Seiji Ozawa makes a triumphant return to Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

There’s nothing like a comeback story. This summer, Japan saw a return to the stage by Seiji Ozawa, one of the country’s most celebrated musicians.

On Aug. 23, the 78-year-old maestro took up his baton at the Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto, the event he founded and directs. It was his first appearance on the podium in Matsumoto for two years after a string of cancellations due to poor health. The night Ozawa returned, though, had a particularly special atmosphere with both Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in attendance at the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre in Nagano Prefecture. An audience of around 1,500 gave him a warm round of applause as he conducted Maurice Ravel’s fantastic short opera “The Child and the Spells.” He conducted the same opera three times on Aug. 25, 28 and 31 — without a hitch.

“We had planned this program of Ravel operas four or five years ago and are glad that Ozawa’s comeback coincided with its staging,” said Atsushi Moriyasu, who has been in charge of opera productions at Saito Kinen since its inauguration. “Ozawa worked hard to bring himself back to full strength and I believe he should be proud of this accomplishment.”

The Saito Kinen Orchestra was created in 1984 in memory of Hideo Saito (1902-74), a pioneering music teacher and the cofounder of Toho Gakuen School of Music, where Ozawa studied classical music. Originally a temporary orchestra, it became a permanent fixture at the festival from 1992. That was due to the help of the city of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, which generously offered up both venues and support. Ever since, the Saito Kinen has been held annually in August and September (this year it ran from Aug. 12 till Sept. 7). The Saito Kinen Orchestra, which at first comprised only Toho graduates, has expanded to welcome talented and younger artists from around the world.

For the 22nd edition of Saito Kinen, Ozawa decided to take the festival back to basics and reform its administration. Moriyasu became director of artistic administration and executive producer of Saito Kinen as part of that shuffle. For his part, Moriyasu compared the festival to being on a ship on a voyage: “Although we may encounter unexpected things during the voyage, we will continue to move ahead to the next stage.”

Luckily, the unexpected elements at this year’s Saito Kinen were welcome ones. Jazz pianist Junko Onishi came out of retirement for the event in a move that was in part orchestrated behind-the-scenes by author Haruki Murakami and on-stage by Ozawa himself. Thus the Sept. 6 climax of Saito Kinen Festival featured a rare program composed of jazz, classical music and a mixture of the two.

Dressed in a short, black dress and wearing matching high boots, Onishi walked jauntily onto the stage accompanied by bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Eric McPherson, who both collaborated with the pianist for more than 20 years and traveled to Japan for this one-night-only performance.

In addition to the full house, extra seats were prepared on the stage for 50 members of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which is a rare occurrence.

“I rarely feel nervous, but there is some pressure tonight,” Onishi said from the stage. However, once the performance started, the musician submerged herself in the music. She improvised freely, letting her fingers run and jump along the ivories. Supported by the sophisticated sound of the bass and drums, Onishi’s effort struck a chord with the audience through her soft touches and melancholic tones.

Following the session by the Junko Onishi Trio, the Saito Kinen Orchestra performed excerpts from “Romeo and Juliet,” a suite composed by 20th-century Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev. The suite was performed under the baton of Chen Lin, a promising 35-year-old conductor from Heilongjiang Province. She was one of the artists that Ozawa recruited during a previous tour in China, and having trained with the maestro, her gestures from behind often recalled those of her teacher.

It must have been difficult to conduct a classical piece between a jazz session and Ozawa’s finale, and sometimes Chen’s movements were awkward, but her devotion to music became clear. Later, Chen said that it was this devotion that “I learned from maestro Ozawa.”

Finally, the performance gave way to the first collaboration of Onishi and Ozawa. The famed clarinet trill and glissando, which was provided by Ricardo Morales that night, began to ring in the audience’s ears as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” began. The result was unique, though, as the Onishi Trio took the piece in a different direction to Gershwin’s original composition.

“The maestro suggested that I play freely,” Onishi said after the concert. “Personally speaking, though, I tried not to stray too far from Gershwin’s original.”

Onishi’s performance generated excitement almost to the point of anxiety as the crowd waited to see how long and far she would take her improvisations during the cadenzas. The orchestra members listened intently, too, smiling and nodding until Ozawa gave them the signal to join in.

It was a fantastic experiment that perhaps only Ozawa could have pulled off: A collection of free improvisations that worked in unison with the disciplined orchestra, all of whom were guided by the maestro. The collaboration was a tremendous way to close the Saito Kinen Festival. It elicited a standing ovation from the audience, some of whom later remarked that the performance was of the once-in-a-lifetime kind that you can only get at Matsumoto.

As far as comebacks go, Ozawa’s was definitely one to remember.