Absolutely on music conv.., p.11
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       Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.11

           Haruki Murakami
 
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  MURAKAMI: Which is exactly what you used to do in your Boston days. As if you were carefully tightening one screw after another.

  OZAWA: Right. Like I said before, I’m constantly trying to improve the quality of an orchestra, increasing its value.

  MURAKAMI: In the Boston version of the Fantastique we heard before, you’re constantly adjusting every little detail: the tempo changes from one part to the next, the color of the sound changes. It’s marvelous, and though I wouldn’t call it ornate, it’s like looking at a moving miniature. With the Toronto or the Chicago versions, the music itself breaks into a run before there’s any question of adjusting anything.

  OZAWA: They’re raw, aren’t they? I had a lot of energy back then.

  MURAKAMI: Listening to these three very different performances of the Fantastique, I could feel the three different phases of your musical life.

  OZAWA: Well, sure, those things change with age. Your approach to an orchestra changes as you get older. And, in my particular case, as I mentioned before, there was the sheer technical matter, after I broke my shoulder, of not being able to move my arms as energetically as I had in the sixties and seventies.

  MURAKAMI: And in the case of Boston, the fact that you were the permanent music director must have meant that you were constantly seeing the same people during the off-season, too. Wouldn’t that enhance your relationship with the orchestra and make you want to start tweaking it in all kinds of little ways?

  OZAWA: Sure, that’s unavoidable.

  MURAKAMI: In the case of the Saito Kinen, though, the orchestra is not always together, so you can’t do too much tweaking. To some extent, you have to give them their independence and let them run with it. Am I right about that?

  OZAWA: You certainly are. But the fact that we get together only for a month in the summer and for occasional concert tours keeps us fresh. We’re always surprising each other. Like lovers who can only meet once a year. [Laughter.]

  MURAKAMI: How about your time in Vienna?

  OZAWA: Vienna was like best friends getting together to make music. It was so easy for me!

  MURAKAMI: You were director of the Vienna State Opera, but its orchestra is essentially the Vienna Philharmonic, isn’t it?

  OZAWA: Yes, 100 percent the same. But I wasn’t the director of the Vienna Philharmonic, just of the Staatsoper. The Vienna Philharmonic doesn’t have a music director. Members of the Vienna Philharmonic join the Staatsoper orchestra first, and then they get into the Philharmonic. You can’t join the Philharmonic from the outset.

  MURAKAMI: Oh, really? I had no idea.

  OZAWA: You audition for the Staatsoper orchestra first, and after two or three years you move into the Philharmonic. A few musicians do play for the Philharmonic as soon as they join the Staatsoper, though.

  MURAKAMI: So, unlike your time in Boston, you didn’t need to deal with management or training?

  OZAWA: Correct. Of course I would be there for the auditions, but I was just one vote out of several. I had almost nothing to do with personnel matters. Singers were another matter. I had a lot to say about choosing the company.

  MURAKAMI: But you simply used the orchestra you were given?

  OZAWA: Correct.

  MURAKAMI: In other words, the orchestra was viewed as just one component of opera as a comprehensive art form?

  OZAWA: Correct. So that raises the question of exactly what the director of the Staatsoper does. I wish I had settled in there for a long stay and conducted a lot more operas, but when my health deteriorated, I couldn’t do very many. But, boy, I enjoyed myself there! I’m so glad I lived long enough to have that experience. I think of it as a wonderful opportunity that the gods gave me. I had no idea what it was like to be in an opera company. Just finding that out was terrific in itself. It was so much fun! I love opera, and they would let me conduct anything I wanted, unconditionally.

  MURAKAMI: I went to Vienna two years ago and heard you conduct Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The stage production was very good, of course, but I was electrified by the polished perfection of the orchestra. Viewed from the balcony, the orchestra looked like a single living thing, swaying with the music. The Eugene Onegin you conducted in Tokyo in 2008 was very enjoyable, but this was something special. I heard a few other operas in Vienna at that time—sheer bliss!

