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Keeping Time at Tanglewood

Longtime music director Seiji Ozawa made a lot of changes at Tanglewood during his years as head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. TIM PAGE looks at the Ozawa legacy.

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July 2002: Ozawa's final concert at Tanglewood as BSO music director
© Michael Lutch 2004
"There can be no question that Tanglewood is a more adventurous, more exciting place than it was before Ozawa."
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Ozawa conducting in July

© Michael Lutch 2004
He stayed too long. On that matter, at least, there is general agreement. By the time Seiji Ozawa stepped down as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2002, he had held the position for almost thirty years. It was an even longer tenure than that of the legendary Serge Koussevitzky, who had reigned from 1924 to 1949 and turned the BSO into one of the world's great orchestras in the process.

Nobody had expected Ozawa to remain for so long. Almost from the beginning of his appointment, it was said that he missed his native Japan, that he wanted to do more guest conducting in Europe, that he envisioned replacing Herbert von Karajan as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, and so on. As early as 1981, critic Irving Kolodin wrote a cover story for the Saturday Review entitled "Seiji Ozawa: Why He Will Leave The Boston Symphony." It was a bad call all around: the magazine folded the following summer, and Ozawa would still be leading the BSO two decades on.

He had taken Boston by storm in the early 1970s - a shaggy, youthful maestro who radiated energy and challenged stereotypes. It was the long twilight of the counterculture, and Boston was basking in its exalted status as the capital of collegiate hip. Ozawa's studiously groovy, love-beaded image (adeptly played up by the BSO's public relations department) seemed to promise a swinging new music director for a swinging new age.

There was more to Ozawa than that, of course, just as there was more to Boston than college dormitories. Underneath all the trappings, Ozawa was a deeply serious musician in a city that prided itself on taking its culture seriously. As one looks around Symphony Hall, beneath the stern statuary and the single name of "Bee-thoven" carved into the proscenium, one finds an orchestral audience of extraordinary sophistication and diversity. BSO concerts attract rich and poor, old and young in relatively equal proportions; patrons listen to contemporary works with rapt, discerning attention, applaud - genuinely, thoughtfully - when they are over, and then discuss the premiere intelligently at intermission.

It was an ideal appointment for the prodigiously gifted Ozawa, who, according to Richard Dyer, music critic of TheBoston Globe, won the position with a brilliant and immaculate rendition of Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin. "The young Ozawa displayed the greatest physical gift for conducting of anyone in his generation, and a range and accuracy of musical memory that struck awe and envy into the hearts of most musicians who encountered it," Dyer recalled. He was, Dyer said, "calligraphy in motion, precise and evocative" - and Boston took him to heart.

But Symphony Hall is only part of the BSO story. On the other side of the state, almost all the way down the Massachusetts Turnpike to the New York border, there is Tanglewood. And indeed, to make matters even more complicated, there are, in effect, two Tanglewoods.

First, there is Tanglewood the place - the summer home of the Boston Symphony since 1937, and a pilgrimage destination for music-lovers from hundreds of miles around. It is a spot of rare beauty; it is also a spectacular cash cow for the BSO. The main concert hall alone, known as the Shed, seats 6,000 people, and there is room for at least three times that many on the surrounding lawn.

Even more important, perhaps, is what might be called Tanglewood the mission. It was Koussevitzky himself who in 1940 founded what was then called the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, envisioning it as a summer academy for the training of young musicians that would offer them steady cross-fertilization with members of a major symphony orchestra and visiting artists in a festival setting. Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss were in the first class; sixty-four years later, many thousands have attended classes at what is now known as the Tanglewood Music Center. It was the first, and is still the most prestigious, summer program for musicians in the U.S., and it has changed a lot of lives.

It was to Tanglewood that the young Seiji Ozawa came in 1960 - his first visit to America - to study with Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux. He had originally planned to be a pianist, but after breaking two fingers playing rugby in his teens, he turned to conducting instead. Ozawa's training in the techniques of music had been rigorous - there was no passage too complicated for him to count - but, as he himself would later admit, there were huge gaps in his musical culture. For one, he had only heard his first opera the year before.

Still, Ozawa won Tanglewood's highest honor - the Koussevitzky Prize - with his conducting that summer. Bernstein was so impressed that he appointed the young maestro assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, beginning in the 1961-62 season. He became music director of the Ravinia Festival in 1964 and the Toronto Symphony in 1965. In 1970, only a decade after his first visit to Tanglewood, Ozawa was appointed co-artistic director of the festival, sharing his duties with composer and conductor Gunther Schuller, who was in charge of the conservatory. He was determined to make a change - and he did.

"When I came, there was very little money for Tanglewood, and the audiences were not large," Ozawa told the Globe in 2002. "I remember I once wanted to engage the cellist Jacqueline du Pré to play, and I was told she was too expensive for us at Tanglewood. I felt Tanglewood ought to be the most important international music festival in America, and to do that, we would have to spend more money, and gradually the management and board came to agree with me."

