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So long, Seiji!
Ozawa ends 29 years as the BSO’s music director

Three decades ago, the trustees of the Boston Symphony Orchestra made a courageous decision. After more than 11 years of watching their orchestra wander in the wilderness guided by the usual aging white Europeans, they handed over this august and tradition-bound institution to an adorable Chinese-born 38-year-old Japanese conductor, a former Tanglewood student, a talented disciple of Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan, who conducted without a score, wore his hair long, sported turtlenecks and worry beads, and soon became the first leader of the BSO generally referred to by his first name. Now, after 29 years, the longest tenure of any music director in the BSO’s history, Seiji Ozawa is moving on to another august and tradition-bound institution, the Vienna State Opera. They already love him there, as he has been — though not universally — loved, if not always admired, here.

Audiences, at any rate, seemed to love him more than most critics and many musicians did, including members of the orchestra itself. Some years ago, talk started about a "new Seiji" who was more serious and more responsible about decisions. And he seemed to be trying harder. A notorious 1998 article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Ozawa had ruined the orchestra, though that may have been the impression of someone who heard the orchestra mainly under Ozawa. How can he have ruined the orchestra when it plays so well for guest conductors? In 1999, the New Yorker’s critic wrote that Ozawa "continues to pilot the Boston Symphony toward mediocrity."

It may have been the BSO appointment itself that kept Ozawa from fulfilling his early potential. Had he stayed longer with such lower-profile orchestras as the Toronto and San Francisco Symphonies, might he have put more effort into penetrating the music he performed rather than into creating an image? There’s still something external about his concerts. He looks intense — crouching and leaping during the most overtly emotional music. But these climactic moments seldom seem earned. I close my eyes and I don’t hear what I see Ozawa working so hard to project. I leave a concert wondering what it was all about, just as I continue to question what his entire tenure has stood for. Of course, every conductor has his or her own strengths. Even Serge Koussevitzky, whose 25 years with the BSO (including the creation of Tanglewood) is the record Ozawa broke, was capable of uninspired, unstylish performances. But he had a vision of what music can be. Of what an orchestra should be. What was Ozawa’s vision for the BSO? Did he have a vision? For years I had the impression there was no one behind the wheel.

In his touching farewell message printed in the program book for his final Symphony Hall concerts as BSO music director, Ozawa mentions his affection for Boston ("from the Fenway to Chinatown"). But he never seemed part of this community. His family remained in Japan. He rarely attended concerts outside Symphony Hall, and he performed even fewer, though in his last years here he led several Bach cantatas during the Sunday service at Emmanuel Church — performances that, like his New Year’s Day concert of Strauss waltzes with the Vienna Philharmonic, seemed carried by players who knew the music better than he did. At least at Emmanuel his Bach had more sensitive and style than his lumbering Baroque performances at Symphony Hall.

He had little feeling for the central classical repertoire. He never seem to "get" the balance between formal elegance and passion. His Mozart was uncomprehending, thick-textured (in the glutinous Karajan mode), and rhythmically square, though his Beethoven moved from hopeless to competent. When it came to technique, he was always a gifted traffic cop. But his slow movements bogged down, often drifting into syrupy sentimentality. Then he’d rush fast movements into coarse, noisy climaxes. He seemed surprisingly uninterested in Schubert, though he led occasional dutiful performances of the major symphonies. He never conducted a symphony by one of Koussevitzky’s favorite composers, Sibelius (though in Colin Davis, we had a guest conductor whose Sibelius performances remain widely admired). Perhaps his best recording was a blazing 1977 live performance of Respighi’s Feste romane.

Ozawa has a reputation for conducting the modernist masters — especially Stravinsky and Bartók. But in a signature piece like Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, I heard the same problems as with his Beethoven. The mysterious slow sections were boring; then he’d go into overdrive for a breathless grand finale that got audiences to leap to their feet. Bartók fared better, but what got lost in the sensational virtuosity was that composer’s deep interest in folk music and the human heart.

"Ozawa may not have lifted the BSO into a period of consistent historic greatness," Richard Dyer admits in his Boston Globe summation. Fortunately, after what amounts to a 40-year drought, a new period of fertility is in sight with the arrival of James Levine in 2004. Already the BSO schedule for the directorless 2002-2003 season shows more exciting ideas and better program planning than for any season in recent memory.

