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Hello, Goodbye

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/11/2001 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 9
Saito Kinen Orchestra
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)

Seiji Ozawa is an extremely private man who leads an extremely public life. For twenty-eight years the leader of the renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra, he resigned his position last year in order to embark on a totally new creative endeavor and will soon assume the directorship of the Vienna Opera, a position when held by Gustav Mahler at the beginning of the twentieth century, that was the most influential in the entire classical world. The hirings and firings of Seiji have a macabre similarity to those of Mahler and the spectre of racism haunts both of their stories. Back in the 1950's, the Boston Brahmins would not consider local wunderkind Leonard Bernstein because of his ethnicity, sexual orientation or politics and regretted the decision each week as his image graced the television sets of America as leader of the rival New York Philharmonic. As if to atone for their narrowmindedness, they jumped at the chance to hire Bernstein's protégé, a handsome young Asian who would certainly put the lie to their bigoted reputation. Over the years the residents of the hub of the universe wrestled with their prejudices (their professional baseball team was the last in the major leagues to hire a black player) and some never wholly accepted Mr. Ozawa as their standard bearer. After some ugly incidents directed against him which rival the intrigues of the Medici popes, Ozawa found himself on the outside looking in, his kidnapping of the BSO for an Asian tour during the Christmas season depriving Massachusetts residents of their precious Nutcracker and robbing him forever of a secure future in Beantown.

But Seiji had always led a double life and his heart and family remained in Japan while he toiled away in America. His own musical awakening, like many others of his generation, had been at the feet of the great teacher Saito Hideo who grew up with the century (he was born in 1902) and was largely instrumental in retraining Eastern ears to the aesthetics and disciplines of Western music. After his own success, Ozawa created the Saito Kinen Orchestra as a yearly reunion of some of the many highly skilled players who owed the same debt to the master as did he. A well-respected summer festival emerged at Matsumoto and the orchestra occasionally gets together at other times of the year for concerts and tours. In fact, the term "Saito Kinen Orchestra" is a generic appellation of respect for other local ensembles in Japan today. As Maestro Ozawa leaves the United States behind, he has chosen in the Mahler valedictory the ultimate expression of farewell available to a conductor of mainstream Western music and is introducing his homeland orchestra at the same time as he is saying goodbye to the cities which lovingly welcomed him during his Boston years.

Ozawa was present at the creation when Bernstein launched the great Mahler revival in the 1960's. From his mentor he learned the grand orchestral gesture and used that very device last evening to help him pace a finely wrought performance. The conductor's platform was off balance during the first movement, so much so that a man with what looked like a popsicle stick had to come out during the first break and insert his device to help level it again. The orchestra's reading followed suit: the beginning rather at sixes and sevens, the final three movements much more unified. Ozawa certainly has the poetry of the piece in his ear and communicated it reasonably well to the less than capacity crowd. The fourth movement was profound, the old long pauses of Bernstein days revived tentatively like the patient itself. I was really quite moved.

Of course, this is essentially a "pick-up" orchestra and so it was impossible to produce a masterfully blended string sound. Using my least favorite platform positioning, with the violas out front stage left, Maestro created a rather shrill, violin-dominated, product which ultimately irritated. Very fine solo wind playing, especially that of clarinetist Karl Leister and hornist Radek Baborak, however, carried the day and released some of the pressure of the raveled strings. The third movement flagged in the middle, Ozawa concentrating so much on the clipping of staccati that he let his lyrical section sag, but ended quite excitingly in the notoriously difficult final dozen measures. What Seiji never absorbed from Lenny was that special Mahlerian lilt (I noticed this some years ago at a Tanglewood "Ressurection") and so the second movement was a bit lead-footed and clunky, the dance in the mind's mirror a little too concave. But overall this was a well thought out landscape and was roundly applauded after a very, very long interval imposed by the conductor.

Seiji will be missed. He brought his BSO to Carnegie Hall every one of his twenty-eight years and endeared himself to several generations of New Yorkers. Hopefully, he will flourish in Vienna (although opera is actually a virtual tabula rasa for him) and can exercise considerable influence from his new office. After all, Mahler did so, even under the weight of crushing critical invective.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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