Absolutely on music conv.., p.17
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.17Haruki Murakami
OZAWA: It certainly would. I myself have changed, and…
The Boston Symphony’s performance of the third movement ends.
MURAKAMI: I don’t know, this performance was kind of like making a leisurely tour in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz.
MURAKAMI: By contrast, the Saito Kinen was like zipping around in a sports car with a nice stick shift.
OZAWA: Listening to it like this, the performance has that steadiness you’d expect from the Boston Symphony, doesn’t it?
Ozawa Continues to Change
OZAWA: These conversations with you have made me realize how much I’ve changed over the years. Just recently, as you know, I went to Carnegie Hall with the Saito Kinen to perform the Brahms First, the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, and Britten’s War Requiem, and that experience changed me quite a bit.
MURAKAMI: I’m sure you’re changing even now.
OZAWA: Even at my age, you change. And practical experience keeps you changing. This may be one of the distinguishing features of the conductor’s profession. The work itself changes you. Of course the one thing that any conductor has to do is to get sounds out of the orchestra. I read the score and create a piece of music in my mind, after which I work with the orchestra members to turn that into actual sound, and that process gives rise to all kinds of things. There are the interpersonal relationships, of course, and also the musical judgments you make when you decide which particular points of the work you want to emphasize. There are times when you look at the music and really focus on the long phrases, and, conversely, times when you split hairs over the tiny phrases. You also have to decide which of these various tasks you are going to favor. Each of these experiences will change a conductor. I got sick, went into the hospital, and stayed away from conducting for a long time. But then recently I went to New York and had a burst of conducting. Then I came back to Japan, and because I had nothing else to do at New Year’s, I listened to recordings of those Saito Kinen performances over and over again. I learned a lot from them.
MURAKAMI: You learned a lot…?
OZAWA: It was the first time in my life that I had ever listened to recordings of my own performances with such intense concentration.
MURAKAMI: The first time in your life? Don’t you always listen closely to recordings of your performances?
OZAWA: No, I don’t. Ordinarily, by the time a disc is ready, we’re already into the next piece of music. Of course when the recording is going to be released commercially, I’ll give it a listen, but on any one day I’m usually thinking about the music I have to perform that evening, so it’s simply impossible for me to listen closely to a recording of something I’m already done with. In this case, however, I had nothing else planned, and I was able to listen with the memory of the performances still ringing in my ears. So I really did learn a lot from them.
MURAKAMI: Can you give me a concrete example of what you learned?
OZAWA: Well, it was like looking at myself in the mirror. I could see every little detail with frightening clarity. You can do something like that when the sound of the live performance is still in your ears—or in the very tissues of your body.
MURAKAMI: When you get into another piece of music, your mind is completely focused on that one—so if you listen to a piece you’ve already finished, you can’t really get into it?
OZAWA: That’s right. We conductors are constantly moving from one piece to the next. We work with different orchestras, and sometimes we’re involved in long, grueling opera rehearsals. There’s a big difference between finding a little time between rehearsals to listen to a recording you’ve made and listening when you’ve got all the time you need and the music of the original performance is still in your ears: the music enters you in an entirely different way.
MURAKAMI: You mean you hear things in the recording that give you pause, that make you wish you had done them differently?
OZAWA: There are those moments, of course. But there are also passages where you think, “Hey, that was pretty good,” or “We’re really together here”—that kind of thing.
MURAKAMI: How about in the Saito Kinen performances we’re discussing here? Can you tell me what strikes you as some of their best features?
OZAWA: In the simplest terms, I can hear there’s more depth to the performance than before. More concretely speaking, the character of each section of the orchestra has deepened—or, rather, the potential has emerged for each section to go deeper. When that potential emerges, all of the musicians want to give it their best…and when that happens, the performance gets deeper and deeper. Because we’ve got a really outstanding group of musicians there.
MURAKAMI: Are you saying that when the Saito Kinen Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall, it was in some ways different from usual?
OZAWA: Yes, without a doubt. We were working under so many constraints—we had hardly any time for rehearsals, I was still convalescing and, in addition, had caught a terrible cold—and yet we were able to bring off such powerful performances. There’s nothing normal about that. The Brahms and the Berlioz were truly wonderful. And everybody just threw themselves wholeheartedly into the War Requiem—the orchestra, the soloists, the chorus—it was incredible.
MURAKAMI: The War Requiem I heard in Matsumoto was an astounding performance.
OZAWA: No, this one was even better. I brought the whole Matsumoto chorus and the boys’ chorus with me, and having them there was very moving. You know, Japan has some of the best brass bands and choruses in the world, and this performance gave people a good taste of those high standards. The orchestra, too, had a thorough understanding of the music, so much so that a very difficult composition didn’t sound difficult at all. Meanwhile, I’m up there with that awful cold, in another world, coughing so much, it must have been terrible for the people around me. [Laughter.] But you know, when everybody’s into it with their hearts and souls, the conductor doesn’t have to do a thing—just direct traffic a little so as not to obstruct the flow of the music. Things work out perfectly like this every once in a while. It can happen with an orchestra, and it can happen with an opera. Then the conductor has no need to crack the whip. All he has to do is maintain the momentum. Everybody was determined to do his best in that performance because they knew the conductor was sick and needed help—which is exactly what I got.
