Seiji Ozawa’s Humanity Shines in Geneva

Debussy, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Bach, Bartok:  Agata Szymczewska, Alexandra Soumm (violins), Seiji Ozawa International Academy, Seiji Ozawa (conductor), Victoria Hall, Geneva, 28.6.2014 (AL)

Debussy: String Quartet 1st  Mouvement Animé et très décidé
Beethoven: String Quartet op 18 nr 3 2nd Movement, Andante con moto
Schumann: String Quartet op 41 nr 3 3rd Movement,  Adagio Molto
Schubert: String Quintet D 956 2nd Movement, Adagio
Brahms: String Sextet op 18  1st Movement,Allegro ma non troppo
Bach: Concerto fpr two violins BWV 1043 2nd Movement, Largo ma non tanto
Bartok: Divertimento Molto adagio and Allegro Assai, 2nd Movement

Throughout his career, Seiji Ozawa has kept alive the memories and lessons of his many teachers, whether they be conductors like von Karajan, Bernstein or Munch, or Japanese professor Hideo Saito. It was Saito who turned Ozawa’s attention to the value of chamber music as the best way to discover composers at their purest.

Ozawa has organized many sessions with young students on the string quartet in Tanglewood as well as in Matsumoto. With the help of Robert Mann, the Juilliard String Quartet’s founder, he started the Seiji Ozawa International Academy to create a working environment where he could spend time with young players and coach them through chamber music. The academy began 18 years ago in Japan and 10 years ago in Switzerland, and players like Pamela Frank, Nobuko Imai and Sadao Harada have joined the ranks of professors working in the academy. As is the tradition, the players perform one concert in Victoria Hall at the end of the academy, and one later in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. This year, players from ten countries took part in the Academy. Their concert consisted of individual movements from chamber music pieces; musicians played on their own in the first half, and under Ozawa in the second.

How nerve-racking it must be for young players (the youngest here are 18) to go on a prestigious stage like Victoria Hall and be exposed in such demanding works. In chamber music, everything is visible: intonation, development, balance, rhythm. You can hide in an orchestra but not in a string quartet. All these works enabled us to hear and discover the genuine talent of players who have mastered their instruments beautifully. However, their youth translated sometimes into a certain timidity. They are on the way to taking more risks and revealing more depth in the works, but their playing was often a bit too respectful. But make no mistake, this will come with age and it’s already showing. In the Brahms sextet, the players delivered a rich sound, and the alto and violoncello had some distinctive phrasing. Best of all was the Debussy, which was the opening work, and some very understandable nervousness could be seen and heard. But when the initial theme from the opening came back in the conclusion, one noticed the characterization and depth that had already developed just by going on a stage and performing in front of the audience.

In the second half of the program, the musicians did not walk in and wait for Seiji Ozawa to enter. True to his values, Ozawa walked on stage alongside his musicians and chatted with them. Nothing in his behavior indicated the complacent attitude of a star performer condescending to spend some of his precious time with young players.

At his age and after his grave illness, Ozawa is somewhat frailer and has to spend limited time conducting, but he is definitely the same. The Largo of the Bach two-violin concerto was played to celebrate two of the most faithful alumni of the academy, Agata Szymczewska and Alexandra Soumm. Seiji Ozawa conducted half-seated with minimal intervention, but he knew when to stand up to indicate to the lower strings of the orchestra to step in with a counterpoint that echoed the soaring and singing lines of the two violins.

Ozawa stood as usual for the Bartok (which was commissioned by Swiss mécène and musician Paul Sacher). What was striking from the first minute was the transformation of the sound that was achieved. It is not just that the musicians were now playing together and could produce more sound, the colors and the intensity were dramatically different, making us enter the angst-ridden world of night sounds which is a trademark of Bartok’s music. Particular care was taken to bring out the long lines of the movement. Ozawa had the first and second violins exchange seats between the movements so they would perform under different expositions. In the Allegro, the players achieved a much greater dynamic than the quartets would have led us to expect. Attacks were sharp and characterization was high. The contribution of Alexandra Soumm as first violin was superb, her tone full and her enthusiasm contagious. Ozawa’s rhythmic vitality and sense of wonder were a marvel.

Two years ago, Ozawa and his musicians encored with the first movement of the Tchaikovsky serenade ( I would strongly encourage readers to watch this document to get a sense of what was achieved. There was no encore this time, but it was one of those evenings when one should feel blessed to have been present on a very special occasion, and that is all. This and the forthcoming Paris concert are the two that Ozawa has done in the last couple of years, and I am not aware he has plans for others. As at the all-too-rare appearances of Claudio Abbado, there was this evening a special sense of mastery, of a certain humanity that only comes with age, but also a certain magic that can only come when working with younger generations.

Antoine Leboyer

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