Absolutely on music conv.., p.23
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa,
OZAWA: I’m sure that’s true. Being able to watch such a thing is a rare and valuable opportunity, an excellent learning experience. We recorded it all on video so people can see it later.
MURAKAMI: Robert Mann is a person who is very clear about his method: he knows exactly what he wants to do. But I felt that you were rather different as a mentor. You change your approach in different situations.
OZAWA: That’s true. Professor Saito was very much like Robert Mann. He always had a very clear method. But I always resisted that. They know exactly what they’re going to say. It’s all fixed for them. But I’ve always felt that that’s not all there is to music. I’ve always made a point of doing things differently.
MURAKAMI: You mean, like, doing the opposite of what you were taught when you were young?
OZAWA: Yes, in both my conducting and my teaching. I don’t approach either with preconceived ideas. I don’t prepare beforehand but decide on the spot when I see who I’m dealing with. I respond then and there when I see how they are handling things. Somebody like me could never write an instruction manual. I don’t have anything to say until I’ve got a musician right in front of me.
MURAKAMI: And then, depending on who that musician is, it changes what you say. It must be good for the students to have the two of you in combination: you, with your flexible approach, and Robert Mann, with his unwavering philosophy. I bet it works out very well.
OZAWA: Yes, I think so.
MURAKAMI: When did you begin to take an interest in training young people?
OZAWA: Hmm, let’s see, it was shortly after I went to Tanglewood, so it must have been around ten years after I signed on as music director of the Boston Symphony. People tried to get me to teach before that, but I wasn’t much interested in doing it. Just after I went to Boston, Professor Saito kept pressing me to teach at Toho Gakuen, but I turned him down again and again because, as I told him, I just didn’t like doing that kind of thing. Finally, though, I said okay, but right after I got started, Professor Saito died. Maybe that made me feel I had a responsibility to teach, because after he died I started doing it quite seriously and started guiding students at Tanglewood, too.
MURAKAMI: In conducting?
OZAWA: No, not in conducting. I was training the orchestra. And finally, at Tanglewood, too, I started teaching string quartets on the assumption that if you can’t do string quartets you can’t do anything. I wasn’t doing it as seriously as we do here, but it was pretty much the same sort of thing.
MURAKAMI: You know, I write novels, and producing my own work is just about all I do. Twice, though, I taught university classes. Once at Princeton and once at Tufts, I gave courses in Japanese literature, but preparing for classes and grading student papers took so much time and effort, I knew for sure it wasn’t for me. Working with young students was lots of fun and very stimulating, but it made it impossible for me as a practicing writer to do what I really wanted to do. Do you ever feel that way?
OZAWA: I certainly did at Tanglewood, and I hated it. I had a concert to give every week; teaching on top of that was a tremendous effort. It was the same when I started teaching at Matsumoto in addition to running the Saito Kinen Festival. So I moved the teaching to Okushiga, where I could concentrate on it as something quite separate from the conducting. Of course, that way, I have no break at all!
MURAKAMI: Yes, there goes your summer vacation.
OZAWA: Really. The Saito Kinen took most of it, and Okushiga finished it off. Oh, well, it’s for the teaching. It’s really too much, though, trying to teach in addition to being a full-time performer.
MURAKAMI: Are there other top professional conductors who do that?
OZAWA: I don’t know. Maybe not too many.
MURAKAMI: Pardon me for asking, but is the teaching something you do on a volunteer basis, without compensation?
OZAWA: As a rule, yes. The teaching staff are paid, but I usually work without compensation in both Switzerland and Okushiga. This year is a little different, though, following my illness. I’m not conducting, and I’m here in Switzerland just for this, so for the very first time I’m collecting a salary.
MURAKAMI: Ordinarily, the teaching is its own reward, I suppose. Your teaching method, though, is totally different from what you received from Professor Saito, isn’t it? And the teachers here at Rolle: they all approach their instruction calmly, without raising their voices.
OZAWA: No, they do raise their voices sometimes. At one rehearsal, Sadao Harada really yelled at a student, and everybody froze and the place went absolutely silent. These things happen once in a while. Professor Saito used to yell at us constantly, though. [Laughter.]
MURAKAMI: You’ve got nothing but the most elite students here, people who are used to being number one in their class. I would think you get a few who don’t follow orders all that willingly.
OZAWA: Yes, of course, we have some of those. Which is why we have to have very capable instructors. We’re teaching some very confident individuals.
MURAKAMI: Of course they have to be strongly competitive, or they can’t make it as professional musicians.
OZAWA: That’s true.
MURAKAMI: It must be quite a job to divide them up into six or seven groups and assign each unit a piece of music to work on.
OZAWA: Sadao Harada does all of that himself. It’s a huge job. I used to help a little, but it’s too much for me. I leave it entirely up to him. I mean, after all, he is a chamber-music specialist.
MURAKAMI: You weren’t able to participate in this program last year after your surgery, but do you think that had some impact on the academy?