MURAKAMI: But you had pneumonia! It’s incredible you lasted the full eighty minutes.
OZAWA: It’s true I had a pretty high fever, but I was too scared to take my temperature. [Laughter.] I couldn’t do the whole thing in one go, though, so I had them insert an intermission.
MURAKAMI: The original work doesn’t have an intermission?
OZAWA: No, I requested it. I seem to remember having done that once before somewhere. See, I’ve got “Pause” written into my score. But I can’t remember where I did that. It might have been Tanglewood. It’s a long piece, it was outdoors, some people need to go to the bathroom, that kind of thing. And maybe the weather was hot.
MURAKAMI: So far the only thing I’ve heard from your Carnegie Hall recording is the Brahms, but it’s an incredibly tight performance.
OZAWA: That’s probably because there was a lot of tension behind that performance. It gave me a very good feeling.
MURAKAMI: It just occurred to me that you’ve never once recorded Das Lied von der Erde in your whole long career.
OZAWA: No, I never have.
MURAKAMI: It’s surprising. Why is that? You’ve recorded the First Symphony three times.
OZAWA: Hmm, why is that? I don’t know, either. I wonder if it was just that I couldn’t get two outstanding singers together at the same time. You need a tenor and an alto or mezzo-soprano for that. Sometimes it’s done with two male singers. In concert, I’ve performed it with Jessye Norman a lot.
MURAKAMI: I’ve always thought that Das Lied von der Erde is the one Mahler piece in which an Asian conductor could bring out its special flavor.
MURAKAMI: Is it possible to break a finger conducting?
OZAWA: Do you know the Canadian tenor Ben Heppner? He’s a very big guy, and he was singing on my right side, and Jessye Norman was singing on my left. We rehearsed for two days, and Ben held the score in his hands the whole time. When it came time for the actual performance, though, he suddenly said he wanted to have both hands free and asked to have a music stand set up in front of him. It’s always dangerous to do things differently in performance than you did in rehearsals. Because he’s such a big guy, I knew the music stand would have to be a tall one; and if something like that fell off the stage it could injure a member of the audience and then we’d have a real mess on our hands. So instead of a regular music stand, we brought in big lectern kind of thing—you know, a heavy piece of furniture like a minister uses to deliver a sermon. I don’t know, I just didn’t feel good about it, and sure enough, when I swung my arm hard in a forte passage, my little finger got caught under the edge of the lectern, and snap! My little finger broke.
MURAKAMI: Ow, that must have hurt!
OZAWA: You have no idea. I went on conducting in pain for another half hour or more, but by the time I was finished, my finger had swelled up. I went straight to the hospital and had it operated on.
MURAKAMI: Conducting can be a tough job in all kinds of ways, with danger lurking in places you’d never imagine. [Ozawa laughs, amused.] In any case, I find it a shame that you have no recording of Das Lied von der Erde. I’d love to hear the latest performance by the ever-changing Seiji Ozawa!
From Chicago Blues to Shin’ichi Mori
MURAKAMI: Do you listen to any music other than classical?
OZAWA: I like jazz. Blues, too. I used to go three or four times a week to listen to blues when I was staying in Chicago for the Ravinia Festival. I was supposed to be studying scores—early to bed, early to rise—but instead I was heading out to the clubs because I liked the blues so much. They started to recognize me as a regular and let me in a side door instead of making me wait in line with everybody else.
MURAKAMI: At that time, weren’t the blues clubs located in not the safest neighborhoods in Chicago?
OZAWA: True, they’re not the best. But I never had anything unpleasant or scary happen to me. They all seemed to know I was conducting at Ravinia. I used to drive there myself, a half hour each way. After I had my fill of blues, I’d drive back to the house I was renting in Ravinia. I played a lot with Peter Serkin while I was in Chicago, and he’d come to the blues joints with me once in a while. He was still a minor in those days, though, so they wouldn’t let him in. They can be very strict about such things in America. They won’t let you in without an ID. He’d stand outside by the window the whole time I was inside listening, trying his best to hear what he could. [Laughter.]
MURAKAMI: Poor guy.
OZAWA: That happened a few times.
MURAKAMI: Chicago blues—that’s deep music.
OZAWA: There was a guy named Corky Siegel playing there. A harmonica player. He was the only white guy. Later, I did a recording with him. But boy, the Chicago blues back then were so great! Heavy, intense! There were lots of good players and lots of different kinds of bands. It was a fantastic experience for me. Another thing I did in Chicago was go to hear the Beatles. Somebody gave me a ticket. It was a really good seat, but I couldn’t hear a thing. It was an indoor venue, and the screams blotted out all the music. So I got to see the Beatles but not hear them.
MURAKAMI: Kind of pointless.
OZAWA: Completely pointless. It was a total shock. I enjoyed the band that opened for them, but once the Beatles came on stage, you couldn’t hear a thing.
MURAKAMI: Did you go to jazz clubs?
