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Life and loves of a maestro

Seiji Ozawa on what he misses most about Boston and what's next for him

Seiji Ozawa, seen here in New York last week, will conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week for the first time since he left the BSO in 2002 after 29 years as music director. Seiji Ozawa, seen here in New York last week, will conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week for the first time since he left the BSO in 2002 after 29 years as music director. (ken howard/metropolitan opera)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / November 23, 2008
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This week Boston Symphony Orchestra music director laureate Seiji Ozawa returns to the podium at Symphony Hall for the first time since leaving his post in 2002 to lead the Vienna State Opera. Ozawa, whose 29-year tenure with the BSO makes him the longest-serving music director in the orchestra's history, will conduct an all-French program - Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique," one of his signature works with the BSO, and Messiaen's "Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine."

We caught up with Ozawa by phone in New York last week, where the 73-year-old maestro was studying scores, dining at his favorite restaurants, and religiously watching the New England Patriots. He had to turn down the television in order to hear a reporter's questions.

Q. Have you thought about how it's going to feel to step onto the podium at Symphony Hall?

A. I can hardly wait. It will be wonderful to meet again my old friend.

Q. How did you choose the program?

A. I wanted to do "Symphonie fantastique" because I have a great memory of doing this piece with this orchestra. It's very special for the Boston Symphony to play Olivier Messiaen, it is the 100th anniversary of his birth. Because I only conduct opera now I don't have many Messiaen pieces, so I asked the [BSO] if they will take a piece. I am so happy to do it with them.

Q. You've been in Vienna for six years now. Does it feel like home?

A. Yes. I'm there a long time now.

Q. I heard that you rent Placido Domingo's apartment.

A. I used to, but the opera gave me a flat to rent that is more equipped with fresh air. How do you say, penthouse? I can walk to the opera, and on a cold day I take my small car from the garage right in the basement. It's very comfortable.

Q. You are well-known for conducting symphonies from memory. Do you also conduct operas from memory?

A. Yes. I think for me that's not a style, but that I need it. I need eye contact with the singers.

Q. What do you miss most about Boston?

A. The Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics. Larry Bird was on our team in my time and I knew his telephone number, I could call and get a ticket. And the Red Sox gave me, about 10 years ago, a gold plate which is . . . three times bigger than a credit card, and it says American League and National League - invite me anytime with a guest. We finished concerts at 10 o'clock and I rushed to Fenway. This year I see every game in Europe and Japan, because I have this fantastic program by computer, I pay $140 every year, and I can see every game on laptop.

Q. You still own houses in West Newton and in the Berkshires. Why hold on to them?

A. Maybe some people say it's stupid but we can't sell it. Twenty-nine years is a long time. My children's things, my stuff and my wife's stuff, my music library, all my scores and tapes are there in West Newton. I'm very happy to stay there. We build the house in West Stockbridge and that's for my two children. They spend summer there every year.

Q. I gather your son Yuki, an actor, and daughter Seira, a writer, are quite accomplished.

A. Yuki plays a samurai on a big TV show every Sunday night. He went to BU and wanted to be a film director or producer but they pushed him to acting class and he really liked it. Seira's first book was about Tanglewood, from her side, when she was very young girl. It was a big hit and she became an essay writer. She also translates [a] book into Japanese for superstar woman singer. I'm so stupid I can't think of it.

Q. Madonna?

A. Yes! Madonna.

Q. Why did you leave the BSO when you did?

A. I thought a change is good, for Boston and for me. I wanted before I die to taste more opera. I really miss Boston Symphony, I am really a symphony man, but I think it was a good thing. Jimmy [Levine] came and he's wonderful.

Q. Looking back, do you think you stayed too long? Or was your time here too brief?

A. I think it was the right moment. I was not too old to go to the opera world.

Q. Has the BSO's sound changed since you left?

A. This I don't know. I'll find out next week. I'm sure it changed, because if a conductor changes usually the orchestra changes. But Boston has a tradition of this beautiful color from Charles Münch's time, it's amazing. When I came in I did more German repertoire and I thought it would change but it didn't. They added a heavy tone but didn't lose the beautiful color.

Q. Some people say that James Levine has revitalized the BSO since taking over. Do you take that personally, as negative commentary on your tenure there?

A. No, no, no. I don't take personally. If he stayed 29 years like me. . . they know my weak point and I know theirs. Jimmy is a super-talented man. His music ability is very high and that helps the orchestra with new freshness. It's natural. . . . It's good for audience, too.

Q. You suffered from shingles in 2006 and back problems earlier this year, forcing the cancellation of many concerts. How is your health now?

A. I have a little heavy lower back, but no sciatica. That was very strong last spring, and I have to rest two and a half months. I could not even walk. Of course the doctor said only solution is operation, but I did not want to have operation, so I try my own Chinese way of acupuncture, and Belgium has a system like deep finger massage pushing in between bones. Since September I have no pain.

Q. You said earlier that you wanted to taste opera before you died. Is there something else you'd like to do that you haven't yet tried?

A. I never learned powder skiing. . . . I will take special lessons.

Q. Your contract in Vienna ends in 2010. You'll be 75. What are your plans?

A. That's enough for me of musical directorship. I was in Chicago and Toronto and San Francisco and Boston, and still in Japan, all of my life is music director. I'll come back to Vienna for one opera a year, not a very long opera, and to Berlin and Paris. If I keep my health then I still can conduct. . . . I would love to conduct at Tanglewood every summer, and see the students there. It's a very open feeling, a very rare, special feeling. That's my dream.

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

SEIJI OZAWA conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra Friday at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Symphony Hall. Tickets are $29-$115 at www.bso.org or 888-266-1200

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