Absolutely on music conv.., p.21
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       Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.21

           Haruki Murakami
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  The Ravel I heard at the Geneva concert a few days later was a marvelous performance, almost unrecognizably so in comparison with the rehearsal. It practically dripped with that special beauty found only in Ravel. Yes, every last screw had been tightened as needed. The race with time had been won. Of course, it was not a perfect performance. There was still room for a deeper maturation. But it definitely had that sense of urgency that has to flow through all genuinely “good music.” More than anything, what it had was an earnest, youthful joy. The last membrane had been stripped off.

  The students had, then, learned a great deal and had grown in little more than a week. And having witnessed the transition, I felt that I, too, had learned much and grown. This was true not only in the case of the Ravel. Listening to each of the six groups performing in the concert hall, I came to feel that there was something they all shared to a greater or lesser degree. It was something heartwarming and, quite simply, moving.


  The same could be said about the orchestra—which is made up of the entire student body and is conducted by Ozawa—the centripetal force of which increased daily. At one point all of a sudden, like a stalled engine catching fire, they began to exhibit an autonomous sort of movement, like a single community. I felt almost as if I were witnessing the birth of a new kind of animal into a world of darkness. Each day they got better at moving their limbs and tail, their ears and eyes, and utilizing their senses. Their initial confusion gave way to increasingly natural movements executed with genuine grace and beauty. It was as if the animal had begun to understand instinctively what kind of sounds Ozawa had in mind, what kind of rhythms he was looking for. He was not so much training them as he was using a special kind of communication to elicit empathy from them…and, as a result, they were beginning to discover in that act of communication the rich meaning and natural joy of music.

  Ozawa, of course, gave detailed instructions to the orchestra regarding each part of the composition—on tempo, dynamics, timbre, bowing—and he repeated the same passage over and over again until he was satisfied, as if making minute adjustments on a precision instrument. He did not issue his instructions as orders but rather as proposals: “Why don’t we try it like this?” he would say. He’d tell a little joke, and everyone would laugh, and the tension would ease a little, but his sense of the music remained a constant. There was no room for compromise. The jokes were just jokes.

  I had no trouble understanding each of Ozawa’s instructions to the orchestra members, but I was simply incapable of seeing the connection between these small, concrete instructions and the overall shape of the music. How did these many little orders accumulate in such a way to create something so vivid, so that the sound and direction of the music became something shared by everyone? This was a kind of black box for me. How was it even possible?

  Surely this was one of Seiji Ozawa’s “professional secrets”—the secrets of a man who had been active as one of the world’s great conductors for over half a century. Or maybe not. Maybe it was not a secret or a black box or anything of the sort. Maybe it was something that was obvious to anyone but which only Seiji Ozawa could actually do. Whatever it might be, all I knew was that it was really and truly magical. The two things needed for “good music” to come into being were, first of all, a spark, and secondly, magic. If either was missing, “good music” wouldn’t happen.

  This was one of the things I learned in that little Swiss town.


  The first concert took place in Geneva’s Victoria Hall on July 3rd, and the second (and final) concert took place on July 6th in Paris’s Salle Gaveau. In spite of the rather austere program (chamber music and a student string orchestra), both were sold out. Of course, most people were there to see Seiji Ozawa. And no wonder: it had been six months since he last took the podium, at the Carnegie Hall concert.

  The first half of the program consisted of performances by the six string quartets, each playing one movement of the compositions they had studied. The second half began with the Mendelssohn String Octet, and then the full orchestra took the stage. Robert Mann conducted the Beethoven, making truly beautiful music. Next, Seiji Ozawa conducted the Mozart and the Tchaikovsky encore.

  Both concerts were wonderful and memorable, the quality of playing extremely high and deeply felt. The music was played with real urgency, but it was nevertheless spontaneous and filled with pure joy. The young players gave everything they had on stage, and the results were truly superb. The concluding Tchaikovsky, especially, was the hit of the evening, filled with an emotional, limpid beauty. Everyone in the hall was on their feet at the end, applauding endlessly. The response of the Paris audience was especially intense.

