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After 29 years leading the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa finds new life with the Vienna Philharmonic—even among the classics.

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The ex-Bostonian: Ozawa has always been better regarded in Europe than in America.  

It seemed to happen when no one was looking. Yesterday’s hot young glamour boys of the podium are rapidly becoming the music world’s senior citizens. The venerable conductors of my youth—Toscanini, Stokowski, Beecham, Walter, Koussevitzky, Monteux, Reiner, Mitropoulos, and Furtwängler—are long gone, and today’s old masters are Maazel, Abbado, Haitink, Mehta, Previn, Ozawa, Barenboim, Muti, and Levine. Times have definitely changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Far be it from me to disparage these busy and efficient maestros, whose work I have often admired over the years, but something of value has surely been lost. What most of us miss is the exhilarating sense of occasion that those old-time magicians, each one a potent musical personality, invariably conjured up whenever they appeared before an orchestra. That has pretty much vanished, a fact I recently had plenty of time to ponder while attending three concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. Seiji Ozawa was the conductor, and although I saw few empty seats, most of the connoisseurs and tastemakers who make a point of being at Carnegie Hall when they feel something truly exceptional is about to happen stayed away. Apparently, the cognoscenti considered the combination of Vienna and Ozawa to be an event of small importance.

One could understand that, since Ozawa, now 68 and music director of the Vienna State Opera, has never communicated a particularly arresting musical profile. He recently concluded 29 years as head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to all outward appearances a comfortable relationship, but one that didn’t generate any special character or excitement—Koussevitzky’s colorful quarter-century with the BSO, by contrast, had a vast influence on both the musical life of Boston and the country as a whole. Harsh press criticism of Ozawa was muted during his long reign, but one constantly heard nasty digs from the sidelines. The only possible explanation why he stayed on so long, some puzzled observers swore, was that his powerful manager—Ronald Wilford, longtime head of Columbia Artists Management and legendary manipulator of conductors’ careers in this country—enjoyed having Ozawa as a summer tennis partner at Tanglewood.

Naturally, there’s a good deal more to it than that, but many still think that Ozawa, despite his meticulous preparation and organizational skill, is a pretty dull fellow, more highly regarded in Europe than he ever was in America. Or perhaps it’s just that he stayed in Boston about twice as long as he should have. In any case, I was surprised to find an apparently reinvigorated conductor leading the Vienna musicians on this occasion. I wouldn’t say I was blown out of my seat by music-making of inspired feeling or awesome depth, but at least there was a welcome sense of urgency and involvement that I seldom felt when Ozawa conducted the Boston band.

Of course, the repertory was the Vienna Philharmonic’s meat and drink, music that this orchestra can make sound glorious no matter who is in front of them: symphonies by Schubert (Unfinished), Beethoven (Eroïca), and Bruckner (No. 2), tone poems by Strauss (Don Juan) and Schoenberg (Pelleas und Melisande), along with works by Mahler, Stravinsky, and Webern. Still, Ozawa’s contribution was not to be sneered at, especially in the Bruckner symphony, the kind of large-scale mosaic structure that has always responded best to his sense for orderly procedures and instrumental clarity. Even the Eroïca had its moments, perhaps because both conductor and orchestra agreed to emphasize the score’s forward-looking romantic drama rather than its classical roots. At any rate, Ozawa seems to have found a happy new home in Vienna, enjoying a change of scene that the other workhorse conductors of his generation might find equally rejuvenating.


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