  Getting back to the 1960s, RCA had you doing a huge variety of recordings, didn’t they? There was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition [1967], Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony [1968], Mozart’s Haffner Symphony [1969], Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra [1969], Orff’s Carmina Burana [1969], Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka [1969]. Add to those the standard coupling of Beethoven’s Fifth and Schubert’s “Unfinished” [1969], and you’re all over the map.

  OZAWA: True. Ha ha ha. The Mozart was with Chicago, wasn’t it?

  MURAKAMI: No, that was the New Philharmonia. Most of the others were with the Chicago Symphony, though. But that Beethoven piano concerto with Peter Serkin we talked about before was with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, wasn’t it?

  OZAWA: Right, right, that odd piece. As I said earlier, I had never played it before and never did it again.

  MURAKAMI: This op. 61a was a violin concerto that Beethoven himself revised for piano and orchestra. It’s kind of a stretch, sonically, for the piano, don’t you think?

  OZAWA: Very much so. But Peter was that kind of guy back then—he wanted to play things other than what his father was playing. It was really too bad, because that way he couldn’t perform ordinary Beethoven pieces, but he wanted to play Beethoven, so he chose works that his father wouldn’t. After his father died, though, he started playing the same pieces—Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, for example.

  MURAKAMI: I’m very fond of another performance of yours from this period: Orff’s Carmina Burana. It’s marvelous—lively, colorful.

  OZAWA: That was with the Boston, right?

  MURAKAMI: Right.

  OZAWA: That was before I became the music director. I also played Carmina Burana with the Berlin Philharmonic, when Maestro Karajan was still there. I performed it at the famous “Silvester Concert” on New Year’s Eve in 1989, and I brought the entire Shinyukai Choir from Japan. Carmina Burana might be another good one for the Saito Kinen. We’ve got such a good chorus to work with.

  MURAKAMI: I’d love to hear it.

  How Could Someone Young and Unknown Do Something So Amazing?

  MURAKAMI: As we listen to these recordings, many of which you made when you were young, I feel a little mystified about something. You were still in your twenties when you debuted in America in the mid-1960s, but judging from the records you made back then, you were already a complete musician. Your musical world was fully formed, vital and dynamic—and very exciting. Of course, there was still room for maturation to come, but at that point in time, your world was already there in its totality, with its own autonomous, irreplaceable magnetism. There was no—how can I put it?—no trial-and-error. Of course, there was inevitably some variation in your level of mastery of certain pieces, but there was no trial-and-error, no tentativeness at any point. How was such a thing possible? You left Japan, you went to a foreign country where you had no connections, and the next thing you knew, you were conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, putting your own musical world on display and captivating foreign audiences. How could someone young and unknown do something so amazing?

  OZAWA: Well, ultimately, it’s because I had it drilled into me from a very young age by Professor Saito.

  MURAKAMI: But surely that can’t be the whole explanation. Not all of Professor Saito’s students went on to have careers like yours.

  OZAWA: Well, I can’t explain it…

  MURAKAMI: It seems to me that you must have a tremendous power of organization—a way of turning parts into a unified whole. It’s consistently there for you, without a hint of uncertainty. Do you see this as a personal strength?

  OZAWA: Look, let me just say
this. I’ve had this technique physically fixed inside me from the time I was young, a technique that was instilled in me by Professor Saito. Most conductors have to work like hell in their youth to internalize their technique.

  MURAKAMI: By “technique,” do you mean the act of waving the baton?

  OZAWA: Sure, sure, the technique of using it to prepare an orchestra for a performance. During the performance itself, it almost doesn’t matter how you move the baton. No, that’s overstating it, but it’s really not that important. What really matters is how you wave your baton during rehearsals, in order to get the orchestra ready. That’s what I learned from Professor Saito. In my case, right from the beginning, I never lost focus on that piece of advice. Oh, I suppose there has been some change as I’ve aged, but for the most part, it’s remained pretty consistent.

  MURAKAMI: But there must be a lot of things that a musician can only learn while in the thick of it, through accumulated experience. It’s the same with novelists. Do you mean to say that you already had these things in place?

