Saito Kinen Orchestra in New York [Gondai, Beethoven & Brahms]

Decathexis [Co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto: US premiere]
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Saito Kinen Orchestra
Tatsuya Shimono [Gondai & Beethoven]
Seiji Ozawa [Brahms]

Reviewed by: Gail Wein

Reviewed: 14 December, 2010
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Seiji Ozawa. Photograph: Hilary ScottAn image of Seiji Ozawa from 35 years ago is etched in my mind: moppish black mane, white turtleneck and mod pendant necklace, leading the Boston Symphony with graceful balletic moves on our living-room television. To young and impressionable me, this man made being a conductor into something cool. Ozawa’s career in the West spans over 50 years, with stints from Ravinia to San Francisco, and, famously, Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony.

Ozawa is artistic director of JapanNYC, Carnegie Hall’s ambitious, two-part, two-coast festival with a dizzying array of venues and collaborators. His appearance with the Saito Kinen Orchestra kicked off the festival with near-perfect performances of standard repertoire and a gem of a new composition in its US premiere. Ozawa was scheduled to conduct the concert, but his recent bout with sciatica (and recovery from esophageal cancer) kept him from all but one work, albeit a major one: Brahms’s Symphony No.1.

Ozawa co-founded the Saito Kinen orchestra in 1984, as homage to his mentor, Hideo Saito. In his native Japan, Saito influenced a generation of Japanese musicians, and is best known as the co-founder of one of Japan’s leading music institutions, Toho Gakuen School of Music. Ozawa held the orchestra with tight reins in the Brahms Symphony, especially in the first movement. After a long drink from a water-bottle between movements, the conductor approached the remainder of the work with renewed strength. The Andante was liquid, gliding almost accent-less, the concertmaster’s solo hovering gorgeously. One of the high points was the breathtakingly executed accelerando in the finale: Ozawa seemed to let go of those reins completely, resulting in a fast and thrilling conclusion. The performance was so close to perfect that a small crack in the brass section was a true surprise.

Tatsuya Shimono, who stepped in to conduct the first half of the program, is a regular guest with major Japanese orchestras, and is resident conductor of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra. His facility was evident in the translucent performances he led. Of the new work, Decathexis means the state of Nirvana. The Japanese-born Atsuhiko Gondai describes it as “an aerobic attempt to accomplish the contradictory task of creating contact between infinity (Eternity) and a single moment (Transience)”. The description is sufficiently trippy to make one wonder if it’s new-age fluff and, indeed, the first couple of minutes bear that out. The airy flutes and rumble of bassoons and trombones combine to a wooshy texture. The strings continue on eternal up-bow like an inhalation, the repeatedly rising figures like M. C. Escher’s drawings of endless stairways. Gondai toys with layers of timbres, producing an ethereal, yet at the same time gutsy sound. The orchestra seemed to achieve its own state of Nirvana, executing the score with perfect ensemble and intonation. The ending is most effective; a single violin played an ascending scale, a long diminuendo into silence, as if posing the eternal question of life.

Mitsuko Uchida gave an absolutely splendid performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3. She has a delicate yet authoritative touch which produced a seemingly effortless result. Her angelic tone and elegant technique bring to mind a harp drenched in gold. The orchestral accompaniment was exceptionally well-balanced, revealing the inner workings of Beethoven’s orchestration.

That the Saito Kinen Orchestra is not familiar to American audiences is not surprising. It comes to the US infrequently – about once a decade – though tours Europe more regularly. It’s a festival orchestra, comprising professionals from other ensembles who come together for the Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto, and for other occasions. This Carnegie Hall performance left me wanting more. Fortunately, the orchestra performs a third time this week, on December 18, Seiji Ozawa conducting Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”.

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