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Magic Metamorphosis : Boston Symphony Has Slowly Transformed to Meet Ozawa's Vision


When the Boston Symphony makes its first local appearances in five years tonight and Friday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, the stamp of music director Seiji Ozawa will be firmly evident.

In the course of his 23-year directorship--he is the longest tenured conductor currently at any major American orchestra--he's appointed more than half the orchestra and gradually transformed it to play the way he wanted it to.

"When I came in," Ozawa, 60, said in a recent phone interview from Boston, "I thought the orchestra had a beautiful sound, a beautiful color for French music. But when they played Mahler or Brahms, it wasn't the [weighty] sound that I grew up with with my teacher, Hideo Saito, who was completely German trained. To me, that was a more natural sound for this repertory."

Making changes "was not so easy at first," Ozawa allowed. "It took seven, eight, maybe 10 years. Each year it was constant work, especially for the string players to play more into the sound."


The results, which have been characterized as both massive and brilliantly coloristic, can be heard in music by Beethoven and Strauss tonight and Mahler on Friday.

Initially, "everybody was worried about losing that French color, but that hasn't happened," he said. "But what I am worried about is losing it now. We've lost some of the key wind players recently, either through retirement or even death. We face so much change. But I think all the new blood is wonderful."

The tour initially was going to include some compositional new blood, too. The first program, as originally announced, was to include Michael Tippett's "The Rose Lake," a BSO commission that premiered in October 1995.

But Tippett's work, which had been put on the tour schedule before it was completed, had to be dropped once its outline was clear. The piece requires a huge percussion apparatus, played by two musicians, that proved to be too much to take on the road.

"We had just asked him for an orchestra piece," Ozawa said. "He didn't tell us what he had in mind. He uses a huge instrument with many, many snare drums. Everything is tuned, so it can play notes. It occupied about three-quarters of the stage. It was impressive.

"It was a very successful piece. We played it here [in Boston] and a couple of times in Carnegie Hall, which [is] the maximum distance we could take it. Because of its size, we could not bring it."

Programming for the road is always about what is possible, Ozawa said. Strauss' "An Alpine Symphony" and Mahler's "Resurrection" are both part of the tour because they "require almost the same orchestra," Ozawa noted. "Backstage brass people are needed in both pieces. Economically, it makes sense."


The "Alpine," however, is comparatively rare.

"We tour so many times with [Strauss'] 'Heldenleben,' 'Also Sprach Zarathustra,' 'Don Quixote,' 'Don Juan'--all these pieces," Ozawa said.

"When I started studying conducting, I found this piece made just a gigantic sound. But when I studied it recently, I found so very much romantic Strauss music. So this time I really concentrate on that area. If I concentrate on the soft passages, the mountain stands up even higher."

Another large-scale work Ozawa is championing these days is Elliot Goldenthal's new "Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio," a work commissioned and premiered by the Pacific Symphony last April under Carl St.Clair, formerly a Boston Symphony assistant conductor before coming to Orange County. Ozawa will lead the BSO in performances of the Goldenthal work, which requires a large orchestra, chorus and two vocal soloists, in Boston, New York and Washington in April.

"I am interested in Goldenthal's music," Ozawa said. "I went to his studio in New York a few years ago--he was about to write an opera--and he played about 20 minutes of the score--choruses, orchestra parts, solos. It was very powerful. I knew only that and his movie music. This piece I did not know.

"But a few people from here went to the premiere and they liked it. The composer is very talented."

Goldenthal spent two years working on the piece, and it was changing right up to the premiere and even afterward. (The Sony recording, by the Pacific Symphony, due out in April, however, preserves the original version heard at the premiere.)

"Now he's had more time, and he really went wild," Ozawa said. "He's made many changes. I'm very impressed with what he did, adding and cutting down. Some things were taken out, but many things put in. It's much stronger.

"I hope we can make sense of this work," Ozawa said. "My dream is, I would love to go to Vietnam with this piece. But this is a sensitive issue for many people. But if anything can be done, music can do it."

* Seiji Ozawa will conduct the Boston Symphony in two different 8 p.m. programs this week at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. Tonight he will conduct Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 and Strauss' "An Alpine Symphony." Friday, he will conduct Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony. $45-$68. (800) 300-4345.

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