Absolutely on music conv.., p.10
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.10Haruki Murakami
OZAWA: Yes, it might have been the only time for me. I had to work hard for this.
MURAKAMI: Did Harold Gomberg make a point of choosing you for the recording?
OZAWA: Yes, I think he liked me personally.
MURAKAMI: After this you recorded two Bartók piano concertos—nos. 1 and 3. They were recorded in July of that same year—two months after the Telemann. Peter Serkin is the soloist. This is a tremendously eye-opening performance!
OZAWA: That was the Chicago Symphony—or was it Toronto?
MURAKAMI: Chicago. And even today the performance sounds fresh and original. There was a certain reserve or uncertainty with the Telemann and Vivaldi, but this one’s pretty much wide open.
OZAWA: You think so? I don’t remember a thing about that performance. The year before, I was a surprise pick for music director of the Ravinia Festival. It caused a big stir—I even went on a TV show called What’s My Line?—something like the old NHK quiz show My Secret. So the record company came to see me right away and we arranged to make recordings every year after the concert. The next day, we’d drive the half hour to Chicago and record.
MURAKAMI: Chicago’s Ravinia Festival is like Boston’s Tanglewood…
I put the Bartók record on the turntable. The First Concerto. Breathtakingly sharp sounds come flying out of the speakers, a vivid aural image brimming with life. The performance is superb.
OZAWA: Oh, the trumpet is Herseth, Adolph Herseth. He’s a legendary trumpeter with the Chicago Symphony.
The piano solo begins.
MURAKAMI: The sound of the piano is stunning, too, completely free of uncertainty.
OZAWA: Yes, he’s really good. Peter was still in his teens.
MURAKAMI: It’s a tremendously sharp performance.
The orchestra joins in with the piano.
OZAWA: Oh, I remember this part…In those days, the Chicago Symphony’s brass section was the best in the world. Herseth and the rest of them were a stellar lineup.
MURAKAMI: Was that when Fritz Reiner was the principal conductor?
OZAWA: No, it was Jean Martinon.
MURAKAMI: But what a leap that was for you—from Telemann to Bartók! Talk about variety!
MURAKAMI: In December of that same year you also recorded the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky violin concertos.
OZAWA: I can’t quite recall the name of the fellow who played the violin on that one…
MURAKAMI: Erick Friedman.
OZAWA: And the orchestra was the London Symphony…?
MURAKAMI: Yes, the London Symphony. I also found that recording in an American used-record store. Listening to it nowadays, though, there’s something kind of old-fashioned about the violin’s performance—a little too passionate.
OZAWA: I remember doing the recording, but not much more than that.
MURAKAMI: And just about the same time, again with the London Symphony, you recorded the Schumann Piano Concerto with Leonard Pennario. Also on the record is Strauss’s Burleske. Then, the following year, yet again with the London Symphony, you recorded the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1 with John Browning. That’s quite a number of romantic concertos you put together in London with American performers. I haven’t heard the recording with Browning, but in retrospect these performers don’t seem all that impressive. No one really listens to them anymore.
OZAWA: I’m pretty sure the record company had a massive campaign going to sell both Pennario and Friedman. But I will say this: John Browning was an absolute genius on the piano.
MURAKAMI: I haven’t heard much about him lately.
OZAWA: Yes, I wonder what he’s doing.
Murakami note: Born in 1933, John Browning was a hot young pianist in the 1960s, but he scaled back his activities in the seventies, citing “overwork” as the cause. He re-emerged in the mid-1990s, playing contemporary American music, but died in 2003.
MURAKAMI: So you go from Telemann straight to Bartók and then swing back to dead center with the romantics. I’m curious how such a wide range of recording commissions came to you. Aside from the Gomberg recording, all are with the RCA Victor label.
OZAWA: I never know where requests like that are going to materialize from. I had had some success at the Ravinia Festival and was more or less in the spotlight at the time. After all, the Chicago Symphony was said to be the strongest orchestra in the world, so the fact that they had singled me out caused quite a stir. I suppose the record company wanted to exploit the publicity surrounding me, so that’s how I ended up going to London to make all those recordings.
MURAKAMI: Looking at your discography, I can see you must have been very busy. Then that next summer, in 1966, you recorded Honegger’s oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. Your repertory has such tremendous variety!
MURAKAMI: What was your policy in those days—to accept any offer that came from a record company?
OZAWA: That’s right. I was still not in any position to choose.
MURAKAMI: Was the Honegger also suggested by the record company?
OZAWA: I’m pretty sure it was. There’s no way I would have gone to them wanting to do a piece like that.
MURAKAMI: I still can’t tell from looking at your discography what the record company had in mind for you.
OZAWA: I have absolutely no idea.
MURAKAMI: Even an outside observer like me can’t help becoming a little confused looking at this lineup. Next you did Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with the Toronto Symphony. That was late in 1966. Were you already their principal conductor by that point?
OZAWA: Yes. It might have been that year. I recorded Takemitsu’s November Steps and Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony right after becoming Toronto’s music director. I was only there four years altogether.
