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The Maestro At His Heights

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/14/2010 -  
Atsuhiko Gondai: Decathexis (US Premiere) (*)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Opus 37 (*)
Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number 1 in C Minor, Opus 68

Mitsuko Uchida (Piano)
Saito Kinen Orchestra, Tatsuya Shimono (*) (Conductor), Seiji Ozawa (Music Director and Conductor)

S. Ozawa (©us_asians.tripod.com)

Since the quarter-century-old Saito Kinen Orchestra was co-founded by Seiji Ozawa, you know immediately that this ensemble shouldn’t play second fiddle to anybody. Maestro Ozawa has trained them well. The strings, almost all Japanese players, are meticulous. The winds and brass, predominantly gaijin (foreigners) perform well enough with the right conductor.

And that conductor last night, for the first of three concerts in the Japan/New York festival, was of course Maestro Ozawa bringing the orchestra to explosive verve and vigor in Brahms’ First Symphony.

Consider two singular things here. Number, one, the rumors of Maestro Ozawa’s health seem totally unfounded. He stood throughout, his gestures were as far-flung and majestic as ever. That was not only a relief but made for great music.

Secondly, he did what no other conductor his stature ever did. When the Saito Kinen Orchestra came on stage after the intermission, the stage doors did not close, the conductor did not wait for a minute and then enter to thundrrous applause.

Instead, the orchestra strolled on to the usual perfunctory applause, and then, to whispers of “That isn’t…”, “That couldn’t be…”, Maestro Ozawa appeared, strolling on with his musicians. He is a mighty force, but this orchestra is his creation, and he obviously felt at home with it. And from the first portentious notes, we had a mighty Brahms indeed. It was not very warm or loveable (even the Andante sostenuto was taken without any allowances for Brahms’ lush string tones), but it was dark and imperial and at times in the finale, actually glorious.

Mr. Ozawa, at the most emotional moments, can lift his arms like a Jeremiah, and here he did show more than flashes of those old days. The result was a Brahms with Old Testament stateliness and ofttimes regal greatness.

Mr. Ozawa was not the only stellar performer. Mitsuko Uchida, having surveyed Schubert, Mozart and Schoenberg completely, has turned her sights on Beethoven, and she offered the Third Concerto with a strange effect.

M. Uchida (©mysurrealworld.com)

Yes, it was an intelligent, energetic performance, without a hint of overt muscularity (except in the first-movement cadenza). Yes, that opening movement was played with a personal confidence. The dolce sections were tender, the expressive sections were emotional. And yes, she played those third-movement staccato scales with heaven-sent ease. But during the second movement–a virtual soliloquy, a bittersweet rhapsody by Hamlet’s Ophelia–weirdly, the adjective “tactile” kept coming to my mind.

Weird, because of course piano-playing is a tactile experience. But when Ms. Uchida played the Largo, it seemed that she was conscious of touching every key. That the absolute beauty of this movement was played as if for the first time.

(Simultaneously, alas, I sometimes thought of the New Yorker’s Alex Ross at Marlboro, where Ms. Uchida is a practical joker, a wit, something of a cut-up.)

The evening began with Decathexis (co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto), which composer Atsuhiko Gondai explains is a state of Nirvana “reached by abandoning all earthly love.” That isn’t the psychoanalytical definition, which ranges on the aberrant. But the 45-year-old Mr. Gondai is one of the leading lights of Japanese composition. It is thus worth giving part of his explanation:

“We living organisms are presently situated in a time of limited duration. My piece is an acrobatic attempt to accomplish the contradictory task of creating contact between infinity (Eternity) and a single moment (Transience).”

Wow! The acrobatics was performed by keeping the note of C, played by fluttering brass, fluttering winds, fluttering strings throughout the piece. . Around the C are wild chords, and contrapuntal whizzing, and finally, when all these distractions are discarded, we are left with the one C-note in the highest strings.

The architectural equivalent of Decathexis is the Indonesian Buddhist complex, Borobudur, where, as one rises higher and higher, fewer and fewer bas-reliefs, statues, and angles are seen, until one reaches the top and…nothing.

Mr. Gondai’s piece didn’t reach those heavenly heights of pure Nothingness, but it was an entertaining one, with classy fireworks from the Saito Kinen Orchestra.

Harry Rolnick



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