Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Seiji Ozawa

The New York Times reported today that conductor Seiji Ozawa, scheduled to conduct at Carnegie Hall, will only be able to conduct part of the scheduled programme. Mr. Ozawa, who has been recovering from surgery for oesophageal cancer, is now suffering from back problems stemming from the past months’ inactivity. His absence from concert activity has really left a void in the world of classical music.

It is difficult to see Seiji Ozawa as an old man. Other than his incredible musical talent, Ozawa burst on to the musical scene in the 1960's with his hippie hair style, the beads that he wore, and his hip clothing, and became the talk of wherever he was appearing. Unkind critics harped on these superficial things, and quickly labelled his music making “superficial”, and lacking in “depth”. Just as they earlier criticized Glenn Gould for singing while playing, Karajan for closing his eyes while conducting, and Bernstein for jumping too high when he conducted, critics see these superficial traits and allow them to bias their judgement on what is essential, namely, the music making.

Seiji Ozawa is a great conductor, a great musician. Leaving his native Japan upon finishing his studies, and with barely a word of a western language, he quickly made a name for himself as a musician of exceptional talent. Success followed success – assistantship to Bernstein in New York, coaching with Herbert von Karajan in Berlin, music directorship in Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, Boston, Vienna, and of course, Japan. Again, critics became suspicious – too much success too quickly, they say. Nobody can really be that good.

One of the arts’ greatest tragedies is the power and influence of the critic. They can raise an artist to the skies one day, and destroy him or her the next day. Artists, who are in the “good books” of these musical writers, can do no wrong. Others never seem to get a good review no matter what he or she does. In book stores, we find impressive volumes of the “greatest” Classical music recordings, where the authors “grade” the performances of great musicians – one star for this, three stars for something they really like – as if they were school children submitting an essay.

For years, Richard Dyer, critic for the Boston Globe, had been raging war against Mr. Ozawa’s performances with the Boston Symphony, calling him a weak music director and an even worse conductor. Recent history of the performing arts has been full of examples of such battles between critic and artist – Harold Schonberg and Leonard Bernstein, Claudia Cassidy and Jean Martinon, and later Georg Solti in Chicago.

Early on in his career, Mr. Ozawa was criticized in Japan as being too western in his ways. In America later on, critics, perhaps running out of invectives, say that he is “too Japanese” – he cannot really have any deep understanding of our music.

Of course, no critic, no matter how powerful, can really destroy talents like Ozawa, Bernstein or Solti. We only have to look at some of his fellow musicians, among them Serkin (Rudolf and Peter), Jesse Norman, Yo Yo Ma, Kissin, Zimmerman, and Rostropovich, who love collaborating with him. Great orchestras in Berlin, London, Paris, Boston, San Francisco, and Tokyo, keep asking him back. Luck can carry a mediocre talent only so far, and certainly not for so many decades.

Among his many incredible and memorable performances, we can list Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Mozart’s Idomeneo, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Messian’s Saint Francis of Assisi, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades, all of the Mahler symphonies, many of Strauss’ tone poems, to name just a few. Ozawa has always been a tireless champion of contemporary music, performing the works of today’s composers, whether world famous or relative unknown. The aforementioned Saint Francis of Assisi by Messian, a major 20th century opera, was premiered by Mr. Ozawa. In his music making, Mr. Ozawa uses his talent and charisma to draw our attention to the beauty of the music, not to himself.

Conductor Andre Previn, who worked as a composer in Hollywood before embarking on a conducting career, had to work hard to shed his reputation as a “Hollywood composer”, said that reviews for his early concerts inevitably began with something like, “Last night, Hollywood’s Andre Previn…” Once he read those words, he said, he could almost dictate the rest of the review. Previn also added that it is perfectly fine to ignore a bad review, as long as one can ignore the good ones as well.

Bias and prejudice are powerful factors, and no one is immune from them, but coupled them with a position of power, and the results become dangerous. Now that Mr. Ozawa is an old man, perhaps the distinguished writers of the major newspaper will finally begin to see the “depth” and “conviction” in his performances, things that have been hallmarks of his music making all along.

Patrick May
December 7, 2010

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