MURAKAMI: I see both pieces were recorded in 1967. Were they your choices?
OZAWA: Yes—oh, not the Messiaen! That was the composer’s idea. I had performed it for him when he came to Japan—before I was boycotted by the NHK Symphony. He really liked my work—or should I say he was crazy about it? He said he wanted me to do everything of his. I was ready to do the complete works, but Toronto wouldn’t go along with that plan: they said they’d never sell any tickets. At least I managed to get the Turangalîla Symphony and Oiseaux exotiques recorded.
The Rite of Spring: Something Like the Inside Story
MURAKAMI: To prepare for this interview, I listened to—well, not all, but most of the recordings you made in the sixties, and if I were to choose my personal favorites, they would include the Bartók piano concertos we mentioned, the Symphonie fantastique you did with the Toronto Symphony, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I thought they were especially wonderful—just as fresh today as ever.
OZAWA: You mean the Stravinsky I did with the Chicago Symphony?
OZAWA: There’s a story that goes along with that recording of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky himself actually rewrote the score. In his “revised version,” he changed the bar lines. It was absolutely incredible. He made it completely different from the version we had studied so hard—a shock for the conductor and the performers alike. I figured there was no way we could do it.
MURAKAMI: What does it mean to “change the bar lines”?
OZAWA: Hmm, let’s see, how can I explain this to you? [He mulls it over for a while.] It means completely changing how you count the beats. Say you’ve got 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3, and you change it to 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2…like that.
MURAKAMI: So he changed irregular meters into regular ones?
OZAWA: Stravinsky said he “streamlined” it—he simplified it. He had an assistant named Robert Craft who was himself a conductor and composer. The score was changed so that if Craft conducted it, even a student orchestra would be able to play it.
MURAKAMI: In other words, it ceased to be a difficult piece.
OZAWA: And that’s the version that Stravinsky asked me t
MURAKAMI: You mean, this recording we’re listening to is of the revised version?
OZAWA: Well, I did perform the revised version with Stravinsky and Craft in the audience, and I recorded it for RCA. I recorded both the original version and the revised version with the Chicago Symphony.
MURAKAMI: I had no idea. I’ve never seen any recording of The Rite of Spring you did with the Chicago Symphony other than this one. I’ve always listened to this one on the assumption it was the same Rite of Spring I knew.
OZAWA: I’m not sure what happened, but the revised version was probably never released.
MURAKAMI: You mean they shelved it?
OZAWA: I knew it was no good when we played it, and the musicians knew it, too. Lenny said I was the biggest victim. He was furious. He was sure Stravinsky must have revised it to extend the copyright. I had studied the old version like crazy, I had conducted it any number of times, and I had pretty much mastered it. Now I was having the rug pulled out from under me. Conducting the revised version required a totally different approach. This record we’ve got here, though, is the original version.
MURAKAMI: I’ve read the liner notes very closely, and it doesn’t say a word about which version it is. They do mention that the composer had revised the work, but they don’t say that that is the version being performed on the record. It seems to be deliberately vague. You’d think it would be a good selling point to stress that the record contained the very latest version.
Murakami note: According to the testimony of Robert Craft, who had cooperated with the revision, the main reason Stravinsky revised the work was that he himself had trouble conducting the parts with the irregular meter.
I put the record on the turntable.
OZAWA: Is it okay if I eat this o-nigiri rice ball?
MURAKAMI: Please do. I’ll make tea.
I make tea.
OZAWA: I was still in London at the time of the 1968 recording. That was the year Robert Kennedy was killed.
MURAKAMI: Was this recording of Rite of Spring something you did because you wanted to do it?
OZAWA: Yes, very much so. For one thing, I had already performed it everywhere.
MURAKAMI: So at that point in your career, you were able to take on the works that you wanted to record—not just what the record companies brought you?
OZAWA: Yes, that was more and more the case.
The quiet introduction ends, and the famous wild bam bam bam bam of the first scene, “Harbingers of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls),” takes over.
MURAKAMI: What an intense, edgy sound!
OZAWA: Yes, the Chicago Symphony was at its peak in those days, and I was young and energetic.
MURAKAMI: Let’s listen to this same passage with you and the Boston Symphony. It was recorded about ten years later.
I change records, and the introduction begins again.
MURAKAMI: Very different mood…
OZAWA: Really, a much softer sound.
The bassoon plays the theme.
OZAWA: This bassoonist died, you know. In a traffic accident. Sherman Walt. He played with the Saito Kinen, too.
We listen to the music, drinking tea and eating o-nigiri.
MURAKAMI: If I may be permitted to express my personal opinion as a music lover, when I hear you performing with the Chicago or Toronto symphonies in the sixties, it sounds as if you’ve got the music doing a lively dance on the palms of your hands. There’s a kind of reckless audacity.
OZAWA: Reckless may be the best way to go sometimes.
MURAKAMI: Then you’re with the Boston Symphony in the seventies, and it feels as if you’re cupping your hands a little, more enfolding the music. It’s easy to tell the difference, listening to all the recordings.
OZAWA: Yes, I see what you mean. The later ones may be a little more subdued.
