Boston Symphony's bad conductor


Ozawa's legend doesn't reflect reality.

I got interested in the Boston Symphony almost by accident. I'd gone to one of its concerts in Carnegie Hall last year to hear a new work on the program, but it was the orchestra that left the strongest impression -- and not a happy one. Rarely had I heard such coarse, unmotivated playing from such a celebrated group.


What irony, I thought. Back then, the BSO was in the news because of a scandal at Tanglewood, its summer home, which functions both as a festival and a prestigious music school. Seiji Ozawa, the orchestra's all but legendary music director, had taken control of the school with what many people thought was surprising and abrupt brutality. Members of the faculty, themselves world-famous, had angrily resigned.
But this, I thought, wasn't the important story. If the concert I heard was representative, what mattered far more was how badly the BSO plays. Mr. Ozawa has been music director for a staggering 25 years, a tenure that nobody at any other major orchestra comes close to matching. But his legend, my ears were telling me, doesn't reflect current reality. He still dances on the podium with his trademark pixie charm, but he looks far better than his orchestra sounds.

I decided I'd better bear more concerts by the BSO. And that's when I discovered just how bad its reputation is inside the classical music world, "I'm going to Boston to hear Ozawa," I remarked to one colleague, a musicologist who sometimes lectures to symphony audiences. He stared at me in disbelief and said, "Why would you want to do that?"

One classical-music figure, a household name in the field, burst out in rage when I mentioned Mr. Ozawa. A top administrator with another name-brand American orchestra said he rarely heard anything good about the BSO's performances. Even a prominent conductor weighed in, indiscreetly telling me that, in his opinion, Mr. Ozawa had so weakened the BSO that it couldn't play with crack unanimity even under better leadership.

And yes, I know that gossip in any field can be nasty, but the views I've quoted seemed just about universal. Certainly their tone came as no surprise to Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony's managing director. When I asked him if he knew that the BSO had perhaps the worst reputation of any major American orchestra, he answered, very simply, "Of course." And how could he not know? He came to Boston only two years ago, after doing a superb job as top executive of the Detroit Symphony. How could he not have heard the same talk I hear?

Mr. Volpe had also surely read a newsletter called "Counterpoint," which a small group of BSO musicians publish, and which Mr. Ozawa's partisans don't like to read. "The editors," one of the BSO's publicists insists, "are a small group of malcontents." But they claim financial support from a majority of the other players, and in any case can't be entirely unrepresentative, since Mr. Volpe let them interview him for publication.

Besides, the strongest anti-Ozawa piece that ever appeared in "Counterpoint" came from two of the Boston Symphony's most prominent musicians, Malcolm Lowe, the concertmaster, and Jules Eskin, the principal cellist. In rehearsals, they wrote, Mr. Ozawa gives no "specific leadership in matters of tempo and rhythm," offers no "expression of care about sound quality," and doesn't even share any "distinctly-conveyed conception of the character of each piece the BSO plays.

"Our Music Director," they conclude, "is fond of saying that the relationship between a conductor and his/her orchestra is like a marriage, and that marriages end only in death. We all recognize that marriages do not all end in death; neither is it, nor should it be, the case with orchestras. We all do know, however, that some marriages linger on monotonously, with a lack of mutual regard, respect, and stimulation It is imperative that the BSO management and Trustees ... address and redress these problems."
Strong words. I spoke to one member of the orchestra who defends Mr. Ozawa, and even she says "I understand what's missing. But I think he's opening his heart ever so slightly."

She adds that the BSO played "gorgeously" on its European tour last spring and maybe it did. I've heard six BSO concerts in the past year, though, three in Boston and three in Carnegie Hall, and only one of the concerts was worth hearing -- the one in Boston led by principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink, who got a foot-stomping ovation from the musicians when he took his bows at the end.

Mr. Ozawa's concerts were dismaying. He led four epic works, three by Mahler -- "Das Lied von der Erde" and the third and sixth symphonies -- and Bach's "Passion According to St. Matthew." Each of these pieces is a world of its own. a profound expression of human pain, faith and triumph, and yet I have no idea what Mr. Ozawa thinks of them, or what he was trying to express. The "St. Matthew Passion" was mostly blank; "Das Lied" was limp and empty.

The most impressive moment in the Mahler Third came just before the final movement, where Mahler wants a heartstopping pause; Mr. Ozawa mimed it with a riveting conviction I didn't hear in the music itself. Last season I also heard the New Jersey Symphony play this work, under its fiercely passionate music director, Zdenek Macal. The musicians might not have the technical polish of their Boston counterparts, but they played with a deep humanity the BSO couldn't touch.

And often the BSO doesn't even sound as polished as it should, despite lovely playing from individual musicians, the first flute, Jacques Zoon, for instance, or the principal horn, James Sommerville. As an ensemble, the Boston Symphony under Mr. Ozawa is like a painting that badly needs to be restored, The worst performance I heard was the Dvorak Seventh Symphony, at Carnegie Hall, When I had breakfast with two members of the BSO the next morning, they weren't surprised by my opinion because they shared it themselves; no orchestra this fine should make such ugly sounds, or play so shapelessly. In the Mahler Sixth, there's a place in the second movement where eight instruments take turns playing a rhythmic pattern on a single note. The musicians didn't get the note in tune, a sure sign, given their ability, that they aren't trying, and above all that the conductor isn't. (Last year, I also heard the San Francisco Symphony play the Mahler Sixth; its intonation was impeccable.)

Why is Mr. Ozawa still there? Many people in the business say he raises Japanese money the BSO can't do without, but Mark Volpe convincingly disputes that. The orchestra, he says, has three successful operations: Tanglewood, the Boston Pops and the symphony itself; together they bring in huge amounts of money, enough to give the BSO by far the largest budget of any American orchestra.
Tom Morris, who had Mr. Volpe's job some years ago and now runs the Cleveland Orchestra, says the BSO's financial success might create "a false sense of security." A well-connected Boston source, speaking not for attribution, says that Mr. Ozawa is, behind his outward charm, a "Samurai," tenacious and implacable. His goal for many years was to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic; when he didn't get that job, he reinforced his strength in Boston. (Which, says the source, would explain his Tanglewood maneuvers. When Mr. Ozawa realized that the BSO would be his only legacy, he felt that he should take command of Tanglewood, which unlike former Boston music directors, he'd more or less neglected.)

Mr. Volpe, I imagine, is looking to the future. He told me he expects to be in Boston for the next 20 years, most of which, surely, will be a post-Ozawa era. He has his work cut out for him. I've heard most of the important American orchestras. If I ranked them -- and especially if I compared them to what they could achieve -- the BSO would place near the bottom.

This piece created a sensation, not surprisingly. The Boston Globe even did a story on it, in which the BSO absurdly charged me with having an "agenda." I've gotten many congratulatory phone calls, some from people who -- for the same reason I couldn't reveal my sources in the piece -- I can't name. And both I and the Journal have gotten some very impressive e-mail support along with one astounding objection written by the BSO's concertmaster.

By Christmas Day, some new attacks were all but hysterical. But Lloyd Schwarz of the Boston Phoenix rode to my defense. And in February, something new appeared -- a story in the Globe about a bad New York Times review of the BSO, which became news, or so it seemed, because of what I'd written.

Postscript, December 2001: Ozawa is leaving, and James Levine will succeed him -- an excellent choice, because he's so good at building orchestras, and will work to restore the BSO to its proper stature. I said all this in a Wall Street Journal piece, in which I took a few steps to rebuild whatever bridges I was forced to burn.

Wall Street Journal, December 15, 1998