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Ozawa struggles with Berlioz, but conducts with flair

Berlioz Requiem, Op. 5
Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
Seiji Ozawa conducting.
Oct. 22.

By Craig K. Chang
Staff Reporter

In front of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa performs an elaborate dance routine. His every move expresses a grand sweep of motion, as the orchestra under his direction tries to respond to his silent crying, "More! More!"

Berlioz's huge Requiem was an adequate test of Ozawa's skills. The grand mass for the dead contains fury, triumph, and serenity in all their various shades. The music should evoke the contrasts between hushed prayer and outburst. The sheer impact of the Last Judgment should engage listeners, pulling them into the poetic portrayal of the fantastic occasion.

Ozawa, the BSO, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus indeed had the power to blast the piece's powerful moments. With brass players situated throughout the hall, Berlioz's orchestration is like no other. Especially during the Dies irae, the sound of the orchestra towered above even the tall ceiling of Symphony Hall. Combined with the already tremendous orchestra and full chorus, the sheer magnitude of the extra brass players nearly overwhelmed.

But this wasn't all the huge ensemble was capable of. Ozawa has a gift for juxtaposing the huge with the delicate. As the audience listened with amazement at the sheer, sonic intensity, that energy dissolved into a vacuum to be transcended by the most delicate lines whispered by the strings and the woodwinds. Ozawa pulled off these sharp changes in character with complete repose.

What Friday's performance lacked, however, was a sense of unity. For all the confidant energy the players were capable of, they couldn't consolidate their intermittent flashes of energy throughout the ninety minutes of the program. Of course, moments of pure strength and equally beautiful moments of sonorous melody sparkled against the huge mess of players scattered everywhere, but the music never found a sense of wholeness. The pieces seemed impeccable enough, and each section seemed individual enough. But with the piece's great duration, each new sound and each new increase in volume disoriented the listener.

Even Vinson Cole's superbly phrased solo in the Sanctus arrived in a divine flash and disappeared into confusion, despite the magnificence of the rest of the movement. Perhaps individual, human voice was a relief from the unsure characters that the orchestra conveyed.

How many of these quips can be attributed to Berlioz's work will always remain subjective matter. Some find Berlioz's Requiem very difficult to interpret. Others like to point out all of the harmonic discontinuities. And many others find his work disturbing, even at this point in the 20th century. (Many elderly members of the audience seemed on the verge of a stroke when the second brass orchestra blared their first note.) Nevertheless, how convincing each performance is will always depend on the musicians. Assuming the Requiem is entirely program music, the playing needs to spark the imagination of the audience. Perhaps Friday's performance failed in that sense.

But what the event had to offer was the unity of Ozawa's conducting verve. When he turned around and spread his arms out to the brass players on the second balcony, we realized the extreme attention to detail that makes Ozawa such a great conductor of Berlioz's work. Even without succeeding in the incredibly difficult task of piecing together Berlioz's wild imagination, the concert projected the strength and finesse of the musicians.