OZAWA: Not much. In New York, though, when I was an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, one of the violinists—the only black member of the orchestra—heard that I liked jazz, so he took me to some Harlem jazz clubs a few times. They were great. There was usually a strong smell of soul food coming from the kitchen. Oh, that reminds me, we once invited Louis Armstrong—they called him Satchmo—and Ella Fitzgerald to Ravinia. This was something I pushed for. I just loved Satchmo. Until that time, Ravinia was an all-white music festival, and this was the first time jazz performers appeared. And what a great concert it was! I was so excited, I went to visit them backstage. It was tremendous fun. That special style of Satchmo’s was indescribable. You know how we talk about artistic shibumi in Japan, when a mature artist attains a level of austere simplicity and mastery? Satchmo was like that. He was already getting along in years, but his singing and trumpet playing were at their peak.
MURAKAMI: It sounds as if your blues experience left the strongest impression.
OZAWA: I’d have to agree with that. I didn’t know anything about the blues until then. Also, at Ravinia, I was getting a decent salary for the first time in my life. We could finally have proper meals, go to restaurants, live in a nice house. It just so happened I learned about the blues just as I was getting to a point where I could afford to do things for a change, and that coincidence was a major factor in the way my interest developed. Until then, I could never afford to pay to go hear music…By the way, do they still play the blues in Chicago?
MURAKAMI: They sure do! I don’t know that much about it, but I think it’s gotten very active again. Still, I suspect the first half of the 1960s was probably when the Chicago blues were at their best. That’s when they were having their greatest influence on the Rolling Stones.
OZAWA: I think there were three good blues clubs back then, all within a few blocks of each other. New bands would come to each one every two or three days, so I was going there constantly.
MURAKAMI: Oh, that reminds me, you and I went to a Tokyo jazz club together once or twice.
OZAWA: True, true.
MURAKAMI: The first time we heard Junko Onishi on the piano, and then Cedar Walton.
OZAWA: Yes, that was a lot of fun. I’m glad there are good clubs like that in Japan, too.
MURAKAMI: I’m a big fan of Junko Onishi. The quality of her playing and that of other young Japanese jazz musicians is tremendously high. Twenty years ago, there was nothing like their technical mastery.
OZAWA: You’re probably right. Now that you mention it, though, I heard Toshiko Akiyoshi sometime in the late sixties in New York. I thought she was amazingly good.
MURAKAMI: Such a clean touch! Decisive, assertive.
OZAWA: Like a man’s.
MURAKAMI: Like you, she was born in Manchuria. I think she’s a little older, though.
OZAWA: Do you think she’s still performing?
MURAKAMI: Yes, I’m pretty sure she is. She had a big band of her own for a long time.
OZAWA: A big band? Incredible! Later, when I was in Boston, I heard Shin’ichi Mori a lot. And Keiko Fuji.
MURAKAMI: No kidding? You listened to enka?
OZAWA: They were both wonderful singers.
MURAKAMI: Keiko Fuji’s daughter is very active nowadays as a singer.
OZAWA: Oh, really?
MURAKAMI: She calls herself Hikaru Utada. When I was a student, I worked in a little record shop in Shinjuku, and one day Keiko Fuji came in. She was a small woman, very simply dressed, and didn’t stand out in any way. She introduced herself to us with a smile and thanked us for selling her records. Then she gave us a little bow and left. I remember being very impressed that such a big star would go to the trouble of making the rounds of the record stores like that. That would have been around 1970.
OZAWA: Yes, yes, it was exactly that time that I was listening to enka—Shin’ichi Mori’s “Harbor Town Blues” (“Minato-machi burūsu”), Keiko Fuji’s “Dreams: At Night They Open” (“Yume wa yoru hiraku”), that kind of thing. I had them on cassette and would listen whenever I was driving bet
MURAKAMI: When you’ve been living abroad for a long time, you can build up a real hunger to hear Japanese spoken, can’t you?
OZAWA: Naozumi Yamamoto had that TV show of his, The Orchestra Is Here! [Oukesutora ga yatte kita], and when he asked me to appear as a guest on it I said I’d do it if they’d have Shin’ichi Mori on the same show. He really came! I conducted the orchestra accompanying him for one song, which maybe didn’t go all that well. Some famous novelist dumped all over me for that one. [Laughter.]
MURAKAMI: What was bothering him?
OZAWA: Well, he said, “Just because you understand classical music doesn’t mean you understand enka.”
OZAWA: Of course I didn’t say anything at the time, but I do have my own response to such a criticism. Everybody says that enka is unique to Japan, a form of music that only Japanese can sing and only Japanese can understand. But I don’t believe it. Basically, enka comes from Western music, and it can be fully explained using Western music’s five-line musical staff.
OZAWA: The special kobushi vocal ornamentation of enka can be written in Western musical notation as vibrato.
MURAKAMI: So you’re saying that, if written down correctly in a score, an enka song can be sung properly even by someone who has never heard one—by a Cameroonian musician, for example?
MURAKAMI: That’s a most unusual view. At least in terms of music theory, even enka can be a universal form of music. I see what you mean.
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