Some of the changes that took place at Tanglewood during Ozawa's tenure had little to do with him. It was the BSO board of directors that acquired the Highwood estate - 120 acres right next door to the Tanglewood grounds - in 1987, at a cost of $1.75 million, doubling the size of the campus. And it was the Sony International Corporation that donated $3 million toward the construction of the $10.7 million Seiji Ozawa Hall at Highwood - a lovely, multi-windowed structure that opened in 1994 and has been much admired for its intimacy and versatility.

But Ozawa had a profound effect on the festival's programming. "Important international artists began to come to Tanglewood, and then they went back to Europe, telling everyone how beautiful the place is and what a good place it is to work in, so all the other important artists wanted to come to Tanglewood too," Ozawa said.

Dyer concurs. "Seiji was anxious to turn Tanglewood into an international festival on the very highest level, like Edinburgh or Salzburg. And even if he didn't quite accomplish that, he certainly did up the ante."

To this end, Ozawa started to present semi-staged operas in the Shed - Puccini's Tosca with Shirley Verrett, in 1980; Nicolai Ghiaurov as Boris Godunov the following year. Other works performed in this manner included Gluck's Orfeo, Beethoven's Fidelio, Berg's Wozzeck, Strauss's Elektra, Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher and Verdi's Falstaff. A 1990 performance of Mozart's Idomeneo gave an early boost to the career of Renée Fleming, who took over for an ailing singer in the role of Ilia.

"Opera is something we did not have in Japan," Ozawa recalled in 1999. "The first opera I ever saw was in Vienna in 1959, The Marriage of Figaro, conducted by von Karajan. I remember he also played the recitatives at the keyboard. I was the guest of a very distinguished Japanese lady who had been a friend of my teacher, Hideo Saito, and she also took me to the Opera Ball. I had to rent everything I wore, including the white gloves, which I hated. I didn't even have shoes." It was not until the mid-1960s that Ozawa conducted his first opera - a concert rendition of Rigoletto, with Reri Grist and George London.

Dyer, whose tenure in Boston almost exactly corresponds with Ozawa's, recalls some of the early Tanglewood productions. "The Tosca was done before Seiji really had figured out what he meant to accomplish with semi-staged opera, and it had some questionable moments - Shirley Verrett walking over and hitting her Scarpia, Sherrill Milnes, in the chest, for example. Put it this way, it wasn't the most vital Tosca I've ever seen! And some pieces didn't seem right for Seiji.

"Best of all was a student production of Peter Grimes," Dyer goes on, "to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its U.S. premiere. That was a revelation to me. It wasn't anything that he would have been asked to do, but he did it better than a lot of British conductors I could name, who are supposed to have this music in their blood. Seiji learned the whole opera to conduct two student performances, which says something about his commitment to Tanglewood."

In 1997, that same "commitment" made Ozawa the subject of some controversy. He felt the school had become calcified - that, as one long-term observer had it, a place that was supposed to be about innovation had turned into a place about tradition. He had long wanted the members of the BSO to become more active in working with the students. Feeling that his suggestions were being ignored, Ozawa pushed out Richard Ortner, a popular administrator.

The move was met with fury in some circles. Pianist Leon Fleisher, who had been the artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center since 1985, left his position (whether he jumped or was pushed remains a subject of contention) and fired off a blistering three-page letter to Ozawa, accusing him of caving in to commercial interests, that found its way to both The New York Times and TheBoston Globe. Several other faculty members - among them the pianist Gilbert Kalish and the bassist Julius Levine - also left at this time.

But Ozawa found support from other Tanglewood legends, including soprano Phyllis Curtin, whose master classes in voice are justly famous. "His decision to become more involved was perfectly reasonable," she told The New York Times in 1998. "This place becomes a part of you, and now that he has reached the top of his profession here and abroad, he wants to become a part of it."

Ozawa did indeed become a part of it, and in Dyer's view, he has had more influence on the festival than anybody since Koussevitzky. "Not every change at Tanglewood went smoothly, and not every change was for the better," he wrote. "But there can be no question that Tanglewood is a busier, more adventurous, and more exciting place than it was before Ozawa became music director, and the relationship between idealism in the school and practicality in the Shed is much closer and more interactive than it used to be."

In short, Ozawa's legacy to the festival he adorned for so many years is much more than just a name on a concert hall. It remains to be seen what incoming music director James Levine will make of Tanglewood; curiously enough, it is one of the few major summer festivals where he has had little input. (He studied at both the Marlboro Music Festival and Aspen and was later the music director at Ravinia for twenty years.) The BSO, long primed for a change, is eagerly awaiting Levine's arrival this fall - and then the promise of more summer evenings under the stars at Tanglewood.

TIM PAGE is chief classical-music critic for The Washington Post.

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