Ozawa Triumphs in Brahms

by Sedgwick Clark

Seiji Ozawa’s fight with esophageal cancer and subsequent attack of sciatica has been increasingly in the news as Carnegie Hall’s JapanNYC festival approached. Artistic director of the festival, Ozawa was scheduled to lead three taxing concerts at Carnegie this week. Earlier this year he canceled nearly all his concerts worldwide, including his final season as music director of the Vienna State Opera, obviously with an eye to keeping his JapanNYC conducting commitments. Ghastly close-up photos accompanying articles in the Times, made the 75-year-old conductor look 20 years older. Then, a week ago, Carnegie announced that, to conserve energy, he would only lead the second half of the first two concerts. Would he make it?

He did. Triumphantly.

I remember the proud Karajan in his final Carnegie concerts in 1989, walking onstage with evident pain and mounting a specially designed podium with a small, built-in seat, invisible to most of the audience, on which he could rest his rump while leading the Vienna Philharmonic. Eugen Jochum sat in his last Carnegie Hall appearance, conducting the Bamberg Symphony in 1983. Whatever physical infirmity these conductors had to endure, it was clear that their intellectual and musical powers hadn’t waned—which is also the current-day case with Levine, Previn, and now Ozawa. I had images of poor old Otto Klemperer in 1970 being carried to the podium for his last concerts, like Karajan and Jochum to lead Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony.

It was thus with great relief at Carnegie on Tuesday that the diminutive Japanese conductor walked onstage, his trademark smile aglow, along with his Saito Kinen Orchestra players. He was just one of the guys, conveniently avoiding a solo bow.

Brahms’s First Symphony was one of Ozawa’s party pieces during his Boston Symphony days—as was Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which he led on the second half of Wednesday night’s Saito Kinen concert. Both were fleet, energetic, young men’s interpretations back then, with the Brahms almost Toscaninian in its propulsive, dramatic drive. But it also seemed a trifle glib in its ease of utterance. On Tuesday night, however, the first movement in particular was broader, more inflected and expressive. Ozawa’s flowing tempo for Brahms’s second movement Andante sostenuto was a welcome change from the funereal pace set by most conductors these days, and the third movement had his usual balletic grace. He had been sitting through much of the performance, but he stood for most of the finale, urging his Saito Kinen players forward in the customary demonstrative Ozawa manner to a rousing coda.

Finally given a chance, the audience leapt to its feet, cheering wildly. Ozawa delayed a solo bow as long as possible, shaking hands with what looked like every member of the orchestra. A jam-packed phalanx of TV cameras in the back of the hall took the proceedings down, and NHK interviewers were out on the street to film spontaneous reactions.

The first half of the concert, conducted by Ozawa protégé Tatsuya Shimono, revealed an orchestra of whiplash precision and recording-studio perfection of balance and intonation in Decathexis, a new work by the young Japanese composer Atsuhiko Gondai. Those of us who enjoy this sort of expertly made orchestral etude, with scores that look like wiring diagrams and roots hailing back to Penderecki, Ligeti, and Xenakis, had fun for 17½ minutes, but the tepid applause indicated that we were in the minority.

More to the majority’s liking was an absolutely splendid Beethoven Third Piano Concerto with Mitsuko Uchida at her heartfelt, lapidary best and an ideal accompaniment led by Shimono.

An exciting evening, no doubt.

Looking forward

No more concerts until the new year!

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