's professional bio goes on for a while about how modest he is, which of course is very funny, but it was clear that by the standards of an orchestral conductor, he did have humility, and that his humility was the reason he was able to see the music clearly and get out of its way. It's no passive act to get out of the way of music. You need to step quickly, and nimbly, and with a highly developed sense of rhythm, and with a similarly developed sense of what you want to block and what you want to show. You must be vulnerable when it's time to be transparent, and powerful when it's time to be visible.
What I saw was exceptional, and everyone knew it. The maddening frustration of such encounters is that you take in, at most, 20% of the experience; that's how I feel about this performance, and War and Peace, and "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz." Resigning yourself to that 20%, and celebrating it, and knowing it won't be the same as the 20% you take in next time, is how to love art. I thought about going back to see this 5th again, but I decided that, in a real sense, I couldn't see it again, and so I'm leaving it there: a gift that cannot be opened a second time.