The Japan Foundation of Toronto recently held a celebratory event honouring the 50th anniversary of Seiji Ozawa’s arrival in Toronto as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Toshi Aoyagi, the Foundation’s director of Japanese projects, displayed a large and interesting variety of photos from those early years, including a photograph of Seiji looking astonishingly young, and a giant black and white photo showing all the players, easily identifiable, on the stage of Massey Hall, its performance venue until 1982. Toshi also prepared sushi, sashimi and California rolls for 50 guests. In attendance were members of Toronto’s arts community including the Symphony’s long time manager Walter Homberger who had played an important role in bringing Ozawa to Toronto. Also included among the guests were current and former members of the T.S.O.
åSome of the veteran players who were asked to speak briefly about their early experiences with Seiji were principal flutist Robert Aittken; principal harpist Judy Loman; myself, principal percussion; cellist Richard Armin and double bassist Ruth Budd. We had not known beforehand we’d be called upon so our comments were a bit skittish, even disjointed, but it was clear to all that Seiji had been a respected and in some cases, a beloved maestro.
in the earliest days of Seiji’s tenure, he had some difficulty with the English language. Though we became rather close, as close as a conductor and player could or should be, he was never able to pronounce my first name Robin, because of the R. So he always called me Engelman. Of course given the Japanese order of names, correctly Ozawa Seiji, he was perfectly correct to call me Engelman, particularly when we were in Japan. Judy Loman told a wonderful story from those days. Seiji introduced her as Mary Loman, harpist and when the orchestra laughed, Seiji turned to someone and said, “She plays harp doesn’t she?”.
I was always impressed by the acuity of Seiji’s ears and told two stories. We were rehearsing one of the Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suites down on the lake under an open tent. There were thousands of seagulls squawking and swooping and dropping bombs, young children laughing, screaming and running around, airplanes taking off and landing at the small nearby airport, tour boats blaring music for parties and the ferryboats back and forth between the mainland and the islands. An impossible acoustic situation with the Ravel beginning so quietly. I couldn’t hear the contra basses to the left of me and the orchestra pianist Patricia Krueger, playing celeste, was only about 20 feet to my right. After less than two bars Seiji stopped and said, “Patty, put the pedal down”.
After Toronto, Seiji conducted in San Francisco and then the Boston Symphony. Karel Ancerl succeeded him in Toronto and when Ancerll died in mid season, Seiji came back to conduct a concert or two to fill in while the Toronto Symphony management scramble to fill their seasons concerts with conductors. Seiji programmed music from his first concert in Toronto in 1965. One of the works was Sergei Prokoffiev’s Fifth Symphony, at times densly orchestrated. Seiji was back among friends and obviously wanted to show us how he had progressed. He leaped onto the podium and after a friendly hello began conducting. After the break Seiji came back to the podium and waved to Johnny Cowell the second trumpet, “Johnny, 3 bars before H, don’t breathe after fourth beat. Take breath after second beat next measure”.
One of the things I always liked about Seiji was the fact that he rarely talked in rehearsal. Some players didn’t like this. They wanted to be told how to play, but Seiji said, “I conduct, you play”. Seiji believed questions of ensemble and string bowings were the provenance if principal players. Another collegial aspect was his willingness to share the act of re-creating music with the players.
After he programmed Ives’ 4th Symphony, Seiji asked me, “How shall we do last movement?” The percussion section must play a quiet, nine bar ostinato, holding a steady tempo during the entire movement while the rest of the orchestra winds its way through a number of tempo changes and dynamics. As the orchestra finishes, the percussion section plays one cycle in diminuendo, ending the movement. Seiji wanted to know if the percussion section wanted him to conduct them or ignore them. No decision had been made by the time Seiji walked on stage. As the audience applauded, he stopped by my side and said, “Well?”. I said. “Conduct the orchestra.” “Okay” Seiji replied. As we had earlier discussed, the percussion section, by Ives’ calculations, would ideally have 9 measures remaining after the orchestra finished. Otherwise, if we concentrated and kept track, the farthest afield we’d drift would probably be in the range of 10 or 12 measures. We were just about dead on.
Seiji conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty nine years. He wanted to break Serge Koussevitzkyi’s record of twenty five years. Vic Firth, Seiji’s close friend and timpanist of the B.S.O. told me when Seiji heard he was going to retire, Seiji called and said, “Vic, don’t retire now, stay until you make 50 years!”. Vic made it.
Toronto was Seiji’s first job as conductor and music director. Since then he has become a national treasure in Japan. I’ve always thought that Seiji did his best work with contemporary music. I heard, but cannot confirm that his management dissuaded him from conducting contemporary music. However, a composer friend told me he’d overheard a conversation wherein Seiji was told by his manager not to conduct my friend’s music anymore. And so he seemed to do.