MURAKAMI: More mature, musically? I’m not sure putting it that way can account for everything that’s going on…
OZAWA: Well, when you become music director, you get very concerned about the quality of the orchestra.
MURAKAMI: After this 1973 recording with the Boston, you never did another studio recording of The Rite of Spring, did you?
OZAWA: No, I never did, though I was asked to any number of times.
Again comes the bam bam bam bam of “Harbingers of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls).”
OZAWA: Not so raw, is it? Interesting, this one.
MURAKAMI: The feel of the music is a little different from standard performances of The Rite of Spring, though.
Three Seiji Ozawa Recordings of Symphonie fantastique
MURAKAMI: Now I’m going to put on the recording of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique you did with the Toronto Symphony. It’s from 1966.
I begin with the fourth movement, “Marche au supplice” (March to the Scaffold).
MURAKAMI: What would you say about the level of playing you found in the Toronto Symphony when you first arrived?
OZAWA: It was not very good, to tell you the truth. I made a lot of changes in the orchestra’s lineup, which didn’t win me too many friends. I even changed the concertmaster. The old one came and knocked on my door to complain. But the new people I hired are still there today.
MURAKAMI: The sound is a little hard, wouldn’t you say?
OZAWA: Yes, it is. We did this recording in Toronto’s Massey Hall. It was famous for its bad sound. People used to call it “Messy Hall.”
MURAKAMI: Charlie Parker did a famous live recording there. You just have to say “Massey Hall” and jazz fans know what you mean. But in this recording of your performance, the music itself is tremendously lively. It dances.
OZAWA: Yes, it’s very free. You can see the music. It’s much better than I expected. The recorded sound is not very good, though.
I lift the needle at the end of the movement.
MURAKAMI: I agree, it’s a very good performance. Just listening to this one, I’m convinced it’s the only performance of the piece you’d ever need. But then again, when I listen to the Boston Symphony performance, my opinion changes. The two are so totally different.
OZAWA: They were recorded at such different times, though. The Boston must have been fifteen years later.
MURAKAMI: No, not that much later. Let’s see…the Boston one is 1973, just seven years after the Toronto.
I put on the Boston recording, again the “March to the Scaffold.” The difference in tempo is almost shocking. It is so much heavier.
OZAWA: The orchestra itself is much better here, of course.
MURAKAMI: The sound it produces is very different, isn’t it?
OZAWA: Listen to this bassoon passage: it’s the Boston at its best. I couldn’t have done that with the Toronto. And the timpani—it sounds completely different. In that sense, the Toronto Symphony was a collection of young musicians.
MURAKAMI: But with tremendous enthusiasm.
OZAWA: Yes, they had plenty of enthusiasm!
We listen to the music for a while.
MURAKAMI: It’s amazing how different the music is with only seven years separating the performances.
OZAWA: But that was a big seven years for me. I changed a lot. After Toronto, I became the San Francisco Symphony’s music director, and then moved to Boston.
MURAKAMI: Different orchestra, different sound: it’s only natural for the music to be different.
OZAWA: And the Fantastique I just did with the Saito Kinen [December 2010] was, again, totally different. I myself have changed, for one thing. I purposely avoided playing the piece for a long time, to leave some space between performances. This new one might be a little too rich.
MURAKAMI: Too rich?
MURAKAMI: This next one is a DVD of a live performance of the Fantastique by the Saito Kinen in Matsumoto, in 2007.
Again, we hear “March to the Scaffold,” and again there are small differences from the previous two. The music still visibly seems to danc
OZAWA: That trumpeter on the left is first trumpet in Berlin…and this person plays third trombone with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Ozawa stands and moves with the music. Looking at himself conducting on screen, he sighs.
OZAWA: This is how I ruined my hips. After I broke my shoulder, I couldn’t use it properly, so I forced my body to move in an unnatural posture, which then threw my hips out. This body part doesn’t move, so that one ends up a mess. It’s stupid!
MURAKAMI: Your conducting is so dynamic. It’s hard work, swaying with the music like that.
OZAWA: But comparing performances this way, they’re really different! This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this. I’m shocked at how different they are.
MURAKAMI: The differences are very obvious to me, too. You were only thirty-one when you conducted the Toronto in that powerful performance that keeps on surging forward, forward. As I said before with the Stravinsky, the music leaps and dances on the palms of your hands. But then you went to Boston and took over a major orchestra, and it feels as though you’re cupping your hands, embracing the music, carefully letting it ripen. And now comes the recent Saito Kinen performance, and I get the impression you’re unfolding your hands a little, letting the air in, freeing it up. Possibly you’re giving the music itself a chance to develop more spontaneously, kind of like letting out whatever will come, maybe—to put it simply, taking a more natural approach?
OZAWA: Hmm, you may be right…but in that sense the December 2010 Carnegie performance of the Fantastique went even farther in that direction. It was pretty intense for me.
MURAKAMI: Maybe the sound of the Saito Kinen is more suited to that approach.
OZAWA: True. Watching this performance on the screen, I’m obviously not worrying about every little detail.
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes