Absolutely on music conv.., p.22
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.22Haruki Murakami
MURAKAMI: You mean, you can’t teach that innate talent, but you can teach someone how to approach music and how to think about it.
MURAKAMI: Among the student quartets I heard, the one that played the Janáček was the best—really wonderful. I had never heard that piece before.
OZAWA: Yes, that was terrific, really wonderful. The first violinist in that quartet, Sasha, was the one who begged to play the Janáček. Usually it’s the teacher who assigns the work, but this time the request came from the student.
MURAKAMI: With a little more cooking, that group would be good enough to appear as a professional string quartet, wouldn’t you say?
OZAWA: Yes, they could maybe make a living at it even now. But the students we get all want to be soloists.
MURAKAMI: There aren’t that many young musicians who want to play chamber music, are there?
OZAWA: No, maybe not. There are hardly any people who say they want to work this hard on chamber music. But still, if they do study chamber music as closely as they do here, they’re going to last longer as musicians. At least I think that’s true.
MURAKAMI: Robert Mann has concentrated on chamber music for his entire career, hasn’t he? Don’t you think it’s a matter of personality? I mean, there are some people who want to do chamber music and others who are only interested in becoming soloists. Or is it just that you can’t make a living doing only chamber music?
OZAWA: That may be part of it. So everybody aims to become a soloist, and if that doesn’t work out, they can always join an orchestra.
MURAKAMI: And after they do join an orchestra, there’s a tradition of forming quartets with their colleagues and becoming active in chamber music that way. The Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic…
OZAWA: True, true. Their orchestra work gives them a regular income, and they perform chamber music in their spare time—music for themselves. No, it’s not easy to make a living with chamber music.
MURAKAMI: And isn’t the audience for it rather limited?
OZAWA: Maybe so. People who love chamber music really love it, but there probably aren’t that many of them. I do hear that their numbers are increasing these days, though.
MURAKAMI: In Tokyo, there’s been a gradual increase in the number of small halls suited for chamber music—places like Kioi Hall or Casals Hall, though that one’s gone now.
OZAWA: True, there weren’t many places like that in the old days. They used to perform chamber music in the old Mitsukoshi Theater—Professor Saito, or the violinist Mari Iwamoto. And there was Dai-ichi Seimei Hall.
MURAKAMI: Why does the Ozawa Academy concentrate so heavily on string quartets?
OZAWA: Well, this year’s program doesn’t have any quartets by Mozart or (among more modern composers) Bartók or Shostakovich—but all the great composers, from Haydn to the present day, have written string quartets. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Debussy—all of them have put tremendous energy into their quartets, so by performing the string quartets they wrote, you’re able to gain a deeper understanding of those composers. Especially Beethoven: you can’t really understand him unless you know his late quartets. So for that reason, we put a lot of emphasis on the string quartet. It’s one of the foundations of music.
MURAKAMI: But the late quartets of Beethoven seem difficult for musicians in their early twenties. This year’s more advanced group worked on his String Quartet no. 13 (Opus 130).
OZAWA: Yes, some people say you can’t perform the late Beethoven unless you’ve got a lot of living behind you. Because they’re so complex. But the students themselves asked to do it, and I think that’s a very good thing.
MURAKAMI: They were certainly giving it their best. But how about something other than string quartets—like, say, a Mozart quintet, with an extra viola in the mix? Don’t you want to have students work on something like that?
OZAWA: Yes, of course we do. For example, we’re talking about doing a Brahms sextet next year. And we did that Dvořák quintet with the part for the double bass. We invited the double bassist to join us for the ensemble piece, so it would have been too sad for him if he had nothing else to do.
MURAKAMI: Yes, it is a little sad for him. I asked him what he did while the others were rehearsing their quartets. “Just practicing all by myself,” he said. [Laughter.] Oh, another good piece would be that Schubert quintet with the two cellos.
OZAWA: Yes, of course, we do provide for variation. But the main thing we concentrate on is the string quartet. It’s the foundation.
MURAKAMI: Are you the one who came up with the idea for the current system, half string quartets and half ensemble?
OZAWA: Well, I guess you could say it was me, but that was how we had done it for years in my summer chamber music academy at the Okushiga Kogen ski resort. So we just brought the same approach to Switzerland. At Okushiga, too, my first thought had been to work on string quartets exclusively…but since we had brought all these musicians up into the mountains, we started playing together just for fun after dinner. We needed a conductor, and there I was! Hmm, I think the first piece we played was the Mozart Divertimento. That became part of the program. From then on we started doing a different ensemble piece every year.
MURAKAMI: So the “system” came about spontaneously. How long has the Okushiga academy been going on?
OZAWA: Well, let’s see, this program in Switzerland has been going for seven years, so the one in Okushiga must be going on nearly fifteen years.
MURAKAMI: So you put the system in place in Okushiga and imported it whole to Europe.
OZAWA: That’s it. Robert Mann came to Okushiga and started saying how we ought to do something like it in Europe. That’s how we got started.