Not that there haven’t been good — even memorable — events. I loved the childlike innocence and charm of both of Ozawa’s concert performances of Ravel’s "children’s opera," L’enfant et les sortilèges, 22 years apart (1974 and 1996). Last summer, he led a concert performance of Salome, with Deborah Voigt, that was superior in conception and execution to his overrated 1991 performance with Hildegard Behrens. Perhaps his greatest achievement was a performance of Schoenberg’s massive, pre-12-tone folk-legend, Gurre-lieder, at Tanglewood (1974), with a cast that included Phyllis Curtin, James McCracken, and the legendary George London. Yet four years later, at Symphony Hall, in a performance with McCracken and Jessye Norman that was recorded for posterity, the magic and the power were missing.

This recording, like most of Ozawa’s, is currently out of print in this country. And though two of the 12 CDs in the new boxed set of BSO broadcasts are devoted to him (his predecessors — Serge Koussevitzky, Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, Erich Leinsdorf, and William Steinberg — get only one disc apiece), none of his major triumphs is included. We get one opera (Bartók’s early Bluebeard’s Castle); Richard Strauss’s minor Duet Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon and Frank Martin’s fascinating Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments (both more notable for the stars of the BSO’s once-celebrated wind section than for the conducting); Olivier Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine (another example of Ozawa’s devotion to 20th-century French music), with Messiaen’s wife, Jeanne Loriod, playing the mysterious ondes martinot, and a lovely souvenir of the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus; and a static, uninspired rendering of one of the two masterpieces Koussevitzky commissioned for the BSO, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms — another piece that reflects Ozawa’s interest in liturgical music. Nothing commissioned under Ozawa himself is here, and certainly nothing on the level of the first broadcast (December 30, 1944) of Koussevitzky’s other major BSO commission, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra — a performance as loving, witty, and delicate as later Ozawa versions have been well-oiled and aggressive.

Ozawa’s proudest work may have been his complete Mahler cycle. His Mahler certainly improved from his initial flounderings, though I doubt anyone prefers even the best of his Mahler recordings to Tennstedt’s or Boulez’s or Horenstein’s or Bernstein’s. Or those of another beloved Boston conductor, Benjamin Zander — whose nuanced, novelistic Mahler has always been on the cutting edge not only of musicianship but also of scholarship.

Ozawa chose Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which he had led numerous times between 1984 and 1989 (his recording is currently out of print), as his last official subscription concert at Symphony Hall — a work appropriately concerned with resignation and farewell. The sense of occasion was marked by no less eminent a pre-concert lecturer than Michael Steinberg, once Ozawa’s leading critic, then from 1976 to 1979 the BSO’s program annotator.

Ozawa’s delayed entrance for the Thursday concert heightened the drama, and he was greeted with a warm, rather slow-building standing ovation. The happy surprise was a new transparency of sound. The first movement may have been a little unsettled technically, but you could hear everything. Chamber-music-like combinations of winds were surpassingly beautiful — a rare occasion when his quiet passages were more riveting than his loud ones.

Ozawa’s approach to Mahler’s satirical middle movements began promisingly if broadly with braying horns suggesting the heavy tread of dancing peasants. But architectural inevitability was not a major virtue — where was that windswept rush into the final waltz? Nasty edges got rounded. Ferocious satire turned into showpiece, with Ozawa’s mimetic prancing on the podium more a telegraphing of emotion than an inward expression of it.

Mahler’s unusual slow-movement finale clocked in at a drawn-out 28 minutes. Was this Mahler’s reluctance to let go or Ozawa hanging on to his final moments as BSO music director? Maybe both. Climaxes seemed milked, and they peaked too early. This felt more like calculated, willed intensity rather than the kind of continuous discovery that, say, Ben Zander achieved in the Adagio of his Mahler Ninth last February. And yet, the final moments were so hushed, they were almost drowned out by a distant siren. It was impressive — and moving — to hear Ozawa end on a this note of extreme quietude.

Another standing ovation followed, and a big bouquet of flowers. Ozawa made the rounds, shaking hands with the players, who were applauding too. Then he brought forward timpanist Everett Firth, who had announced his retirement at the end of these weekend performances — after 50 years as one of the most eloquent "voices" of the BSO. The cheer became a roar, and people were suddenly pulling out their kleenexes. More than one era was coming to an end.

PS: On the Saturday-evening broadcast, after Ozawa’s rare free public concert that morning, and without the visual distraction of his emoting (though with an audience turning suddenly tubercular during the final calm), I heard musicmaking improved in many ways — better paced, less forced, more focused from bar to bar. And more moving. Seiji Ozawa was, after all, leaving Boston with one of his best performances.

Issue Date: April 25 - May 2, 2002
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