I have a hard time grasping that the last time I saw Seiji Ozawa was six years ago at Tanglewood, in his final concert as Music Director of the Boston Symphony. At the time of his departure, most music critics - and, by turn, the BSO board - had turned on him, saying that after 29 years he'd overstayed his welcome, allowing the quality of playing in the orchestra to deteriorate to an unacceptable level. I'm neither a musician nor a critic, but, frankly, I thought that was all bullshit. I must have seen Seiji conduct at least a dozen times at Tanglewood and Carnegie over the years, and each and every one of those concerts was a powerful - if not overwhelming - musical experience. I mean, hell, if he's good enough for Vienna...
For all the times I saw him, though, I never had the chance to hear Seiji conduct in Boston. That is, until Saturday night, when he returned to Symphony Hall for the first time since 2002, leading the BSO in an all-French program of Messiaen and Berlioz. (He also conducted a Friday matinee, which I would have made were it not for the dummies at the New Jersey DMV, where I'd gone that morning to renew my license.) It was worth the wait: when the 73 year-old Seiji bounced onstage, the capacity crowd welcomed him home with a wild, raucous ovation.
It's been thirty years since Seiji conducted the only prior BSO performances of Messiaen's Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence divine (1944) for orchestra, women's chorus, celesta, piano and ondes Martenot - the same instrumentation Messiaen used four years later in his Turangalîla-Symphonie (which the BSO commissioned and premiered). The Liturgies have long been difficult for audiences to grasp, mostly for its weird, almost goofy sonic palette and its evocative, erotically-charged text, in which Messiaen sought to convey the divine presence in all things.
"Sun of blood, of birds, my rainbow of love, wilderness of love, sing, cast love's aureole, my Love, my God."
Messiaen throws everything but the kitchen sink at this 1/2 hour-long work: birdsong, whooping electronics, crashing cymbals, pounding bass and tam-tams. But, amidst all that noise are moments of pure, sublime beauty: the sonority of the women's chorus at the end of the first liturgy, or the swelled strings that take over the middle of the third. It was the aural equivalent of reaching the crest of a hill overlooking a vast, verdant valley.
For this performance, Seiji engaged a pair of heavy hitters: pianist (and TASHI founding member) Peter Serkin, and ondist (?) Takashi Harada, along with the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. I was seated in the fourth row of the orchestra, practically in Harada's lap. Which, at first was great: the combined sound of the orchestra and chorus was intense, even overpowering - yet never out-of-balance. But, then, towards the end of the second liturgy, the ondes Martenot got loud. Really loud. As in a piercing, shrieking: Beiiiiiiiooooooooooo!!! that drowned out the orchestra and left me giggling uncontrollably. Certainly not the silly sort of thing you'll ever hear Jimmy conduct in Boston. But, even with the ridiculous volume, Seiji, with his still-youthful temperament, somehow made it work. Listen for yourself: Download Audio File
I'll never forget the time Seiji and the BSO came to Carnegie in October 2001, swapping out their planned program for a powerfully-moving performance of Berlioz' Reqiuem, in remembrance of the victims of 9/11. That memory came rushing back the minute he launched into the Symphonie Fantastique, which Berlioz wrote in an opium-fueled fever when he was only 26. It's a young man's piece, but totally crazy and brilliant, like Dock Ellis' perfect game on acid.
Seiji conducted from memory with tremendous warmth and feeling, which the players reflected with a performance that was as close to perfect as anything I've ever heard in a concert hall. After a standing ovation and several curtain calls, it was pretty clear to me that Boston sorely misses their Seiji. And, from what I could tell, the feeling's mutual.
For those in New York, you can catch Seiji this week in the pit of the Met Opera, where he's conducting Tchiakovsky's Queen of Spades, with Ben Heppner and Maria Guleghina. Tickets are still available for all perforamances. (More pics after the jump.)