Does a good conductor have anything to say after 10 years?

While Boston Symphony patriots bemoaned the loss of 25-year conductor Seiji Ozawa, members of his orchestra said that it's been a long time coming.

By Paul Festa
June 28, 1999 11:00PM (UTC)
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After 25 years of showing up to the same office, Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Seiji Ozawa announced last week that he will leave the orchestra in 2002 to head up the Vienna State Opera. While fans of the BSO are publicly beating their breasts over Ozawa's impending departure, most are privately saying it's long overdue.

Ozawa's tenure at the BSO and at its world-famous summer home in Tanglewood, Mass., has been tumultuous in recent years, marred by morale problems, firings and bitter resignations. In one high-profile meltdown, acclaimed pianist and Tanglewood veteran Gil Kalish resigned in protest against Ozawa's administration of the festival, accusing him in an open letter of causing "incalculable harm to a great institution." Pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher soon followed Kalish out the door. Meanwhile, back in Boston, morale was reputed to be at a low ebb in the orchestra, especially among veteran players.


But the muted sighs of relief that greeted Ozawa's announcement last week came not just from those who fought with the conductor or disliked his style. Almost across the board, orchestra members past and present as well as observers agree that 25 years is far too long for a conductor to lead a major modern American symphony orchestra.

American conducting gigs have gone the way of American marriages and attention spans in the latter half of the century; they've gotten a lot shorter. It was not considered so unusual when Serge Koussevitzky polished off a quarter century with the BSO 50 years ago. Frederick Stock led the Chicago Symphony for 37 years until his death in 1942. Eugene Ormandy was music director at Philadelphia for 42 seasons ending in 1980.

Now many symphony orchestra boards enforce the equivalent of term limits on their conductors. "The typical tenure is about 10 years, and people say that's what it should be," said one BSO player who has played under Ozawa the length of his extraordinary term. "After about 10 years, a conductor doesn't have anything fresh or new to offer, and symphony orchestras need fresh injection of new ideas."


By all accounts Ozawa has done a phenomenal job building the BSO's audience and raising funds, both in Boston and in Tanglewood. And even his detractors in the orchestra acknowledge that when Ozawa is good, he's at the top of his profession.

"There's something about his charisma on the podium, the way he's dancing," said one player. "If you keep one eye on him and one on the music, you can't possibly make a mistake. He's so electric and magnetic that you just have to do what he wants."

Another of Ozawa's talents was for reinforcing a world-class orchestra by bringing in the very best players. "You couldn't ask for a better string section anywhere," said a BSO violinist. "Morale problems aside, it's still a really balls-to-the-wall orchestra when it want to be. And I'm really proud of that."

Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of and a frequent Salon contributor.

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