  OZAWA: Well, I can say that I never struggled with those things from the start. I rarely felt inadequate, and I suspect that’s because I had such a good teacher. So then, when I got to observe Lenny or Maestro Karajan conducting close-up, I pretty much understood what they were doing. I could see what they were trying to do. I could look at them analytically. So it never occurred to me to mimic their techniques. By contrast, someone who still doesn’t have his own technique in place ends up imitating someone else’s outward form, just superficially copying another person’s movements. That didn’t happen with me.

  MURAKAMI: Is waving the conductor’s baton difficult?

  OZAWA: Difficult? Hmm, I don’t know if it’s so difficult. But I had already internalized the technique in my late teens. Maybe I was special in that sense. I mean, I started conducting in my third year of middle school. I’ve been at it a long time! Before I ever got to conduct a professional orchestra, I had already been conducting for seven years.

  MURAKAMI: You were already studying conducting in middle school?

  OZAWA: I conducted the school orchestra.

  MURAKAMI: The Toho Gakuen orchestra?

  OZAWA: Correct. I had four years of high school and three years of university education. By which I mean I did my first year of high school at Seijo Academy and then again at Toho. There was still no music department at Toho then, so I waited a year until they got it together. Then I went to the university for two and a half years. For that entire seven-year span, I conducted student orchestras, so I had plenty of experience before I ever conducted the Berlin or the New York Philharmonic. Come to think of it, nobody ever gets that much experience under their belt. I’m sure Professor Saito thought it was bound to be good for me.

  MURAKAMI: Lots of people play an instrument from the time they’re little, but not too many young musicians aspire to be professional conductors.

  OZAWA: That’s true. I didn’t know anybody else like me. And the reason I was able to communicate with orchestras and convey to them what I wanted them to do—even though I could hardly speak their language—was because I had mastered the fundamental technique that had been drilled into me by Professor Saito.

  MURAKAMI: Yes, but even before that—you have to have a clear image in your own mind of exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it. If you’re writing fiction, say, it’s important to be able to write, of course, but before that you have to have a strong sense in mind of something you are determined to write about. As far as I can tell from your records, at least, you always had a strong self-image from the time you were young. Your music always has a very clear, tight focus. It seems to me that the world is full of musicians who don’t or can’t do that. I probably shouldn’t generalize about all Japanese musicians, but I can’t help feeling that while they have a high overall level of technical mastery and can perform music that may be technically flawless, they rarely communicate a distinct worldview. They don’t seem to have a strong determination to create their own unique worlds and convey them to people with raw immediacy.

  OZAWA: That’s the worst thing that can happen in music. You start doing that and the very meaning of the music is lost. It’s just one step away from elevator music, which, to me, is the most frightening kind.

  Follow-Up Interview: Maurice Peress and Harold Gomberg

  MURAKAMI: The other day we talked a little about Maurice Peress, one of the other assistant conductors with you under Leonard Bernstein.

  OZAWA: Oh, yes, yes, it just so happens I heard from him a short time after our conversation. He sent an old photo to my New York manager’s office. It was a shot of the three of us assistant conductors standing in front of Carnegie Hall. It came with a nice note from him inquiring after my health. He heard about the concert I had to cancel in New York and decided to write. It was forwarded to me just yesterday or the day before. A total coincidence.

  MURAKAMI: That’s nice. I did a little research about Maurice Peress on the Internet after we talked about him. He’s Puerto Rican–American and is apparently still quite active. He conducted the Kansas City Philharmonic from 1974 to 1980 and afterward conducted orchestras all over the world. His son is a pretty famous jazz drummer, Paul Peress. He’s into fusion.

  Ozawa reads the printout that I show him.

  OZAWA: Maurice did a lot of conducting in China, too—and the Shanghai Opera!

  MURAKAMI: He also wrote a book, Dvořák to Duke Ellington.

  OZAWA: Yes, he was a good friend of Duke Ellington’s. Wow, it’s amazing that you can look up stuff like this.