My first year in the orchestra we played Charles Ives Symphony No. 4, the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, Iannis Xenakis’ Pithoprakta, (conducted byJames Levine, no less) for 46 string instruments, two trombones, xylophone, and woodblock, about a half a dozen works by Takemitsu, a recording of Takemitsu’s music, Gunther Schuller’s 7 Studies on Themes of Paul Klee and a number of other works I cannot now remember. I missed playing Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony by one year. The excitement was palpable every time Seiji conducted. I was working with a conductor only two years older than myself – one who genuinely enjoyed new music and made audiences enjoy it as well.
During Seiji’s tenure, I looked forward to rehearsals and performances. He was a conductor I never had to watch. Simply by listening, I knew where the music was going. If a player extended a note a bit longer then usual, Seiji would accept that and the piece would change.
Art of Time Ensemble
In early 2015, a spate of high quality concerts rarely seen in Toronto, began with the Art of Time Ensemble. On the stage of Harbourfront Centre Theatre, they presented music by Lou Reed, interpreted by some of Canada’s finest arrangers, instrumentalists and singers. Art of Time Ensemble is the creation of its artistic director, pianist Andrew Burashko, a passionate and informed communicator with a love for music that stretches far beyond the borders commonly thought to demarcate music categories.
Andrew’s programs are based on themes. For a 2013 programme titled Franz Schubert, Source and Inspiration, composers of Jazz and Art music were commissioned to arrange for voice and ensemble, a theme from Franz Shubert’s
Piano Trio No. 2 in Eb Major. The trio was played first and then the arrangements were performed by five singers, Carol Pope (Rough Trade), Andy Maize (Skydigers), Gregory Hoskins, John Southworth and Danny Michel.
Andrew often commissions Toronto arrangers, a diverse group of superlative musicians who, though relatively unknown to the general public, never fail to astonish audiences with their ability to bring fresh perspectives to popular war horses. Fortunately, Art of Time is recording many of their pearls.
An Art of Time programme titled What is Sacred, began with Arvo Part’s Stabat Mater, followed by three superb arrangements of songs with religious themes: Wayfaring Stranger, arranged by Gavin Bryars; Pilgrim; and You Are Not Alone. After intermission, Olivier Messiaen’s Louange A L’Eternite De Jesus from his Quartet for the End of Time, and a medley of African American spirituals and Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom were sung, revival style, by Jackie Richardson.
The evening closed with a beautifully subtle and complex interweaving of six female dancers, choreographed by David Earle to the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652). The Miserere was hauntingly sung by Choir 21 as they stood like angels in the first balcony, sending heavenward Allegri’s plea. All this was much too sublime to be followed by anything else.
Attempts to merge art forms have been vulnerable to dismissal by purists or outright failure in the public marketplace. But Andrew does not merge art forms. He respects their individuallity and his classical discipline protects them from being mistreated. An idea must pass through a stringent artistic filter before it blossoms on an Art of Time stage.
In the twenty years from 1970 to 1990, a few elite ensembles, devoted to mostly white western art music, received the majority of government money. Toronto ensembles have favoured repertoire from one of roughly five established genres of westrn art music: opera, ballet, symphony, choral and chamber. They must submit mission statements in order to be eligible for government funding. These statements put them into a bureaucratic niche that can obligate them to a particular repertoire.
In the the 1990s government arts agencies began to realign their financial priorities in response to social and political pressures, gradually achieving more balanced funding by region and favouring emerging composers, pop music, First Nations musicians, and other minority groups. Each re-allocation made the financial pie smaller, dramatically reducing art music budgets. The recent economic down turn exacerbated a feeling of uncertainty within the arts community. Some ensembles reduced the number and frequency of their concerts, limited or re-directed their programme choices, greatly reduced the fees paid to musicians and began exploring ways to work with other ensembles.
In conjunction with his many artistic friends, Andrew is creating fresh concert experiences for traditional Toronto audiences while attracting new concert goers, young and old, hip and staid. The effect this generational blend has on audiences is immediately apparent. As one takes a seat for an Art of Time concert, there is a frisson in the air rarely felt in other venues. So far Andrew has avoided the malady of uncertainty afflicting other Toronto arts organizations. His large and ever growing audience, aided by a group of faithful collaborators and sponsors, portends a long and healthy future. Andrew’s unique artistic love affair has captured the imaginations of artists and concert goers. Concerts by Art of Time Ensemble have become one of Toronto’s most popular sources of art entertainment.
I encourage readers of this article to visit Art of Time Ensemble web site for a complete list of its programmes, artists and videos.
Posted by robinengelman on May 1, 2015 in Commentaries & Critiques, Contemporary Music, Unassigned
Tags: Andrew Burashko, Art of Time Ensemble, Franz Shubert, Gregorio Allegri, Olivier Messiaen, Oscar Peterson