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Meditation and Opium

New York
Carnegie Hall
12/15/2010 -  
Toru Takemitsu: November Steps (*)
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

Yukio Tanaka (biwa), Kifu Mitsuhashi (shakuhachi)
Saito Kinen Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, Tatsuya Shimono (*) (conductors)

S. Ozawa (© Shintaro Shiratori)

Before embarking on his record-breaking tenure in Boston, Seiji Ozawa spent a few seasons with the Toronto Symphony. During this period, he conducted the world premiere of November Steps by Toru Takemitsu, following up with the first recording of the piece for RCA Victor. The two record set, featuring Messiaen’s Turangalîla is a prize in my own personal vinyl collection, the Robert Indiana cover a sure sign of its early ‘70’s origins. Mr. Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra on Wednesday evening at Carnegie Hall planned to revisit this neglected masterpiece as part of the kickoff of the storied venue’s Japan/New York Festival.
However, life interferes and Maestro’s back forced him to yield the baton to Tatsuya Shimono. What could have been a disappointment was mitigated by the sense that Mr. Ozawa was integral to the preparation of this superb performance. The work is really a chamber piece for two traditional Japanese instruments, the shakuhachi, a large recorder with a much breathier sound than its Western equivalent, and the biwa, a larger relative of the mandolin that is struck, plucked and beaten with a hand-filling triangular device that can produce a myriad of sonic images. The shakuhachi is often employed in Zen meditation, sometimes with a bell accompaniment, and many hypertension sufferers, this reviewer included, have lowered their blood pressure significantly by listening to its contemplative, evocative utterances. The orchestra is relegated to a minimal (although not minimalist) obbligato role but seemed to hit its marks when summoned by the leader.

Mr. Ozawa appeared at Tuesday’s concert after intermission to guide a performance of the Brahms 1. This ensemble is rather a rough-hewn one, with a nervy and somewhat edgy sound. This worked just fine for the Brahms, although at the same time begging the question as to whether they could handle the next evening’s ball scene by Berlioz and establish whether they can play with sophisticated elegance. By and large, they succeeded in the Symphonie fantastique under Ozawa, clearly a superior group in matters of precision, even as the string sound is a little on the anemic side.
A bit of imbalance and a realistic assessment of overall sound aside, the ensemble delivered a fine reading of the first three movements, one that produced more than its share of delicately gorgeous moments. Like virtually all modern conductors, Ozawa took the "March to the Scaffold" much too fast – you try marching at that tempo – and the result was a mishmash that was mercifully brief. However, the ensemble made a smart recovery in the final hair-raising section, the brass especially agile and suitably frightening.

There were over a dozen film crews in attendance for the first night and many returned for the second. Don’t be surprised if excerpts from these events wind up on late night cable channels. If they do, go make some coffee and listen. It will be well worth staying up past your bedtime.

Fred Kirshnit



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