  Much of the applause, to be sure, came from music fans eager to encourage Seiji Ozawa in his successful comeback. Ozawa has long had many fans in Paris. The applause, too, was undoubtedly meant in part as praise for the student orchestra’s outstanding efforts, which far surpassed anything normally expected of a “student orchestra.” But quite simply, as well, what we were hearing was the pure, unstinting, heartfelt applause for genuine “good music.” It didn’t matter who had conducted or who had performed. They had produced unmistakable “good music,” with that indispensable spark and magic.

  When I spoke with some of the students after the concert, before their excitement had cooled, they said things such as “The tears were pouring out of me during the performance” and “I’m pretty sure you don’t get to have too many experiences this amazing in one lifetime.” Seeing them so deeply moved, and seeing the audience’s feverish reaction, I began to grasp how Ozawa felt pouring his heart and soul into the activities of this academy. Nothing could ever take its place for him. To hand genuine “good music” on to the next generation; to convey that intense feeling; to stir the hearts of young musicians in such a pure and fundamental manner: these surely gave him a joy that was fully as profound as that to be gained from conducting such world-class orchestras as the Boston Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic.

  At the same time, to see him mercilessly driving his body, which had yet to fully recover from several major operations, to see him literally grinding himself down as he grappled with the nurturing of these young musicians for virtually no compensation, made me feel that no matter how many bodies he might have to devote to this work, he would never have enough. I couldn’t stop myself from sighing, because it was, quite frankly, painful to see him like this. I found myself wishing I had the power to find him a spare body or two to keep him going.

  Sixth Conversation

  “There’s No Single Way to Teach. You Make It Up as You Go Along.”

  This interview originally took place on July 4, 2011, aboard the express train heading from Geneva to Paris for the second concert presented by the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland. This one time, there were problems with the recording (thanks to my carelessness), and so supplementary interviews took place in Ozawa’s Paris apartment before and after the concert. Ozawa visibly showed his exhaustion in the two days between concerts. His expression retained some of the excitement from the success of the first concert, but the energy he had expended so unstintingly on stage had yet to return. His strength was reviving, but only little by little, as he urged himself on little by little, supplementing that with fleeting naps and furtive nourishment. In spite of all this, Ozawa came over to where I was sitting on the train and said, “Let’s talk!” When the subject turned to the education of young musicians, he spoke with far greater eloquence than when discussing his own music.

  MURAKAMI: I had a chance to talk with Robert Mann yesterday between rehearsals, and he said that this year’s students are doing better than any in the years he’s been attending this event.

  OZAWA: I think so, too. And why is that? Last year, as you know, I was too sick to attend, and that seems to have had a good effect, paradoxically. I really think so. I mean, here I am, supposedly the main promoter, and I’m always there, but the fact
that I couldn’t be there probably made both the teachers and the students get serious about doing a really good job. Before, I was going around to all the sessions from morning to night, attending every rehearsal, observing them very closely. But last year I couldn’t come at all, and this year I just peeked in at a few of the sessions, leaving all the hard work to the teachers.

  MURAKAMI: This year’s teachers are the same as last year’s, aren’t they?

  OZAWA: Exactly the same. They’ve been the same from the start. But if you ask me, both Sadao Harada and Nobuko Imai have made huge strides as teachers over the years. Pamela Frank has always been good, but all of them are much better now in their teaching. Plus we’ve got such high-level students, a lot of them coming back year after year.

  MURAKAMI: Which makes teaching them that much more worthwhile.

  OZAWA: Exactly.

  MURAKAMI: Are all the young performers who come here actually students?