  MURAKAMI: It’s on Wikipedia, but I don’t know how accurate it is. I looked up Harold Gomberg, too. His younger brother is also an oboist. He was the principal oboist for the Boston Symphony.

  OZAWA: Right, right. Ralph was the younger brother, played first chair in Boston for a long time. He retired not long before I left. The elder brother was first chair in New York, the younger the first chair in Boston.

  MURAKAMI: It’s rare for siblings to play the same instrument and for both of them to be so successful at it.

  OZAWA: Yes, very rare. And they were both terrific. Ralph’s wife was head of the Boston Ballet School. Harold was a lot crazier than Ralph. He had this incredibly beautiful daughter he was scheming to get hooked up with Claudio Abbado.

  MURAKAMI: Abbado came after you as an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, didn’t he?

  OZAWA: Yes, he was still a bachelor then. I got swept up in all that. It was pretty wild. [Laughter.]

  MURAKAMI: I understand Harold Gomberg enjoyed a performance of yours when you were a young assistant and chose you to conduct one of his recordings.

  OZAWA: Yes, he heard me conduct Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Bacchanale and part of Firebird as an encore in place of Lenny, and he got me to conduct his recording.

  MURAKAMI: He was first chair in the New York Philharmonic for a very long time, wasn’t he? Thirty-four years altogether.

  OZAWA: Right, but still, he passed away quite some time ago. Ralph, too, in 2006. Harold’s wife, Margret, was a harpist, and she also did some composing. She was quite famous. They loved Italy and had a wonderful old country place in Capri, where they spent their summers. They invited me there once. I was in Europe conducting some French orchestra and had a lot of time on my hands, so they had me visit. I took the train to Naples and the ferry to Capri. They used to paint together. [He reads from the Wikipedia printout.] Ah, it’s all coming back to me now.

  MURAKAMI: It says he died of a heart attack on Capri.

  OZAWA: Oh, really? He was twenty years older than me.

  Interlude 3

  Eugene Ormandy’s Baton

  OZAWA: Eugene Ormandy was a tremendously kind man. He took a liking to me and invited me many times to guest-conduct his Philadelphia Orchestra. This was a real help to me. I had a very low salary at Toronto, but the Philadelphia Orchestra had lots of money and paid well. He trusted me and let me use his
personal office in the performance hall whenever I was conducting there.

  He once gave me a baton of his, and it was terrific, a special-order item, very easy to use. I had so little money in those days, I couldn’t afford a custom-made baton. So anyway, one day I opened his desk drawer and found a whole row of them. I figured he wouldn’t miss a few batons if they were gone for a while and helped myself to three. But I got caught right away. [Laughter.] He had this scary woman for a personal secretary. She probably made a habit of counting the batons in his drawer and she grilled me. “You took them, didn’t you?” “Yes, I’m sorry, I took them.”

  MURAKAMI: How many batons were there in the drawer?

  OZAWA: I don’t know, maybe ten.

  MURAKAMI: Well of course they caught you if you took three out of ten! [Laughter.] But you mean to say his batons were so easy to use they were worth stealing?

  OZAWA: Yes, they were great batons. This kind of baton was like the tip of a fishing rod cut off with a piece of cork attached for a handle, very flexible, made to his specifications. Later, he told me where I could order them.

  MURAKAMI: I’ll bet he got a big laugh telling everybody about this. “Once upon a time, Seiji Ozawa stole three batons from my desk drawer!” [Laughter.]

  Fourth Conversation

  On the Music of Gustav Mahler

  This conversation took place on February 22, 2011, in my Tokyo office. There was also a short follow-up interview, after which I added a few details. We talked a great deal about Mahler. As we spoke, I realized what an important part of Ozawa’s repertory the music of Mahler has been. I myself had a problem getting into Mahler for a very long time, but at a certain stage in my life the music began to move me. Still, I was astounded to hear from Ozawa that a Mahler composition he had never heard before could make a deep impact on him when he read the score. Was such a thing really possible?

 
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