OZAWA: I was sorry to miss it, but the young conductor Kazuki Yamada took over for me to some extent, and as I said before, there were several ways in which my absence paradoxically had a good effect on the program. I suspect that the shock of my not being present made both the instructors and the students more determined to stand on their own and take more responsibility for making the academy a success. That’s why this year we’ve got several units who weren’t satisfied to be given assignments but instead made their wishes known to work on particular pieces—the Beethoven, the Janáček, the Ravel. I think that’s a very good thing rather than leaving the decision up to the instructor.
MURAKAMI: The Ravel group was especially interesting, with two members from Poland, one from Russia, and only one French musician, the viola player. I asked Agata, the violinist, why such a group had made a point of choosing a work by a French composer. She said, “I wanted the challenge. I didn’t want to do Szymanowski just because I happen to be Polish but rather to try someone so utterly French, like Ravel.”
OZAWA: Oh, so that’s what she was thinking! That was something that only you could get away with asking her. If one of us had tried, we never would have gotten such an honest answer. You’re an outsider, not one of the teachers, so she opened up to you, I’m sure.
MURAKAMI: That group did a truly beautiful job of producing the Ravel sound. I was so impressed, I just let the question pop out.
OZAWA: No, I never could have asked her that, and she never would have given me such a straightforward answer.
MURAKAMI: But it’s a good thing, isn’t it, for such a desire to come out in the open? It means they’ve gone up a level in ability.
OZAWA: You know, teaching like this is not my true profession. Even now, after running such programs here and in Okushiga for some fifteen years, I’m still just groping my way forward. We’ve been rehearsing here now every day, but still there’s no single way to teach. You make it up as you go along; you figure out, in each case, how to best explain what you are thinking to the students. But you know, that’s good for us, too. That way, we can get back to basics.
MURAKAMI: So even world-class professionals like you can learn from teaching.
OZAWA: We can definitely learn from teaching. But tell me honestly, what do you think? Watching what we do here, do you think it has any meaning?
OZAWA: There have been suggestions that I take this orchestra on tour. My manager and others think I ought to have them perform more widely, since we’ve gone to all the trouble of whipping them into such superb shape. Currently we just have the two recitals in Geneva and Paris, and I agree it is a kind of a waste. It would make sense to put a tour together and perform in Vienna or Berlin or Tokyo or New York. But so far I’ve turned down all such suggestions. I just don’t see the need for it. Of course it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. It might be conceivable sometime in the future.
MURAKAMI: That’s a hard thing to decide. If the orchestra were to become firmly established, your educational objectives might suffer. I suppose the ways in which you guide and conduct this kind of student orchestra are very different from the way you “train” a first-class orchestra such as the Boston Symphony or the Vienna Philharmonic.
OZAWA: Yes, very different, both in attitude and in techniques. In the case of a professional orchestra, you’ve got three days to whip a whole concert’s worth of material into shape. You’ve got a fixed schedule with absolutely no wiggle room. In the case of this orchestra, though, the number of pieces is far more limited, so you can pour a lot of time into rehearsing each one. Take the rehearsals we’re doing now: we probe very deeply into each piece. And the more you rehearse, the more difficulties come to the surface.
MURAKAMI: You mean, the more time you spend rehearsing, the more difficult become the various hurdles that need to be cleared?
OZAWA: That’s right. You may get them to where they’re all breathing together, but still the parts are not perfectly synced. The nuances of sound are a little off, say, or the rhythms are not quite together. So you put lots of time into refining each of these tiny details. That way, tomorrow’s performance should be at an even higher level. So then you demand even more from them. This process teaches me an awful lot.
MURAKAMI: What is it that you learn?
OZAWA: Well, it brings out my own greatest weaknesses.
MURAKAMI: Your greatest weaknesses?
OZAWA: Yes, they come out right away when we’re concentrating on such tiny details.
Murakami note: He spends some time thinking more about this, but finally does not provide concrete examples.
MURAKAMI: Of course, I have no idea what your weaknesses might be, but one thing I can say for sure is that each day you work with the orchestra, the more its sound becomes your sound. I think it’s amazing that you can actually make such a thing happen.
OZAWA: It just goes to show the high caliber of these musicians.
MURAKAMI: In observing the academy, I realized for the first time how much hard work it takes to create an orchestral sound that has individuality and direction and presence. But you said earlier that your ability to play music becomes even better when you’ve played in a string quartet. Can you give me some concrete examples of exactly how this works?
OZAWA: Well, look, let me put this as simply as possible. When you’re playing with an ensemble—as opposed to when you’re performing by yourself—your ears are open in all directions. This is very important for a musician. It’s the same when you’re playing in an orchestra, of course, in the sense that you have to keep listening to what the others are doing. But in a string quartet, you can have more intimate communication among the instruments. While you play, you listen to the others. You think, “Hey, that’s very nice, what the cello is doing now,” or “My sound doesn’t quite match the viola’s.” Also, the musicians are able to speak to each other and exchange their personal opinions. You can’t have that in an orchestra; there are just too many people. But when there are just four of you, you can voice your opinions to each other directly. You have that kind of easy interaction. And so the musicians are able to listen to each other’s playing very closely, as a result of which you can clearly hear their music getting better and deeper. It really works.
