BAMBERG, Germany – The Bamberg Symphony can take pride in a tradition that reaches back to 1946, or to the first performances of Don Giovanni in 1787, depending on your point of view. Its core founders were members of the Prague German Philharmonic Orchestra who, like thousands of German speakers in Czechoslovakia, had been sent packing after the Second World War. They headed due west and settled in a town that had been spared destruction. Possibly the hillside location of the cathedral and the presence of a river put them in mind of home.
The reconstituted ensemble flourished under Joseph Keilberth and then Eugen Jochum in an acting capacity. The roll of official chief conductors includes James Loughran, Horst Stein, and Jonathan Nott. It is interesting that Jakub Hrůša, 38, who has held the post since 2015, is Czech. Two honorary conductors, Herbert Blomstedt, 92, and Christoph Eschenbach, 79, create an enviable artistic triumvirate.
Membership in the Bamberg Symphony (which is also known formally as the Bavarian State Philharmonic) comes with considerable advantages. Musicians, 111 strong, are paid competitive salaries in a town of about 75,000 where a Euro goes farther than in Berlin or Munich. Many cycle or walk to work. Extensive touring is said to enhance the feeling of fellowship.
The generically modern Konzerthalle of 1993 is no feast for the eyes, but it was successfully refurbished in 2008 and 2009 by the eminent Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. Crucially, the base of subscribers approaches 10 percent of the city population. It might not be an exaggeration to say that the Bamberg Symphony enjoys more per capita civic support than the New York Yankees.
A recent concert under Blomstedt illustrated why: Even in an era of universal technical accomplishment, the clarity of the Bamberg sound is striking. “Dark” is widely thought to be a suitable descriptor of Central European sonorities, but “bright” struck me as more to the point. Few listeners, at any rate, would quarrel with “vivid.”
Of course, a top orchestra adapts to the requests of a conductor of similar caliber, and Blomstedt gave every indication on Oct. 12 of preferring sunlight to cloud cover in Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. A tall man with long arms and tapered hands, he could both draw a singing line and cue sforzandi precisely without a baton. Sometimes he maintained the beat by oscillating sideways.
It might not always have added up to a classic authoritarian maestro look, but it yielded splendid results. Detail was abundant. One heard with new awareness the extent to which the opening Morse-code figure in the violins animates the exposition. The Scherzo crackled like a dry fire, and the finale sprinted forward with a bracing energy that defied its reputation as a formal problem child.
As in all great Bruckner performances, the heart resided in the Adagio, yearning rather than resigned, and built with impressive arches. Everywhere entries were precise, textures transparent. And mobile: Brass chorales, so often rendered as blocks of sound, here changed color in alluring ways. It might sound odd to call this a young conductor’s Bruckner, given Blomstedt’s vast experience, but such was the audible evidence. When I spoke to this unassuming man of music afterwards, I commented that I heard many things for the first time. “There is plenty to discover,” came the reply.
Blomstedt conducts from memory, although with the closed score on the stand as a reminder of who is boss. Occupying the first part of this program was Haydn’s Symphony No. 104. Sound was similarly vital with a smaller (but still substantial) complement of strings. Vibrato was reduced, in keeping with contemporary preferences, and the timpanist played a tart pair of old-fashioned Pauken. Blomstedt and his charges had great fun with sudden stresses. In his wonderful final symphony, as elsewhere, Haydn is full of surprises.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and La Scena Musicale.