  OZAWA: Most of them are, but not all. We’ve got a few who are already active on stage as professional musicians. We had a rule at first that nobody could attend for more than three years, but after a while we let that go, and now there are no limitations. As long as you can pass the audition, you can come as many years as you like. So now the number of repeats has gone up, and so has the overall quality of the group. We’ve still got an age limitation, but I’m thinking of doing away with that, too, next year. So then you’ll be able to come back when you want, no matter how old you get.

  MURAKAMI: At this point, the oldest musician is twenty-eight, and the youngest is nineteen, with most of the students in their early twenties.

  OZAWA: Right. I’m thinking of changing that so people can keep coming into their thirties or forties. They just have to pass the audition. We also have a few special honor students who don’t have to audition—the violinists Alena and Sasha and Agata. They can attend any time they’d like, without preconditions. We’ll probably have one more of those next year.

  MURAKAMI: So there’s a solid nucleus forming. But isn’t there some set maximum number of students you can take?

  OZAWA: Well, actually, six string quartets—twenty-four students—should be the limit, but the way things worked out this year, we ended up with seven quartets. You really can’t put more than six quartets on stage in a concert setting, though, so we added the Mendelssohn Octet to this year’s program, combining the teachers and the four extra students so they could perform, too. Also, if I wasn’t able to attend again this year, we were going to drop the orchestra performance and do the Mendelssohn instead. But here I am, I made it, and so did Robert Mann, who was saying he probably couldn’t.

  MURAKAMI: As a result of which, you ended up with a musically rich program—a very interesting concert the way it was put together. I was speaking with Mrs. Mann, who told me that her husband really enjoys teaching.

  OZAWA: Yes, it’s true. And he and I are a good match, personality-wise. To tell you the truth, he is constantly being invited by all these famous places—Vienna, Berlin—but he turns them down so he can work with me—here in Rolle, and in Matsumoto, too. People tell me all the time that they envy me for being able to get him to come.

  MURAKAMI: At ninety-two, though, he’s really getting on in years. To be blunt, there’s no way to know how long he’s going to be able to keep coming to these events. Won’t his absence create a huge gap to fill? I mean, his presence is obviously a major factor in this academy.

  OZAWA: Yes, we’ve talked about that, and we’ve decided not to even try to replace him but to go on with just the current teachers—Pamela and Sadao and Nobuko. Finally, there isn’t anybody who could take his place. We’ve thought about it a lot, but can’t come up with anybody among living performers who could fill his shoes. Which reminds me—the only reason that he has taken to conducting orchestras lately is because I pushed him to do it. He refused at first, insisted he didn’t know how, but I nagged him to try, and he finally did it for the first time, in Japan. He seems to conduct with a lot more confidence these days.

  MURAKAMI: Is he still playing the violin?

  OZAWA: Very little, hardly at all. But he is going to play for us in Matsumoto—a Bartók quartet with Sadao Harada and the others. He won’t be conducting, just performing in the quartet. He was originally supposed to play in the Mendelssohn Octet here, but he ended up just conducting. He found it too demanding to do both, so he chose to conduct. Which was great for me.

  MURAKAMI: I’m sorry he didn’t play in the Mendelssohn, though. I would have loved to hear him perform. I’ve been a fan of the Juilliard String Quartet since my teens. Observing the students here, though, maybe it’s because they come from all different parts of the world, but each one seems to have developed a distinctive character in his or her music.

  OZAWA: That’s very true. Which makes it all the more worthwhile and interesting for us to be teaching them.

  MURAKAMI: Especially in string quartets, you’ve got very individualized voices interacting with one another, so it can be thrilling when each voice has its own clear-cut character. Of course, that can work well in some cases and quite the opposite in others.

  OZAWA: That’s true.

  MURAKAMI: Now, turning to the orchestra, you conducted the Mozart Divertimento K. 136 and, for the encore, the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. I assume the selection is different every year.

  OZAWA: Yes, every year we play different pieces. Let’s see…what have we done in the past? I remember playing the complete Serenade for Strings, but that’s a bit too long. We also did Grieg’s Holberg Suite. And Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. I’ve conducted for six years here, always something different. I’d like to do Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht sometime, but that’s pretty long, too. It would have been too much this year, unfortunately.

