Leader and Players, Deeply Bound (Ozawa and Saito Kinen Orchestra)

Leader and Players, Deeply Bound

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Seiji Ozawa conducting the Saito Kinen Orchestra at JapanNYC, a festival at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday.

Published: December 16, 2010

Even as rehearsals were under way for the three important concerts by the Saito Kinen Orchestra in Carnegie Hall’s extensive festival JapanNYC, there was lingering uncertainty over the extent to which the conductor Seiji Ozawa, the festival’s artistic director, would be able to participate. Mr. Ozawa, 75, has been debilitated with health problems, including surgery and treatments for esophageal cancer and the worsening of chronic back ailments.

He decided to conduct only the major work in the second half of each of the first two programs: Brahms’s First Symphony on Tuesday night, andBerlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” on Wednesday. The other pieces were led by Tatsuya Shimono, a young, highly skilled Japanese conductor. (Mr. Ozawa is to conduct Britten’s “War Requiem” in the final concert, on Saturday.)

To ease the strain on Mr. Ozawa’s back, an elegant bench with a soft fabric cover was placed on the conductor’s stand. But as it turned out, Mr. Ozawa did not spend much time sitting during the impassioned, inspired and musically astute performances of the Brahms and Berlioz works. His special bond with the musicians of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which he helped found in 1984 to honor the memory of his mentor, the violinist and conductor Hideo Saito, came through even before the performances began. On each night he walked out with the players, just one among equals. Though always wiry and trim, Mr. Ozawa looked understandably thin and frail at his first appearance. But once the music started, he conducted with balletic gestures and complete absorption and, as is his way, from memory.

Though Mr. Ozawa has been a significant force on the international scene for more than four decades, the low points of his career may have come during the affiliation for which he is best known: his 29-year tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He achieved some great things in Boston but stayed too long. Thechemistry between Mr. Ozawa and his players had fizzled way before he stepped down in 2002.

Yet even during the down times in Boston, Mr. Ozawa often did splendid work with others, especially the Saito Kinen Orchestra, to which he was devoted. The orchestra, based in Matsumoto, has a large core of Japanese musicians, especially the string players. But the roster routinely includes musicians from major international orchestras.

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