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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Concert Review: Ozawa Returns, War Requiem Transcends

The conductor returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
He's back: Seiji Ozawa.
Seiji Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra concluded their week-long residency at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night with a glowing performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. The concert concluded the first part of the JapanNYC Festival, a Carnegie Hall celebration with Mr. Ozawa at its center.

The War Requiem was written to commemorate the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, 22 years after its destruction in the Second World War. Britten chose to set the Latin Mass for the dead, but with a twist. He added poems by Wilfred Owen that explored warfare from both sides: from the perspectives of an English and a German soldier. The work combines the ritual of the Mass with the journey of the two enemy soldiers.
Benjamin Britten

Mr. Ozawa is a beloved figure in classical music, following his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However, he has spent the last two years battling esophageal cancer. Already a small man, he looked frail at Saturday's concert, adding an intermission to the program and conducting most of the performance while seated. Once the music started, he was alive and animated, leading the tremendous forces with flair and energy.

Mr. Ozawa built his reputation on large-scale choral works, and the War Requiem is ideally suited to his talents. He moved with surety through the text, drawing fire from the brass and exquisite textures from the chamber-sized orchestra-within-an-orchestra that accompanies the soldiers' songs. At times, he multi-tasked, turning in his seat to lead the children's choir (located in the Carnegie Hall balcony) with one hand, keeping the beat for the the massed forces of chorus and orchestra with the other.

The performance featured three strong vocal soloists. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey brought fine vocal acting and a strong instrument to the role of the English soldier. Baritone Matthias Goerne brought his experience in the role of Wozzeck to bear to relate a three-dimensional portrait of the German soldier.  Christiane Goerke used her piercing, Valkyrie-sized soprano to good effect, particularly in the final Libera Me. The choral work was extraordinary, with the final "Kyrie Eleison" and "Requesciat in Pace" stretched into shimmering chords that seemed to hang, weightless in the air.

The Saito Kinen Orchestra is an unusual ensemble, a divided, multicultural band that was founded by Mr. Ozawa in 1992. For the most part, the orchestra played well, with exceptional performances being delivered by the assembled chamber soloists. There was only one serious problem in the performance as the principal trumpet had trouble generating the proper nobility of tone in the opening of the Dies Irae. However, the brass players recovered in time for the mighty Tuba Mirum, as Mr. Ozawa built a solid wall of interlocking rhythms and noble horns to depict the sounding of the Last Judgment. It was an exciting moment, and one that reminded the listener of how much Mr. Ozawa has been missed.

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