TOKYO — The scene onstage was poignant. Between movements of a work by Bartok, the conductor Seiji Ozawa could be seen crouching down next to the podium, sipping from a bottle of water as the audience waited nervously. Then he resumed conducting, driving home the work with vigor and high-fiving the players as he left the stage.
The concert, which took place here last week, was something of a milestone. Ozawa, 78, has been treated in his native Japan for esophageal cancer and recurrent back problems. The former music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is now cancer-free, but his recovery has been long and arduous, forcing him to cancel many engagements, or to lead only single works on programs shared with other conductors. This performance, with the New Japan Philharmonic, was only the second time in more than two years that he led one-half of a concert. The ovation, by local standards, was enormous.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Ozawa said the following day, sitting for an interview backstage at Suntory Hall. It was also a reunion: The BSO, which he led for 29 years — the longest tenure in the orchestra’s history — was at the same hall to give the final performances of its Asia tour.
Wearing bright red New Balance sneakers and a new Red Sox jacket, Ozawa recounted how his doctor discovered the malignant tumor during a routine checkup on New Year’s Day in 2010. “I had felt nothing. Then two weeks later, operation. Gone.”
Ozawa now looks thin and walks with some deliberateness, but he is growing stronger, pacing himself through what is, in effect, a second period of recovery. Known for his irrepressible enthusiasm, he admits he returned to conducting too quickly, traveling to New York in December of 2010 to lead performances at Carnegie Hall after which, due to his sciatica, he could not walk. “That was kind of stupid,” he said bluntly. “I did not know how difficult it could be.”
This time, Ozawa is resuming activities more slowly, under the watchful eye of doctors and family. In conversation, he freely offers reports of his new regimen. He took group tennis lessons recently in Honolulu, and this past winter went skiing in the mountains of Nagano. He says he now shares a personal trainer with the novelist Haruki Murakami. “Tomorrow, I go to gym,” he adds. “Pilates, great!”
Backstage at Suntory Hall, the reunion was a festive one. Roughly 70 percent of the BSO’s current players were appointed during the tenure of Ozawa, who was named music director when he was just 37 years old. By the time Ozawa stepped down in 2002, his chemistry with some of the musicians was strained, and critics’ appraisals of the BSO’s artistic health ranged from respectful to scathing. The New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini summarized: “after such a bold start, he has for some become an embodiment of the entrenched music director who has lost touch.”
Nowadays, the affection appears to flow freely in both directions. Groups of veteran BSO musicians crowded around Ozawa and posed for photos. Younger players stopped by to introduce themselves. “Do you remember me?” asked one violinist, hopefully.
For his part, Ozawa still refers to the BSO as “our orchestra.” After mingling with his old colleagues, he took a seat in the hall next to US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy. During the applause following the BSO’s performance of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” under the baton of Charles Dutoit, Ozawa was the first in the hall to rise to his feet. “Orchestra sounds amazing,” he said. “So rich. Charlie did a great job.”
Ozawa’s own artistic focus in recent years has been on the Saito Kinen Festival he founded in 1992 in Matsumoto, Japan, in honor of his teacher, Hideo Saito, and on a number of educational initiatives, including the Seiji Ozawa International Academy in Switzerland and another academy for chamber music in Okushiga, Japan. This summer he will return to Europe for the first time in more than two years to lead performances by his training orchestras in Geneva and Paris.
The enforced quiet of his extended convalescence has been in itself a kind of revelatory change, he says, after decades of airplanes, hotel rooms, and constant activity. “It was the first time I enjoy family life, with my children and my wife,” he explained. “I didn’t have this when I was busy, so that was the best thing.” Every Wednesday at 9 p.m., he turns on the television to watch his son, Yukiyoshi, who, as the star detective on a popular crime drama, is now a celebrity in Japan perhaps even more widely recognized than his father.
And the period of seclusion, most notably, has left Ozawa time to read scores and listen to music for his own pleasure. He says he has also rediscovered his passion for the string quartet literature, and is hearing even symphonic works he thought he knew in a fresh light.
“I feel music, funny to say, maybe more deeply,” he explained. “And not just fantastical music. Some [classical works like] Haydn symphonies also have something very deep. And sometimes when you’re so busy you don’t hear it. . . . Maybe it has something to do with age, too. It’s new to me, this kind of situation.”
Some of Ozawa’s closest musical associates tend to agree. “I can feel the difference in his approach,” said Sadao Harada, a founding member of the recently disbanded Tokyo String Quartet, in a phone interview. “I think before everything was moving so fast, and he had to learn so fast. But now he takes his time, he’s thinking about a lot of things. For me, his music-making is a lot deeper than before. I find it very moving.”
The fruits of Ozawa’s time away from the stage could be at least partially sensed in his performance on Thursday night with the New Japan Philharmonic at Sumida Triphony Hall. On the first half, a younger Japanese conductor drew solid but unremarkable playing from the orchestra in Haydn’s Symphony No. 104. After intermission, a piano bench was placed on the podium, and Ozawa emerged to lead Bartok’s “Divertimento” of 1939 followed by Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3.
Whether by necessity or design, Ozawa’s gestures appear to have grown smaller and more streamlined, but they also seem to speak more fully. In the slow movement of the Bartok — which brims with darkly searching, premonitory music — he drew lancing accents and spectral pianissimos. The makeup of the orchestra was the same as on the first half of the concert, but the ensemble’s sound acquired a markedly different heft and coloristic precision. Seated in the crowd was the eminent baritone Matthias Goerne, who put it succinctly: “It sounds like a different orchestra.”
Goerne was in town to perform with Tokyo’s NHK Symphony, but he came on his night off to hear Ozawa, with whom he has collaborated often in the past. “He doesn’t just listen carefully to you as the soloist,” Goerne offered. “He reads your mind. If you’re not prepared, it can be quite difficult. But when he believes in you as a person, you have so much space, so much freedom. It’s just fantastic. I really hope he recovers fully.”
Backstage at Suntory Hall the next night, Ozawa sounded upbeat. He reminisced about the BSO’s 1979 tour of China, spoke enthusiastically about his plans for upcoming summers in Matsumoto, and waxed emphatic about the importance of chamber music in every musician’s education.
He also had generous words for incoming BSO music director Andris Nelsons. “Wonderful, wonderful,” he said. “Great thing for Boston.” Asked if he had any particular advice for Nelsons, who arrives even younger than Ozawa was in 1973, the conductor fell silent. Then his eyes suddenly brightened: “Stay long!”
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.