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Japan festival renamed after fit-again maestro Ozawa recovers from illnesses

TOKYO, Aug 4, (Agencies): Japan’s Seiji Ozawa, one of the best-known conductors of his generation, said on Monday he had recovered from health problems including cancer and has many plans for the future, including conducting an opera next year. Ozawa, 78, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in January 2010, underwent lower back surgery a year later and suffered multiple bouts of pneumonia, which kept him mostly sidelined until mid-2013. He then made a triumphant return by directing an opera at the Saito Kinen Festival, a music extravaganza in the Japanese city of Matsumoto that he founded 23 years ago. On Monday, he welcomed the announcement that the festival will be renamed the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival in his honour.

“I’m really grateful,” he told a news conference, contrasting the gesture to having a rehearsal hall named for him in the United States in 1994, when the idea struck him as being “a little bit like a tombstone”. “That somebody like me, who has suffered a major illness and underwent surgery, can speak casually about death is proof that I’ve really recovered,” he said. “Either that, or I’m really dumb — but please think of me as being recovered and active.” Ozawa, a former conductor at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Vienna State Opera, will direct a concert at the Matsumoto festival this summer and an opera, “Beatrice and Benedict” by Hector Berlioz, next year.

But he said changing the festival’s name did not signal other changes, such as his retirement. “That kind of thing is a trade secret,” he said, to laughter. “The truth is that I have always been thinking of who might take over from me even from the time I began the festival years ago.” Known for throwing his whole body into conducting, Ozawa drew mixed reviews from critics for his dramatic style, once injuring himself during a concert.
 
Tenure 
But his bushy hair and smile charmed audiences, especially in the United States, where his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra spanned nearly three decades and made him a household name. Born in Manchuria in 1935, Ozawa first gained global attention by winning a competition in France and was later mentored by greats such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. On Monday, Ozawa, who asked US music students to call him by his name rather than “maestro” and is a passionate supporter of the Boston Red Sox, played down his success.
 
“I’m the complete opposite of a genius, I have always had to make efforts. Until I fell ill I’d get up early in the morning and study for several hours every day.” he said. “I don’t really like studying, but I had to do it if I wanted to make music. Anybody with genius can easily do better than me.” “I will work hard and that’s all I will do,” the bushy-haired 78-year-old told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan as the name change was announced. “People may say I am close to death, but I will do my best to stop that from happening,” he added jokingly. Twenty years ago, the Boston orchestra built a 1,200-seat concert hall which it planned to name Seiji Ozawa Hall.
 
“I told them I didn’t like the idea because it would sound like a tombstone for me,” the maestro said, although the orchestra went ahead with the plan. Ozawa added that he eventually became more comfortable with the idea and his name has since been attached to music academies at home and abroad, including the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland. “I’ve become old and had severe health problems over the last 20 years. Since I haven’t died yet, I wonder what it means for me to approve (the festival’s name change),” he said. “But the fact that someone like me, who went under the knife for cancer, can talk freely about death means that I must have recovered.”
 
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VERBIER, Switzerland: French-American conductor Marc Minkowski loves music and his second passion is horses, so he is combining the two at a concert that will open the annual Mozart Week festival in Salzburg next year. Nor is this going to be like an opera where someone leads a horse onstage and it stands there munching from a feed bag. Minkowski’s horses will be performing inside Salzburg’s 17th-century former “rock riding school”, which was later transformed into a concert hall, to the music of Mozart’s cantata “David Penitente” on the festival’s opening day.
 
“The horse is a naturally musical animal, his rhythm is already musical and he’s the best interpreter, the best dancer, you can find — of course with a decent rider,” Minkowski, 52, told Reuters at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland where he conducted a rousing version of Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” last weekend — without any four-legged stars. Minkowski, who has staged a horse-music event at a festival he runs in the spring on the Ile de Re off the west coast of France, is being aided and abetted in his project at the Mozart Week, where he is the artistic director, by the French horse-trainer extraordinaire who goes by the single name of Bartabas. Details of what the horses will be doing are under wraps, but a horse trained by Bartabas can be seen in a YouTube video galloping backwards.
 
Minkowski said the link between horses and music should come as no surprise, since some of the first concert venues were built by the same architects who designed riding schools. The hall in Salzburg is just such a place, and was converted to concert use when the Salzburg Festival was founded in 1920.
“The orchestra and the singers will be performing in some arcades and the horses will be ... in the middle, after years of absence from this space for these animals. It will be quite an event,” Minkowski said over coffee on the patio of a Verbier hotel with a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains. Inventive programming comes naturally to Minkowski, who is known as a specialist in what are often called period — or historical — instruments, but who resents being pigeonholed.
 
“Really I always fight against being stamped as a ‘specialist’ or an ‘archaeologist’ — I’m just a musician and I play works from very different composers and groups,” he said. He does it, though, with flair. His recorded version of Haydn’s famous “Surprise” symphony, for example, has more surprises than the composer ever intended. The first time the orchestra works its way towards a loud climax it goes silent when it gets there, the second time the musicians shout and only on the third go round do they play the notes. Another bit of inventive programming was to combine Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” opera with a version of the story with music composed by the French conductor Louis Dietsch under the slightly different title of “The Phantom Vessel”.
 
Dietsch’s piece had lain abandoned in the library of the Paris Opera for more than a century and Minkowski allowed it is “nothing deep”. But combining the two, which he and his period instrument band “Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble” have done on CD, “was really an experience and very interesting”.
“This is a repertoire I want to investigate more,” he said. He has been exploring mounting Wagner’s “Ring” cycle using lyric singers, rather then the usual Wagnerian “hero tenors” and large-voiced women, with a German opera company he declined to name because the talks are continuing. His other wish is to have more conducting engagements in the United States, where he said he has been invited twice by the Cleveland Orchestra and also by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but where he has not had anything like a big career.

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