In his final appearances at Symphony Hall as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), Seiji Ozawa showed why he will be sorely missed when he departs for the Vienna State Opera next season. Ozawa conducted that great farewell symphony, Mahler’s Ninth, with a degree of sensitivity that affirmed his stature as one of the great conductors of our time.
Ozawa came to the BSO in 1973, and in his first three seasons was also music director of the San Francisco Symphony. His tenure has not been without controversy. There was the occasional grumbling about working for a “jet-set” conductor with tedious rehearsal habits. Certain critics found his Baroque and Classical repertoire interpretations unsatisfying and uninformed, though anyone who heard him conduct a marvelous Bach Mass in B Minor last season can certainly refute that claim. However, his innumerable contributions are often overlooked. Audiences and musicians alike have responded to his passionate podium presence and technical brilliance. He has impeccable tastes in repertoire; a quick glance in the program at all the works he has conducted with the BSO since becoming music director confirms that. And he has premiered and commissioned works by leading composers such as Dutilleux, Harbison, Corigliano, Rands and Takemitsu.
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, written in 1909, is ultimately about farewell, as the work makes repeated use of a two-note falling motive, first used in the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde, which Mahler extends to form a three-note quotation from Beethoven’s Les Adieux piano sonata. These motivic constructions permeate every movement of the piece. Leonard Bernstein, in his 1973 Norton lectures here at Harvard, defined the symphony as a farewell to life, tonality and “our Faustian society.” There was no doubt, however, that the BSO’s concert was a lovingly performed farewell to Ozawa.
It goes without saying that Ozawa conducted the symphony without a score, and indeed his capacity for memorizing works is one of the great wonders of the conducting world. He displayed his natural and fluid podium style; conducting batonless and swaying hypnotically with the music, his sweeping horizontal gestures moved the half-hour first movement Andante comodo along. He chose his tempi with the utmost of care; the opening movement was convincingly played, its construction logically laid out, its peaks ecstatic and its valleys expansive. When one thinks of all the great conductors who have left recordings of the work—from Bruno Walter to Leonard Bernstein—and how divergent their interpretations have been, Ozawa’s performance seemed to capture and tie together some of their most effective moments.
The second movement ländler was appropriately rustic, while the rondo-burlesque, taken at an exciting but never hurried tempo, culminated in an electrifying outburst at its conclusion. In between the faster fugato sections were heavenly trumpet solos. While the third movement showcased the brass, the strings came through in the last movement, sustaining the intensity of the long phrases until the very end. Bernstein described the final page of the symphony as “the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying. The slowness of this page is terrifying.” As the final notes died out, an interval of silent, respectful awe finally gave way to a thundering standing ovation for Ozawa. A humble and diminutive man, he repeatedly acknowledged BSO timpanist Vic Firth, who is retiring this season after 50 years with the orchestra.
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony served as a moving and fitting end to Ozawa’s long and distinguished tenure here in Boston. It was impossible not to be swept up in the moment. As elated, teary-eyed patrons made their way out of Symphony Hall, it became quite obvious just how much Ozawa has meant to all who have had the privilege of hearing him conduct the BSO. Ozawa will appear for three more concerts with the BSO at Tanglewood from July 12-14 before leaving for Vienna. Music Director-designate James Levine, who has already been given a warm, extended welcome by BSO musicians and audiences alike, arrives permanently in 2004 with large shoes to fill.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Seiji Ozawa, Conductor
Apr. 19, 2002