Blomstedt takes San Francisco Symphony helm

The arrival of Herbert Blomstedt as the new music director of the San Francisco Symphony has been heralded throughout this city. Audiences have embraced him warmly, even though they have had very few opportunities to assess his work: Last June he was in charge of the Beethoven Festival; before that, his debut concerts with the orchestra in 1984 led to his being offered the job to replace Edo de Waart. Last Wednesday, Mr. Blomstedt led his first concert as music director. Even now, several things are obvious about him. He inspires musicians and audiences with his integrity, his musical strength, and his commitment to the work at hand. He has left most of the orchestras he has headed stronger than when he arrived.

This opening concert found the orchestra fully in tune with his podium style. The opening attack of Wagner's ``Die Meistersinger'' overture was as crisp and full as will be heard in a live performance. The exceptional balances in Roger Sessions' rarely performed Second Symphony allowed a plethora of details to emerge that too often remain clouded in textural obscurity. And in Strauss's ``Ein Heldenleben,'' balances were again clean and thoughtful. Although the multiple climaxes of the work were never s hirked, only one or two rightly reached an apex of fury -- a bracing change from the usual all-climaxes-equally-loud syndrome that affects so much musicmaking these days.

Blomstedt's podium decorum is restrained, but intense. He constantly watches over his ensemble from his podium vantage point, anticipating their troubles, casting encouraging glances this way and that, always alert to every aspect of the orchestra in front of him.

The orchestra also responded well to Michael Tilson Thomas, who led the opening four weekends of concerts this season. His final program featured Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and the ``Glagolitic Mass,'' by Leos Janacek. Mr. Thomas's Beethoven proved surprisingly ripe and old-fashioned.

The Janacek found maestro and orchestra in unfamiliar territory. The work comprises jagged edges, explosive eruptions of sounds, the startling uses of melodic fragments that fall together into a moving mosaic of nondenominational yet deeply devotional music. Mr. Thomas as yet does not trust himself enough to go with the flow of harshness of the scoring to make the musical points. But it was a moving performance as far as it went. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus performed fervently. The four solois ts -- soprano Linda Kelm, mezzo Donna Bruno, tenor Jon Frederic West, and bass John Ostendorf -- performed valiantly. The organ blended thrillingly with the orchestra in the ensembles, and John Fenstermaker made much of the organ-solo seventh section.

These two programs clearly demonstrated San Francisco's commitment to the familiar as well as the unusual. It also demonstrated Mr. Blomstedt's commitment to newer music -- particularly the neglected classics of America's 20th-century composers. This orchestra is well ahead of many in careful programming of a wide variety of works, both traditional and contemporary.

The only real problem still facing the orchestra is the lingering question of the acoustics of Davies Symphony Hall. In the Blomstedt concert in particular, there was an echo-y quality to the acoustics from my seat. The sound is far better than New York's Avery Fisher Hall, for instance, but until the problems are finally solved, they will remain as an impediment to the ongoing improvement this orchestra will be able to realize under its new music director.

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