MURAKAMI: I see what you mean. But still, as an outside observer, I couldn’t help noticing that everybody’s playing with this confident look on their faces, like “Hey, I’m the best one here!”
OZAWA [laughing]: It’s true, we do get some of that. Especially among the Europeans. It’s a little different in Japan.
MURAKAMI: You mean, Japanese musicians don’t show their confidence so openly? You’ve been running this same kind of program in Okushiga and Switzerland, but I would guess you find yourself teaching in subtly different ways in the two places.
OZAWA: Hmm, maybe so. Japanese musicians have their own strengths—they work well together, and they study very hard. In Okushiga, this can assert itself in both positive and negative ways. When people are openly self-assertive in Japan, we say…uh, what’s that expression?
MURAKAMI: You mean “Deru kugi wa utareru” [The nail that sticks out gets hammered down]?
OZAWA: Yes, maybe that, or something like it. You’re not supposed to say or do anything that makes you stand out, or sounds as if you’re nosing into someone else’s business. Respect the consensus. Practice restraint. If you’re squeezed into a commuter train in the morning, don’t say a thing. Just shut up and bear it. Behavior like that can be good in a program like ours, but also not so good. If I took these European students to Tokyo and put them on an eight o’clock commuter train, they’d explode! [Laughter.] They wouldn’t be able to stand being pushed around that way.
MURAKAMI: I can imagine it! [Laughter.]
OZAWA: In any case, self-assertion is perfectly normal here in Europe. It’s the only way to survive. In Japan, though, people think and think and think about things until they finally take action—or take no action at all. So we’ve got that major difference to deal with, and I’m not sure which mentality is better. In the case of a string quartet, though, the European way is definitely superior. You get the best results when each member asserts his opinion. That’s why in Japan I find myself yelling “Don’t hold back!” until I’m blue in the face.
MURAKAMI: Because they do hold back.
OZAWA: You’ve watched our practice sessions in Switzerland. Next you should come to Okushiga. You’ll see the difference immediately. It’s like night and day. Unfortunately we couldn’t hold the Okushiga academy this year because of the earthquake. I was hoping to have you come.
MURAKAMI: I’m very much looking forward to the next one. But about these European students: they talk back when they’re not convinced by the teacher’s instructions. “Here’s what I think we ought to do,” they’ll say. Even with a superstar like Robert Mann, if they don’t understand what he’s telling them, they’ll just say they don’t get it. A Japanese student couldn’t do such a thing. If a young Japanese student talked back to a distinguished teacher, he’d get cold stares from the other students: “What a disrespectful jerk! Who do you think you are?”
OZAWA: I think you’re right.
MURAKAMI: It’s true in just about any field in Japan. Maybe even in writers’ circles. People can’t do anything until they’ve gauged the opinions of the other people present. They look around, they absorb the atmosphere, and only then do they raise their hands and say something unobjectionable. That way, there’s no progress where it matters, and the status quo becomes set in stone.
OZAWA: You know, recently, among young musicians in Japan, there’s a growing chasm between those who get out of the country as soon as possible and those who stay in Japan even when they
MURAKAMI: You left Japan back in the days when there were still travel restrictions. You were going to get out no matter what, money or no money.
OZAWA: Yes, it’s true, and I was pretty reckless about it. There used to be these Symphony of the Air programs made up of members of the old NBC Symphony Orchestra after it disbanded. When I heard them, I knew there was no point in staying in Japan. I had to get out, period. And that’s what I did.
MURAKAMI: So now you’ve come full circle and you find yourself with a strong desire to come back to Japan and educate young musicians.
OZAWA: Yes, but that desire didn’t take shape until much later.
MURAKAMI: And now that you’re back and guiding young musicians in your own special way, you’re finding that some members of the musical-education establishment are saying that your methods are all wrong, that what you’re doing is not really education, isn’t that the case?
OZAWA: Yes, I suppose there are a few people like that. I hear about them once in a while.
MURAKAMI: Don’t the students find it a little confusing when your methods diverge from the musical education they’ve received so far?
OZAWA: Well, you know, when you’re all out there in the mountains living together, you get to know each other pretty well. We’re fellow musicians, after all, so we become friends before we know it. And that’s what a music academy is all about. The more we rehearse together, the better we understand each other.
MURAKAMI: Watching how the students’ music progressed and deepened every day, I was truly amazed. I wasn’t living with them, but I saw them every day, and learned their names and their individual performance styles, which made their transformations all the more profound for me. I was impressed—or should I say “moved”?—to realize that this was how outstanding music was made.
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