  MURAKAMI: Listening to your list of selections, it seems to overlap almost perfectly with the repertoire you were taught by Professor Saito back when you were a student.

  OZAWA: Hmm, that’s true. Every piece I’ve just mentioned was something that Professor Saito taught me back then. Even Verklärte Nacht. I definitely want to play that next year. My health just wasn’t up to it this year, unfortunately. He also taught me Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings. I’d like to do that sometime, too. And Hugo Wolf has an all-string piece, Italian Serenade.

  MURAKAMI: I don’t know that one.

  OZAWA: Most professional musicians don’t know it, either. It’s a beautiful piece, though.

  MURAKAMI: I think Rossini had some all-string piece.

  OZAWA: Yes. Professor Saito used to teach one. It’s pretty light, though, maybe too light.

  MURAKAMI: It sounds to me as though you are taking what Professor Saito taught you when you were young and passing it on to the next generation in your own way.

  OZAWA: That’s true, now that you mention it. Professor Saito put a lot of emphasis on both the Bartók and the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings.

  MURAKAMI: But the Toho Gakuen orchestra was not all strings, was it? You had a few wind instruments, too.

  OZAWA: Yes, at times there were some. But we did way more all-string pieces than anything else because there was hardly anyone playing wind. I remember doing Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville with exactly one oboe and one flute. We had to do a whole new arrangement, and what a job that was! We had the viola playing some of the woodwind notes.

  MURAKAMI: Talk about making do! Which reminds me, yesterday’s Tchaikovsky was a marvelous performance, but I felt there would have been a stronger bass sound if you had had one or two more double basses playing. The one double bass sounded a little lonely by itself.

  OZAWA: Well, that’s the way Tchaikovsky had it in the original score.

  MURAKAMI: Still, listening to the concert, I felt it would have been a perfectly adequate performance for an established professional orchestra. It had an urgency beyond anything you might expect from a “student orchestra.”

; OZAWA: It’s true, you could take a performance like last night’s anywhere in the world. If you increased their repertory, there are several musicians in that group who could handle a solo well enough to perform a concerto, and the orchestra would work in Vienna or Berlin or New York. You could perform there without the least embarrassment.

  MURAKAMI: The overall level is so high, after all. You know the expression “not a hair out of place.” Well, there really wasn’t one.

  OZAWA: No, there’s not one second-rate musician in that group. This year, everybody is terrific. It’s no accident, though. The more we work on the group, the better they get. Each year, the auditions have become more demanding, and the teaching has become more thorough.

  MURAKAMI: To tell you the truth, the first time I heard them playing—I think it was the second day of rehearsals—I had some real doubts about what they could accomplish. The Ravel didn’t sound like Ravel, and the Schubert didn’t sound like Schubert. I never imagined they would come this far in a little over a week.

  OZAWA: Well, they were still getting to know each other at that point.

  MURAKAMI: The main thing I felt then was that they sounded so young! The forte passages were messy, and the piano passages shaky. But as I listened to each day’s rehearsals, the forte started coming together, and the piano sections developed into clear, even lines of music. I was impressed! So that’s how musicians get good.

  OZAWA: Every once in a while, we get a few students who play their instruments extremely well and produce truly beautiful, natural sound, but who don’t yet really understand what music is. They have talent but no depth. They don’t think about anyone but themselves. When the teachers encounter students like that at their auditions, they have trouble making up their minds. Should they admit these students? Wouldn’t they just disrupt the others’ harmony? As far as I’m concerned, though, that is the very kind of person we want to admit. If the sound is that natural and wonderful, you should bring the student in and really drill the music into them. If you do that—and if everything goes well—a person like that can become a marvelous performer. There aren’t that many born musicians who can produce such a natural and beautiful sound.

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