In the field of symphonic music, Japan and Venezuela share many things. In a huge collective effort, Japan built a self-sufficient symphonic universe, filling the privileged space of great concert music in the modern cities that were rebuilt after the war. As Japanese high-precision metalwork and high-craftsmanship traditions faithfully reproduced and even improved all the European symphonic instruments, an outstanding team of professors created an educational system that would eventually bring Japan to the highest symphonic standards without compromising the character of their culture and their prodigious ancestral spirit.
Hideo Saito, mentor of the great Seiji Ozawa, founded the Toho Gakuen school in 1948 to start a youth symphony movement. Eleven years later, Ozawa won the great Besançon conducting prize, imposing his own radically different style, bustling with energy; a reinterpretation of the classics from the vital perspective of the culture that invented the most sophisticated martial arts. Almost a decade later, leading the superb New York Philharmonic in 1968, Ozawa premiered the Double Concerto for Biwa, Shakuhachi and Orchestra by Toru Takemitsu – one of the most important composers of the 20th century, creator of riveting soundtracks for Kurosawa. Ozawa and Takemitsu, working tightly together, managed to project the style and aesthetic complexity of Japan, universalizing them through the symphonic space, the cultural blending potential of which seems endless.
In 1984, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of Maestro Saito, Ozawa founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra – a conglomerate of teachers and soloists that eventually formed the nucleus of a great annual festival dedicated to performing the music of Takemitsu after his death in 1996. Recently, the Saito Kinen Orchestra was guest of honor at the JapanNYC festival. The Orchestra’s troubles were rife – Maestro Ozawa, cured of the cancer that kept him from the podium for many months but weakened by other ailments, had to suspend several general rehearsals and even some of his performances. There were ominous rumors that this was the maestro’s final farewell.
Last week, I had the good fortune to hear him conduct at Carnegie Hall Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a steed he has ridden many a time since his 1959 French triumph. It exceeded perfection. The magical flute of Jacques Zoon (undoubtedly the world’s finest player), the sublime, impeccable singing horn of Radek Baborák, the voluptuous clarinet of Ricardo Morales. Immaculate soloists, so important to this work, articulated a fabulously colorful discourse over a flawless orchestra. The farewell of a colossus. Sad indeed, but at the door of Carnegie Hall a great surprise awaited me. Suddenly, I was greeted warmly by the gifted young Venezuelan conductor Diego Matheuz, Ozawa’s next special guest for the August 2011 Saito Kinen tour of Japan and China. These are not coincidences. As I was saying, Japan and Venezuela share many things.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland