Absolutely on music conv.., p.4
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa,
OZAWA: No, not really.
MURAKAMI: But the sound is radically different.
OZAWA: You know how people say that the sound of an orchestra changes with the conductor? That tends to be truer of American orchestras.
MURAKAMI: You mean, European orchestras don’t change that much?
OZAWA: You can put a different conductor in front of the Berlin or the Vienna, and the musicians hardly let go of their own special coloration.
MURAKAMI: But all kinds of people took over the New York Philharmonic after Bernstein left—Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur…
OZAWA: And Pierre Boulez…
MURAKAMI: I never got the impression the sound of the orchestra changed all that much.
OZAWA: No, I suppose not.
MURAKAMI: I heard the New York Philharmonic a few times playing under other conductors, but it wasn’t all that impressive. Why do you think that is?
OZAWA: Well, Lenny wasn’t the kind of conductor who used rehearsals to train the orchestra intensively.
MURAKAMI: He was busy doing his own thing.
OZAWA: Hmm, I guess so—a certain kind of genius. Training the orchestra was just not one of his strong points. He was an outstanding educator, that’s for sure, but he probably wasn’t all that suited to the nitty-gritty of imposing discipline.
MURAKAMI: But isn’t the orchestra the same thing for a conductor as literary style is for a novelist? It’s natural for a writer to want to perfect his style, so wouldn’t a conductor naturally want to work on improving his style? At least he demanded a certain level of performance from them, I suppose?
OZAWA: Yes, of course he did.
MURAKAMI: Is it a question of “direction” of the sort we were discussing before?
OZAWA: Yes, to some extent, but Lenny never taught them how to play.
MURAKAMI: Never taught them how to play?
OZAWA: How to play their instruments. He didn’t pay a lot of attention to the ensemble approach. Maestro Karajan always used to do that.
MURAKAMI: Practically speaking, what’s involved in the “ensemble approach”?
OZAWA: It’s all about how you go about making the orchestra sound as an ensemble. Lenny didn’t—couldn’t—teach us that. By nature. He had a different kind of genius.
MURAKAMI: Are you saying that he couldn’t provide practical guidance—“Do this,” “Do that”—when he had the musicians there, right in front of him, playing their instruments?
OZAWA: Practically speaking, a good conductor, a professional, instructs his musicians. He’ll say, “Listen to this instrument right here,” and “Now listen to this instrument,” and the sound of the orchestra comes together.
MURAKAMI: And each time he does that, then, the musicians concentrate on listening to one instrument, then another…
OZAWA: Exactly: “Now listen to the cello.” “Now listen to the oboe.” Like that. Maestro Karajan was an absolute genius on that front. He would make these points very clearly to the musicians during rehearsal. Lenny could never train an orchestra that way. Or rather, it never really interested him.
MURAKAMI: But he must have had a sound in mind that he wanted the orchestra to produce, didn’t he?
OZAWA: Yes, he did, of course.
MURAKAMI: But he couldn’t create that sound through his conducting.
OZAWA: And the weird thing is, Lenny was such an outstanding educator. For example, when he delivered the Norton Lectures at Harvard, he did all the necessary preparation for them and delivered a marvelous series of lectures. They’re famous. They were made into a book. But in dealing with an orchestra, where you’d expect him to do the same sort of thing, he didn’t. He had no concept of “teaching” an orchestra.
MURAKAMI: That is weird.
OZAWA: And he was the same with us assistants. We thought of him as our teacher and wanted to learn from him, but he didn’t see it that way. You are my colleagues, he used to tell us, so if you notice something that needs correcting, I want you to tell me about it, and I’ll do the same with you. He had that good American’s desire for equality. The way the system was set up, he was supposed to be the boss, but he insisted that he was not our teacher.
MURAKAMI: Not at all European, was he?
OZAWA: No, not the least bit. And he adopted the same attitude toward the orchestra, so he could never really train the musicians. Or rather, it took a long time to train them to do any one thing. And so, using this egalitarian approach, you wouldn’t have the usual situation where the conductor blows up at the musicians, but just the opposite, with the musicians blowing up at the conductor. I saw it happen on several occasions. And they weren’t joking around, either: they’d talk right back at him in all seriousness. This was inconceivable with other orchestras.
I had a similar kind of thing happen to me much later on, after we started up the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Most of the members of that orchestra were old friends of mine. There aren’t too many of them left now, but the first ten years or so, the others would tell me exactly what they thought straight to my face. That was the kind of atmosphere we had, but some people hated it. Musicians who came from the outside. They couldn’t get used to it. They’d complain that it would take forever if we worked out every little thing that way. I was the maestro, after all: I didn’t have to let every single musician have his say. But that was exactly what I wanted to do. I used to make a point of asking them to tell me what they thought.
In Lenny’s case, though, he wasn’t dealing with an orchestra made up of friends who came together of their own volition to play together but rather an old, established professional organization. When he treated them as equals, one thing after another would come up, so rehearsals took much longer than they had to. I can’t tell you how many times I saw this happen.
MURAKAMI: They wouldn’t just do what he told them.
OZAWA: I suppose he was trying to be a “good American,” and maybe sometimes he overdid it.
MURAKAMI: Egalitarianism aside, I’m sure he felt terribly frustrated if he couldn’t actually get the orchestra to produce the sound he wanted.
OZAWA: I’m sure he did. Everybody called him “Lenny.” They call me by my first name, too, but it was way more extreme with him. Some musicians would assume, as a result, that they could get away with anything, and they’d yell stuff like, “Hey, Lenny, that must be wrong.” Keep that up, and your rehearsals won’t go anywhere. They won’t end on time, for one thing.
MURAKAMI: No, but I imagine you get some real excitement and some great music when things go well—and kind of a mess when things don’t.
OZAWA: True. The music can lose its coherence. That would happen now and then. Back when Saito Kinen was just getting started, we had people calling me “Seiji” and people calling me “Mr. Ozawa,” and people calling me “Maestro.” It was pretty confusing. That’s when it struck me—it must have been like this for Lenny.
MURAKAMI: I don’t suppose it was like that with Maestro Karajan.
OZAWA: No, he never listened to anybody. If the sound he wanted and the sound the orchestra was producing were different, it was strictly the orchestra’s fault. He’d make them do it over and over until they played the way he wanted it.
MURAKAMI: All very clear and precise.
OZAWA: In Lenny’s case, the musicians would talk with each other during rehearsals. That always bothered me. So during my rehearsals in Boston, if somebody started talking, I would stare straight at them, and the private conversations would stop. Lenny would never do that.
MURAKAMI: How about Maestro Karajan?
OZAWA: At first I thought he kept a tight lid on stuff like that. But then, one time, near the end of his career, when he brought the Berlin Philharmonic to Japan, he was putting them through a rehearsal of Mahler’s Ninth, to be performed after they got back to Germany. In other words, this was not a piece the orchestra was to play the next day, so they were not really into it. I was in the hall, listening to the rehearsal, and the musicians were all talki
MURAKAMI: Maybe he had lost some of his authority by then. I seem to recall there were some problems with the Berlin Philharmonic in those days.
OZAWA: Yes, but they made up in the end, so by then, that was all in the past. But things were pretty bad for a while.
MURAKAMI: When I watched your rehearsals, I often noticed you sort of cueing the orchestra with subtle facial expressions—kind of like, “All right, now I’m going to show you this face.”
OZAWA: Hmm…I wonder…I’m not sure what you mean.
MURAKAMI: You will agree that the Boston’s sound changes a lot with its conductors.
OZAWA: Yes, it does.
MURAKAMI: For a long time the conductor was Charles Munch, then Erich Leinsdorf, and then, I think, it was you, am I right?
OZAWA: After Leinsdorf came William Steinberg.
MURAKAMI: Oh, right.
OZAWA: Maybe three or four years after I stepped in, the sound changed—to the clear, concentrated German style I call “into the strings.” The players put the bow in deep. It makes for a heavier sound. Until then the Boston sound was always light and beautiful. That’s because they used to concentrate on French music. Munch and Pierre Monteux had a major influence. Monteux wasn’t music director by that point, but he was there all the time. And Leinsdorf wasn’t all that German, either.
MURAKAMI: So when your time came, the orchestra changed its sound.
OZAWA: I really wanted to do German music. I wanted to do Brahms and Beethoven and Bruckner and Mahler. So I had them play “into the strings.” The concertmaster resisted, and he ended up quitting. Joseph Silverstein. He was also assistant conductor, and he hated that style of playing. He thought it muddied the sound. He strongly objected, but finally, I was the conductor, so all he could do was resign. He became independent after that and was appointed music director of the Utah Symphony.
MURAKAMI: But you also led the Orchestre National de France for a while. Does that mean you could do both kinds of music?
OZAWA: Not really. I studied with Maestro Karajan, so my music is basically German. I loved Munch, though, after I went to Boston, so I played a lot of French music. I conducted the complete works of both Ravel and Debussy. Recorded them, too. I learned French music after going to Boston. I didn’t learn any of that from Maestro Karajan—oh, maybe Afternoon of a Faun.
MURAKAMI: No kidding? I always thought French music was your first specialty.
OZAWA: No, not at all. Never before Boston. The only thing of Berlioz’s I ever did until then was his Symphonie fantastique. I’m pretty sure that everything else I did of his was at the request of the record company.
MURAKAMI: Isn’t Berlioz difficult? Sometimes when I’m listening to him I can’t tell what’s going on.
OZAWA: Difficult? His music is crazy! Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on, either! Which may be why his music is suited to being performed by an Asian conductor. I can do what I want with it. Once a long time ago I conducted Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini in Rome. Wow, I just let myself go and did anything I felt like. The audience loved it.
MURAKAMI: There’s no way you can do that with German music, I suppose.
OZAWA: No, no. Oh, and Berlioz has this Requiem…what was it called?…oh, yes, Grande Messe des Morts, the one that uses eight sets of timpani. Talk about taking a free hand with a piece of music! I conducted it first in Boston, then went all over the place with it. When Munch died, I performed it in Salzburg in his honor, conducting the ensemble that he had put together, the Orchestre de Paris.
MURAKAMI: So when you were playing all that French music in Boston, it was not because you chose it, but because the record company requested it?
OZAWA: That’s true. Also, the musicians wanted to play French music. To use it to “sell” the orchestra. So I found myself conducting lots of pieces for the first time in my life.
MURAKAMI: The music you did while you were in Germany, you say, was overwhelmingly German music?
OZAWA: Right. Maestro Karajan did almost nothing else. Well, they did have me doing some Bartók and things, too.
MURAKAMI: But after you took up your post in Boston, you spent a lot of time introducing the “into the strings” technique, creating an environment in which you could perform German music?
OZAWA: Yes. So then a number of German conductors—[Klaus] Tennstedt, Masur—took a real liking to Boston and came as guest conductors almost every year.
Fifty Years Ago, I Went Crazy Over Mahler
MURAKAMI: When did you start conducting Mahler?
OZAWA: I started liking Mahler under Lenny’s influence. My time as his assistant just happened to coincide with the time he was recording the complete Mahler symphonies. I learned them while I was with him, and after I left for Toronto and San Francisco, I got started trying the complete Mahler right away. Once I settled in Boston, I went through all the symphonies twice. While I was in Toronto and San Francisco, though, Lenny was the only conductor anywhere doing the complete Mahler symphonies.
MURAKAMI: Karajan didn’t do much Mahler, did he?
OZAWA: No, hardly any, for a very long time. Which is why he had me conducting a lot of Mahler while I was in Berlin. I did a lot with the Vienna Philharmonic, too. That way, I concentrated pretty heavily on Mahler at first. The Vienna is visiting Japan now, you know, and if my health weren’t so bad, I was supposed to conduct the Mahler Ninth. That and the Bruckner Ninth.
MURAKAMI: Incredible. That’s heavy lifting!
OZAWA: On this trip, they performed the Bruckner Ninth, but not the Mahler. They’re saving it for when I get better.
MURAKAMI: You’ve got to put all your energy into rehabilitation.
OZAWA: You said it. [Laughs.] But anyway, back then I was absolutely crazy about Mahler. That was fifty years ago!
MURAKAMI: With all that behind you, it’s no wonder German music is so central to the Saito Kinen Orchestra.
OZAWA: True. The first time we ever did French music was the Berlioz Fantastique three years ago.
MURAKAMI: They also did that Poulenc opera [Les Mamelles de Tirésias].
OZAWA: Oh, right, right! That’s two French pieces. We also did Honegger. He’s Swiss, not French, but his stuff is like French music. Finally, though, Saito Kinen does Brahms best.
MURAKAMI: Yes, they’re very good.
OZAWA: Professor Saito’s teaching had a lot to do with that, and a lot of the people who spent time abroad were in Germany and Austria. The people who got together in Matsumoto to form the Saito Kinen had usually been in Berlin or Vienna or Frankfurt or Cologne or Düsseldorf. Places like that. Some had been to the States, too, come to think of it.
MURAKAMI: The Saito Kinen Orchestra sounds a lot like the Boston Symphony, don’t you think?
OZAWA: That’s so true! Absolutely.
MURAKAMI: How do you describe it? Silky? Open? Elastic? I was in Boston from 1993 into 1995 and attending Boston Symphony performances near the end of your time with the orchestra, and I had the impression that the sound had been cooked down to its essence, that it had become somehow denser than what I had heard before, quite different from the earlier Boston sound.
OZAWA: You may be right about that. I was pouring myself into it in those days, doing everything I could to raise the level of the orchestra’s precision. I was determined to make it one of the ten greatest orchestras in the world. I wanted to bring the finest possible guest conductors to Boston. To do that, I knew I would have to improve the orchestra. And in fact, the orchestra did win the favor of a lot of conductors, who agreed to come and perform for us. Among the young ones, we had Simon Rattle, as well as the [older] ones I mentioned before, Tennstedt and Masur, and the period-instrument authority Christopher Hogwood.
MURAKAMI: I came back to Japan after my time in Boston, and when I heard the Saito Kinen Orchestra with you on the podium, it struck me how much more open and buoyant it sounded. I don’t know about its density, but my impression was that it was tremendously reminiscent of the old Boston Symphony sound.
What Is the New Beethoven Performance Style?
MURAKAMI: I’d like to ask you one more thing about performing Beethoven. In the old days, there was a kind of standard style, as represented by somebody like Wilhelm Furtwängler. Karajan more or less carried on that approach. At some point, though, people got a little tired of that Beethoven image and started searching for a new one. Around 1960. Gould’s approach is one of those, I guess—keeping the framework intact but trying to move the music around freely within it. Kind of like dislodging various elements, pulling them apart and putting them back together again. There were several different movements like that, but no definable new format ever took shape—one that could stand up against the orthodox performance style. Am I making sense here?
OZAWA: Sure, sure.
MURAKAMI: It seems to me, though, that lately things have started to change. For one thing, the sound has tended, in fact, to grow thinner, hasn’t it?
OZAWA: Yes, you see less of the old tendency to do Beethoven the way you do Brahms—putting together a huge string section to make a thick, heavy sound. This probably has a lot to do with the rise of the period-instrument people.
MURAKAMI: I bet you’re right. They’re using fewer string players these days. And in concerto performances, too, the soloist doesn’t have to work so hard anymore to make a big sound. Even if they don’t go so far as to use a period fortepiano, the performer can play a modern piano to get a quieter, fortepiano sound. With the overall sound smaller and thinner, the performer can move more freely within a narrower dynamic range. That way, the Beethoven performance style has begun to move away from what it once was.
OZAWA: That’s definitely true in the case of the symphonies. Instead of using the orchestra as one big, powerful unit to make music, the style has changed so as to make each part, each component, more audible.
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes