Absolutely on music conv.., p.12
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.12Haruki Murakami
Saito Kinen as Pioneer
MURAKAMI: I’ve been meaning to ask you something but it slipped my mind last time. The Saito Kinen Orchestra is not a permanent organization—it meets just once a year, with a somewhat different roster each time—but still it seems to have a consistency to its sound, wouldn’t you say?
OZAWA: Yes, I would. And I think that as long as I’m conducting it, that consistency will be there. Also, it’s an orchestra that strongly foregrounds the strings. And we choose pieces to play that work well with that sound. Among Mahler pieces, say, the First and the Ninth…and the Second is like that, too.
MURAKAMI: Can the sound itself of the orchestra as a whole remain unchanged even though you don’t play together regularly?
OZAWA: Well, if anything has changed, maybe it’s the oboe. After playing with us for many years, Fumiaki Miyamoto retired a few years ago. He coached his successor for a while, but after he left, we weren’t able to settle on a permanent oboist. Then we found a very good French player and recently performed the Berlioz Fantastique, so we’re getting closer to our original sound.
MURAKAMI: Does the sound of the orchestra change noticeably when someone other than you conducts?
OZAWA: I guess so. That’s what they tell me. That it changes a lot. But the strings are firmly established as the tradition of the Saito Kinen. That foundation was built by Professor Saito’s former students. There are a few other orchestras in the world that were formed the same way as the Saito Kinen, but that string foundation is what distinguishes the Saito. The string section is an absolutely disciplined unit.
MURAKAMI: The Saito Kinen was the first of these seasonal orchestras, wasn’t it?
OZAWA: I think you may be right. I don’t think there were any other orchestras like it anywhere in the world at the time. The Mahler Chamber, the Lucerne, the Deutsche Kammer: they were all formed after the Saito Kinen. But you know, back when we got the orchestra started, there was a lot of negative criticism, people saying there was no way that such a thrown-together group could make good music. There was a lot of positive feedback, too, of course.
MURAKAMI: At first, the idea was to make it a one-time appearance, wasn’t it?
OZAWA: That’s true. In 1984, former students of Professor Saito put the orchestra together to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his death. We performed in Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan and the brand-new Osaka Symphony Hall. Then it was like, “Hey, this is good! We can keep going! We can take this orchestra anywhere in the world!”
MURAKAMI: You mean when you first started, there was never any thought of reorganizing every year and doing foreign performance tours?
OZAWA: Not at all. It never crossed our minds.
MURAKAMI: But eventually the Saito “system” became a worldwide trend. You were truly pioneers, wouldn’t you say?
Back When Bernstein Was Grappling with Mahler
MURAKAMI: By the way, you never worked on Mahler with Professor Saito, right?
OZAWA: No, never.
MURAKAMI: Was that just a matter of the period?
OZAWA: Well, you know, very few people were playing Mahler until Bernstein started grappling with him so passionately in the early sixties. Of course you had somebody like Bruno Walter, but almost no other conductors took a positive interest in Mahler besides him.
MURAKAMI: I started listing to classical music in the mid-sixties, but Mahler’s symphonies were not at all popular back then. About all you could find in the recording catalogs were the First [the Titan], the Second [the Resurrection], and Das Lied von der Erde. They were not widely listened to, and I think they were rarely performed. Young people nowadays are shocked when I tell them that.
OZAWA: It’s true, Mahler was not at all popular. Maestro Karajan was doing Das Lied von der Erde, and he used it to teach us, but he was not playing any of the other symphonies.
MURAKAMI: Böhm wasn’t playing the Mahler symphonies either, was he?
OZAWA: No, no, not at all.
MURAKAMI: And neither was Furtwängler.
OZAWA: No, it’s true. He was playing everything up to Bruckner…You know, I’ve never heard Bruno Walter’s Mahler.
MURAKAMI: The other day I was listening to a 1939 Mahler recording by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
OZAWA: Ha, I didn’t know such a thing existed.
MURAKAMI: The Fourth Symphony. Not surprisingly, it sounds like a creaky old thing. I also listened to Bruno Walter doing the Ninth Symphony in Vienna in 1938, just before he fled from the Nazis. My main impression of both of them—the Walter and the Mengelberg—was how old they sounded. I don’t mean just the quality of the recording, but the tones they produced. Both men were direct disciples of Mahler, and their performances may be historically important, but you listen to them today and they’re kind of hard going. Then a new period comes along, and Walter makes stereo recordings and builds the foundation for a Mahler revival, and Leonard Bernstein makes it happen with his passionate recordings.
OZAWA: Which is exactly when I was his assistant conductor, when he was recording the complete Mahler with the New York Philharmonic and the London Symphony.
MURAKAMI: Back then, ordinary music fans were not listening to Mahler, even in America?
OZAWA: No, hardly anybody listened to Mahler. So then Lenny became absolutely relentless, performing Mahler cycles and recording everything. He may not have done the complete works in performance, but he cycled through nearly everything at least twice. Then he went to Vienna and did the same thing with the Vienna Philharmonic, sometime in the late sixties.
MURAKAMI: After he left the New York Philharmonic?
OZAWA: Yes, but even before that, he went to Vienna and did it with them—when he was on sabbatical.
MURAKAMI: Which reminds me, you said before that you were house-sitting for him when he was on sabbatical. You mean actually taking care of his house?
OZAWA: No, I was “house-sitting” the orchestra.
MURAKAMI: “House-sitting” the orchestra?
OZAWA: That included some conducting, though not a lot. Mainly, I was doing various chores for the orchestra, inviting lots of guest conductors, like Josef Krips, or William Steinberg, or what’s-his-name, that handsome American fellow who died young…?
MURAKAMI: Handsome young American conductor…?
OZAWA: You know…Thomas…
OZAWA: That’s him. Thomas Schippers. He was an incredibly good-looking guy, a good friend of Lenny’s, married to a beautiful young heiress from Florida. He founded the Spoleto Festival with Gian Carlo Menotti, but he died young. I think he was still in his forties. Krips, Steinberg, Schippers, and there was one other conductor…I can’t remember who…but anyway, there were four guest conductors, and I made all the arrangements. For example, when Steinberg did the Beethoven Ninth, I went and arranged for the chorus, that kind of thing. Each of the four guest conductors took the podium for six weeks, and I got to do two of the regular-season concerts that year. So I was both assistant conductor and the one who filled in the gaps. I learned a lot from that experience! I became good friends with Thomas Schippers, and Steinberg used to treat me to dinner all the time. And Krips—I think it was because of our time together back then that he recommended me to become conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. Of course, you know I went to Toronto after New York. Krips spent seven years as music director of the San Francisco, and when he left suggested that I succeed him. So I quit as music director of the Toronto Symphony and moved to San Francisco.
MURAKAMI: Was Lenny on a year-long sabbatical?
OZAWA: Yes, he was off for a whole year, the ’64 to ’65 season.
MURAKAMI: And you were basically managing the orchestra while he was gone.
OZAWA: Right. I was like a replacement music director. But not personnel. I refused to do that. And I didn’t do auditions. All I did was the busywork. But that was more than enough, let me tell you!
MURAKAMI: That was
OZAWA: Right. I think it was the year before I went to Toronto. I probably got all of that business taken care of before I left.
MURAKAMI: And Bernstein was in Vienna the whole time?
OZAWA: Yes, he supposedly took the year off because he wanted to take a break from conducting and concentrate instead on composing, but in fact he did a lot of conducting in Vienna. I remember there was an awful lot of grumbling about that in New York. Then all of a sudden Vienna made him an offer, and that was it—he went. It might have been at that time that he conducted Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. In an old theater called Theater an der Wien, which was where Fidelio had had its first performance, in 1805. I had some kind of work in Vienna at the time of Lenny’s performance, I forget what it was, but I went to hear it—sitting right next to Karl Böhm!
OZAWA: I seem to recall he gave me the ticket. Yes, it was his wife’s. I didn’t have any money in those days. I was traveling to Vienna to conduct, but their fees were incredibly small, and it cost a lot to go there from America. Maybe that’s why I got a free ticket. So anyway, after the performance, I went with Böhm to Lenny’s dressing room. I was very curious to hear what the two of them would talk about, but neither of them said a word about Fidelio. I mean, Böhm was the world’s leading conductor of Fidelio, after all.
OZAWA: I had worked as his assistant when he came to Japan and conducted Fidelio at the Nissay Theatre, so I figured they’d have a ton of things to say about the opera, but neither of them said a word about it. [Laughter.] I don’t remember exactly what they talked about, but I think it was, like, food, and remarks about the theater, stuff like that.
MURAKAMI: Maybe neither of them wanted to be the first to broach the subject.
OZAWA: I wonder. In retrospect, it seems very strange.
MURAKAMI: So you were saying that Bernstein was playing Mahler in Vienna, too…?
OZAWA: Yes, I think he was. Hmm, come to think of it, it wasn’t that time, but I was there when he recorded the Mahler Second in Vienna. At that point I was conducting the Vienna Philharmonic’s regular season concerts, and he used the orchestra during the same period to make the recording. For Columbia. I’m sure it was Columbia because my great friend John McClure, the Columbia producer, came to Vienna to do the recording. In other words, the orchestra was playing regular concerts with me and making records and TV tapes with guest conductors in their spare time.
MURAKAMI: When would that have been?
OZAWA: Hmm, it must have been early in 1972, just after my daughter, Seira, was born. Lenny was staying in the Sacher Hotel and we were in the Imperial. We always stayed in the Imperial because they gave discounts to people with the Vienna Philharmonic. Lenny came for a visit there to see the baby. He walked right in, picked Seira up, and tossed her into the air. He said he was especially good at communicating with babies this way. Boy, did Vera have a fit! [Laughter.] “After all I went through to bear this child!” she said.
MURAKAMI: Well, he doesn’t seem to have done her much harm. She grew up okay. [Laughter.] I haven’t seen the video of the recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. He made a video around that time of the Second Symphony, but in that case the orchestra was the London Symphony, and they taped it in England. I’m pretty sure John McClure produced that one, too. They recorded it live in a big church before an audience. There’s no audio recording from CBS, though.
OZAWA: Well, maybe the tape they made in Vienna that time was for television, not a proper studio recording. But anyway, I’m quite sure that Bernstein performed the Mahler Second with the Vienna Philharmonic that time. His wife, Felicia, was there, too—a gorgeous woman, Chilean, with very fair skin. She had been an actress, a real beauty. She and Vera became very close friends. We were so poor then, she often gave Vera her dresses. “I know you like to wear pretty things,” she’d say. Funny, they had the same build.
MURAKAMI: How was the performance?
OZAWA: Well, I thought it was excellent. But he was very nervous. Usually, we’d have dinner together and relax over drinks the night before, but that time was unusual, we didn’t do that. We had a meal afterwards, though.
MURAKAMI: What kind of audience reaction was Bernstein getting from those passionate Mahler performances back in the sixties?
OZAWA: Just speaking of the Mahler Second I heard in Vienna, the audience reaction was terrific. I conducted the Second at Tanglewood after that, and that performance got a very good reaction from the audience, too. I remember thinking how great it was to get such a wonderful audience response doing Mahler. I think that may have been the first performance of the Mahler Second at Tanglewood.
MURAKAMI: How about with the New York Philharmonic?
OZAWA: Hmm, I don’t remember very well. [After some thought.] Well, I think the newspapers were kind of split, pro and con. Unfortunately for Bernstein, there was this music critic for The New York Times named Sean Berg or something. He hated everything that Bernstein did.
MURAKAMI: That was Harold Schonberg. He was very famous. I read a book he wrote.
OZAWA: Funny, in 1960, when I was still a student, I conducted a student performance of Debussy’s La Mer at Tanglewood. Three of us divided up the conducting duties, and I had the finale. Or maybe it was the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. We divided that one up, too, among four of us, and again I did the finale. So then, the next day, Schonberg wrote about this in The New York Times. He was actually there for the Boston Symphony’s concert, but he also wrote about the student performance. About me, he said, “People should keep the name of this conductor in mind.”
MURAKAMI: That’s fantastic!
OZAWA: Yes, it was a total surprise for me, but it gets even better! He telephoned the top person at the student orchestra, and he came to meet me face-to-face and told me I should come and see him if I was ever in New York. He was not the kind of guy who said things like that to people usually, I heard. So not long afterward, I had something to do in New York and went there for the first time in my life. And since I was there, I went to visit him at his office at The New York Times. He gave me a tour of the place—here’s the print shop, here’s the music department, here’s the culture section…He spent a good two or three hours showing me around, and we even had a cup of tea together.
MURAKAMI: Amazing. He obviously liked you a lot.
OZAWA: It is amazing, isn’t it? Lenny used to kid me about it after I became his assistant. “The guy dumps all over me, but he can’t say enough about Seiji.” Really, Schonberg was constantly criticizing Bernstein. I’d see his stuff in the papers and felt he was overdoing it. He was just terrible to Lenny. He was always kind to me, though. Maybe he thought of me as a new star he had discovered.
MURAKAMI: The New York Times music critics and drama critics were tremendously influential.
OZAWA: It’s true. I don’t know about nowadays, but back then they were hugely influential.
MURAKAMI: After all the battering he took from the New York media, Bernstein was welcomed with open arms by both the public and the press when he went to Vienna. This made him happy, but at the same time it made him wonder, “What was that all about in New York?” That’s why he shifted his base of operations to Europe in his later years. I read that in his biography.
OZAWA: I don’t know much about that. My English was so bad, I hardly knew what was going on. I do know that he was tremendously popular, that his concerts were always sold out, that Columbia was bringing his records out one after another, the movie of West Side Story was a huge hit—all that spectacular stuff was what I was aware of. Whatever led up to it, he maintained a great relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic in his later years.
MURAKAMI: He never served as music director with any orchestra after the New York Philharmonic, did he?
OZAWA: No, that’s true.
MURAKAMI: He was done with it, I suppose.
OZAWA: Ha ha, I wonder.
MURAKAMI: From what you tell me, though, by temperament he wasn’t suited to management. He just couldn’t use his position of authority to say no to anybody.
OZAWA: That’s true, he found it tough to look somebody in the eye and give him an order or reprimand him. Basically, he would never do that. Quite the opposite: he would ask for others’ opinions. When I was his assistant, he’d ask me after a concert, “Hey, Seiji, do you think the tempo of that Brahms Second was okay?” and stuff like that. I would be thinking, “What are you asking me for?” and I’d struggle to come up with an answer. So I always had to be very attentive at his concerts. I couldn’t just loaf around in the back of the hall, half listening, ’cause then I’d really be stuck if he asked my opinion afterwards. [Laughter.]
MURAKAMI: Was he really like that? He was honestly interested in other people’s opinions?
OZAWA: Yes, always. Even with a beginner like me, as long as we were making music together, we were equals.
MURAKAMI: In any case, when it came to Bernstein’s Mahler performances, opinions in New York were split, right?
OZAWA: That’s how I remember it. But the orchestra gave it everything they had. I mean, Mahler is tough to perform. The musicians were all studying hard to master it. In those days, we used to play maybe three Mahler symphonies a year. I used to see how hard they worked at rehearsals. They’d give a concert, and right away they’d go to Manhattan Center and make a recording.
MURAKAMI: So two or three of those Mahler symphony records were coming out per year?
OZAWA: Yes, pretty much.
I Never Even Knew Music Like That Existed
MURAKAMI: Had you been listening to Mahler before Bernstein got you started?
OZAWA: No, not at all. When I was a student at Tanglewood, my roommate, the Uruguayan conductor José Serebrier, was studying the Mahler First and Fifth. Serebrier was a truly outstanding student. I still see him now and then. He’ll drop in to visit me backstage, that sort of thing. I saw him in London, I saw him in Berlin. Well, anyway, back then I asked to look at the scores he was studying, and that was the first time in my life I found out about Mahler. Afterward, I sent for the scores of both those pieces and studied them. There was no way a student orchestra could play them, but I put tremendous effort into studying the scores.
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