MURAKAMI: Still, it seems a little strange to me that an orchestra conductor would establish a program organized around the string quartet. How do you explain that?
OZAWA: That’s what everybody says, but under Professor Saito I studied pretty much the main string quartet repertory, and that’s been tremendously useful to me. But I have a lot of homework to do when, like this year, the students are playing stuff I don’t know—the Janáček, say, and the Smetana. I mean, even with Haydn, there are lots of pieces I don’t know, so I have to study them. Anyhow, my most important job in this academy is to choose good teachers. If that goes well, everything else will work out one way or another. It’s the same in Japan and in Europe.
MURAKAMI: So what you do is circulate from room to room, watching the teachers in action and offering advice when necessary.
OZAWA: Yes, and sometimes I just sit there listening and only speak when somebody asks my opinion. Finally, it’s the teachers who are doing the actual teaching.
MURAKAMI: And only teaching string?
OZAWA: Well, after all, the idea from the start was that the string quartet would be the basis for all we do. I’ve thought about adding wind instruments, and I’ve spoken to some flute and oboe teachers, but once you start branching out like that, it can be really tough. The scale of things gets too big.
MURAKAMI: And no piano?
OZAWA: No, no piano. You start adding piano, and the whole feeling changes. In a piano trio, say, you’ve pretty much got three soloists. In a string quartet, the ensemble is the basis.
MURAKAMI: When I was observing the academy in action, one thing I found very interesting was the way the first and second violins would trade places from one movement to the next. Ordinarily, I suppose, the stronger player, the one with the richer experience, takes the first chair—but not here.
OZAWA: Yes, that’s a terrific approach. We started doing it that way in Okushiga and adopted the practice here. We have all our violinists take both the first and the second parts regardless of their ability.
MURAKAMI: And how about for you? Do you find that guiding people in string quartets contributes something to your own musical activity?
OZAWA: Hmm, I suppose it probably does. For one thing
MURAKAMI: Watching Robert Mann’s master classes, I noticed that his advice to the students is very consistent. He gave detailed guidance to each of the seven groups, but he had pretty much the same thing to say in each case, which was that they needed to bring out the inner voices more clearly. In a string quartet, striking that kind of balance is tremendously important, I suppose.
OZAWA: That’s true. In Western ensemble music, the inner voice is a very important element.
MURAKAMI: In orchestras, too, bringing out the inner voice has come to take on much greater significance lately, hasn’t it? So orchestral music has become more like chamber music.
OZAWA: Yes, it’s true. All the good groups are doing it. You have to if you want to bring out the flavor of the music.
MURAKAMI: But students go to music schools hoping to become soloists, don’t they? That’s why they concentrate on playing the main melody and rarely take responsibility for producing the inner voices. Which makes it all the more meaningful for them to occupy the second chair in a string quartet.
OZAWA: I think you’re right. By playing the inner voice, you get to see the interior of the music. And that may be the most important thing. It nurtures your ear. Viola players and cellists, too. Of course, unlike the violin, their instruments are designed to be part of the overall ensemble. When they come here they learn to look more deeply at those parts of the music.
MURAKAMI: Another thing that Robert Mann mentioned frequently was that the instruction to play piano doesn’t mean to play weakly. Any number of times I heard him say, “Piano means half as strong as forte, so play at a lower volume but play with strength.”
OZAWA: He’s right about that. When we see piano in a score, we tend to soften everything up, but what he’s saying is, even if the volume is lower, make those notes clearly audible. Give even the weaker sounds their proper rhythm and emotional force. Balance tension and release. He has gained this faith from over half a century of playing string quartets.
MURAKAMI: The sound of the Juilliard String Quartet is just like that—clear, utterly analytical, contrasting tension and release. Europeans may not be too fond of that approach.
OZAWA: No, Europeans would say it’s better to keep things a little vague and atmospheric. But Mann suggests you perform the music exactly as the composer intended, in order to deliver those precise notes to the ears of the audience. That’s what he strives for—a faithful performance that glosses over nothing.
MURAKAMI: Another thing he said a lot was “I can’t hear you!”—like at the end of a diminuendo if the notes became inaudible. It must be difficult to play such quiet passages solidly.
OZAWA: Yes, it is. He often tells the students that, in order to make sure that those weak notes come out properly, you make the notes just before them a touch stronger. If you make the earlier notes weak, you’ve got nowhere to go. He’s got all those things figured out.
MURAKAMI: He also said, “I can hear those notes in this place, but not in a big auditorium.”
OZAWA: Yes, that’s the result of years of experience. Even if you’re playing in a small space, you always anticipate the sound you’ll need in a big hall.
MURAKAMI: I asked Sadao Harada about that. He said that the true sound is one that can be heard properly in either kind of place, big or small. There are musicians who play differently depending on the size of the hall, but that’s probably not the right way to perform.
OZAWA: That’s probably the best way to put it. It’s tough to actually do it, but that’s the best way to put it.
MURAKAMI: The academy’s Geneva concert took place in Victoria Hall and the concert in Paris will be in the Salle Gaveau. The two halls have totally different acoustics. The students seem to be quite confused by the difference.
OZAWA: You’re right about that. They had to rehearse well if they wanted to hear each other.
MURAKAMI: Oh, another thing that Robert Mann said a lot was “Speak!” Not “sing,” but “speak,” “talk to each other.”
OZAWA: Yes, he was talking about something more than just “singing” back and forth to each other with their instruments. When you sing, you just go ta-daaaa! [He stretches his arms out wide.] Of course, the musicians have to sing to each other, but in addition they also have to signal to each other clearly when they are going to start singing or stop singing. I think he’s telling them to be conscious of each of those stages as they play.
MURAKAMI: Another thing he said in that connection was that each composer has a unique language, and the students should “speak” to each other in that language.
OZAWA: He’s talking about the composer’s style. You have to internalize the composer’s unique voice.
MURAKAMI: At the same time, he said that Smetana has expressions that “speak” Czech, and Ravel has expressions that “speak” French, and the musicians ought to keep such things in mind. I thought that was a very interesting point. Robert Mann is obviously very clear in his opinions, and he gives voice to them over and over. He doesn’t change his teaching method from one student to the next. He has his own unique philosophy, and he holds to it firmly and consistently.
OZAWA: Again, this is something that comes from his long experience. He has his own unique way of looking at things. After all, he’s been exclusively devoted to chamber music longer than anyone, and he has richer experience than anyone.
MURAKAMI: I suppose there are components to his instruction that conflict with what the permanent faculty teach—people like Pamela Frank or Nobuko Imai or Sadao Harada.
OZAWA: Of course, that’s only natural. I always say that to the students—that it’s natural for different teachers to have different opinions. I say that to the instructors and to Robert Mann, too. That’s just music—it’s what makes music so interesting. Different teachers have different things to say, but they may arrive at the same point. Or not!
MURAKAMI: Can you give me some concrete examples of differences that have emerged?
OZAWA: Well, here’s something that happened the other day when Robert Mann was offering guidance on the Ravel Quartet. The score indicates this long slur. Most violinists and cellists interpret this to mean that they should play those linked notes without reversing the bow. In other words, they take it as a practical instruction concerning how to move the bow. Some composers, though, use the slur to indicate a musical phrase, which is how Mann was interpreting it, and he told the students to stop the bow.
MURAKAMI: In other words, it was okay for them to stop and reverse the bow in the middle of the slur.
OZAWA: Right. But before that, Pamela had given them the opposite instruction: since the composer had made a point of writing in the slur, they should try drawing the bow across the strings without reversing. It was completely the opposite. Pamela immediately followed Mann’s instruction, pointing out that she had just told them to do it the other way.
MURAKAMI: Oh, so that’s what that was about. It was a matter of technique, so I didn’t quite get it.
OZAWA: The way Pamela saw it, the students should at least try to play it the way the composer wrote it, even if there might be some difficulty involved.
MURAKAMI: So she was telling them to respect the original score and at least try to draw the bow in a single stroke from grip to tip, even if that’s hard to do. But in Mann’s opinion, there was no need to do anything so difficult.
OZAWA: No need at all. As long as they produced the sound the composer was aiming for, it was no problem if they reversed the bow. The bow has a certain fixed length, so there was no point in trying too hard. That was his opinion. Both were correct. The students should try doing it both ways and choose the way they believed to be right.
MURAKAMI: I suppose different people will arrive at different c
OZAWA: The same way different singers will sing the same phrase differently depending on whether or not they have the lung capacity. Do they have to take a breath or not? Some violinists can play the phrase with a single stroke of the bow and some cannot.
MURAKAMI: Now that you mention it, Mann said a lot about the breath. When people sing, they have to take a breath at some point. But “unfortunately,” he said, string instruments don’t have to breathe, so you have to keep the breath in mind as you play. That “unfortunately” was interesting. He also talked a lot about silence. Silence is not just the absence of sound: there is a sound called silence.
OZAWA: Ah, that’s the same as the Japanese idea of ma. The same concept comes up in gagaku, and in playing the biwa and the shakuhachi. It’s very much like that. This kind of ma is written into the score in some Western music, but there is also some in which it’s not written. Mann has a very good understanding of these things.
MURAKAMI: Another thing that surprised me was that he had very little to say about bowing or fingering. I figured that as a specialist, he would give a lot more detailed instruction on those matters.
OZAWA: The students who come here have already gone past that point, I suppose. His teaching is at a level above that. Bowing and fingering are not a problem anymore. That’s what I think.
MURAKAMI: He did, though, have a lot to say about certain technical matters, like “You should play this closer to the bridge,” or “Play this on the fingerboard.”
OZAWA: Well, that would change the sound. It softens when you play on the fingerboard and becomes clearer when you play near the bridge. Certainly, that’s something he would talk a lot about.
MURAKAMI: I’m not a musician, but I learned a lot from watching his instruction.
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