Absolutely on music conv.., p.5
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       Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.5

           Haruki Murakami
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  MURAKAMI: So you can hear the inner voices.

  OZAWA: Right, right.

  MURAKAMI: The Saito Kinen’s Beethoven performances feel very much like that.

  OZAWA: Because Professor Saito was like that. So when I conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, I was often criticized for making the orchestra sound thin. Maestro Karajan used to tell me that, too, at first. He often made fun of me. The first time I conducted Mahler’s First, Maestro Karajan attended the concert. I was cueing everybody. You know, telling every musician where to come in—“You come in here…You come in here.” Doing that makes you very busy.

  MURAKAMI: Very busy, I would think!

  OZAWA: So Maestro Karajan says to me, “Seiji, you don’t have to work so hard with my orchestra. Just do the overall conducting, and they’ll take care of the rest.” But, you know, by cueing them like that, I made the sound of the orchestra more open and transparent. The cues made each of the musicians come through more clearly. True, the overall conducting is very important, but it’s also important to bring out the details. The maestro admonished me the day after the concert, at breakfast. He was pretty angry. “Stop cueing the musicians,” he said. “That is not the job of the conductor.” I remember how scared I was conducting that night’s concert. I figured he wouldn’t come again, but I was shaking in my boots, wondering what I should do if he did. As it turned out, he never showed. [Laughs.]

  MURAKAMI: In the old days, it was okay for the orchestra to have one, larger sound.

  OZAWA: Right. The recordings were like that, too, of course. Maestro Karajan had a particular Berlin church he liked to record in. And when recording in Paris, he would always specify a hall where the sound echoed as in a church—places like the Salle Wagram, a big old dance hall.

  MURAKAMI: A church and a dance hall! [Laughs.]

  OZAWA: That was mainstream recording back then, to do it in a place with a good echo. The selling point of the space was, like, how many seconds a reverberation lasted. They tried to capture the sound as a single whole. In New York, too, they would do studio recordings in Manhattan Center, another hall with a good echo. Recordings of live performances were not that popular. Instead, everybody would choose a place with a big echo and do their recordings there.

  MURAKAMI: Boston’s Symphony Hall has that kind of sound, too, doesn’t it?

  OZAWA: That’s right. In the old days, they would take out half the seats to record, and have the orchestra perform where the seats would have been. To get a really nice echo. In my time, though, we tried to get a truer sound by playing in the normal position on stage.

  MURAKAMI: So each voice could be heard.

  OZAWA: Well, for that, too, but mainly so people could hear a performance that sounded as though an actual orchestra in performance was playing—without all the echo, keeping the reverberation as short as possible.

  MURAKAMI: Now that you mention it, the Gould/Karajan performance we heard before had rich reverberations.

  OZAWA: Maestro Karajan always gave the recording engineer detailed instructions regarding the way he wanted things to sound. Then he would adjust the phrasing to work within the framework of the sound. He knew just how to create the music so that the swelling of the phrase would come out between reverberations.

  MURAKAMI: Like singing in the shower.

  OZAWA: Sure, if you want to put it that way!

  MURAKAMI: What kind of space does the Saito Kinen record in?

  OZAWA: A very ordinary theater, the Matsumoto Bunka Kaikan in Nagano Prefecture. The sound there is hard, with very little reverberation.

  MURAKAMI: So that’s why it’s possible to hear all the fine movements in the sound.

  OZAWA: That’s it. But maybe it’s a little too clean. I’d like to have just a touch of an echo, but it’s hard to find the perfect hall. The best space in Japan now is that place in Tokyo…what is it?…Sumida Triphony Hall. That’s the best hall to record in in Tokyo.

  MURAKAMI: Moving back to the subject of modern performances of Beethoven, does this involve reducing the number of stringed instruments—or if not actually reducing them, at least thinning down the sound?

  OZAWA: Maybe it’s more a matter of splitting up the various sounds so you can hear everything from within the overall sound more clearly. That’s probably the dominant tendency these days, and it’s absolutely something that has come from period-instrument performances.

  MURAKAMI: I suppose orchestras in Beethoven’s day had fewer strings.

  OZAWA: Yes, of course. So for example in the Third Symphony, the Eroica, some conductors will cut the number of strings way down, with, like, six first violins. I don’t go that far.

  Beethoven with Period Instruments, Immerseel at the Fortepiano

  MURAKAMI: Now let’s listen to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto played on period instruments.

  Jos van Immerseel plays the fortepiano with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Bruno Weil, in a 1996 recording.

  OZAWA: This has such a strong reverberation! Listen, right here, the way the next note comes in before the previous one dies. That shouldn’t be happening, ordinarily.

  MURAKAMI: The reverberation is strong.

  The three-note figure sounds in the orchestra’s introductory part.

  OZAWA: Now here, Maestro Karajan would have played that tahn, taahn, taaahn, adding “direction,” but this orchestra just goes tahn, tahn, tahn. It’s a huge difference. Of course, this is interesting in its own way.

  MURAKAMI: You can hear the sound of each instrument independently.

  OZAWA: Right. Like that—the sound of the oboe stands out. That’s how it’s done.

  MURAKAMI: It’s getting close to chamber music.

  OZAWA: Exactly. This kind of performance has its own persuasiveness.

  MURAKAMI: The Saito Kinen Orchestra tends to be like this, too.

  OZAWA: It does. Everybody has his say—each of the instruments.

  MURAKAMI: In many subtle ways, it sounds very different from earlier orchestras.

  OZAWA: Yes, but you can’t hear the consonants in this orchestra we’re listening to.

  MURAKAMI: The consonants?

  OZAWA: The leading edge of each sound.

  MURAKAMI: I still don’t get it.

  OZAWA: Hmm, how can I put it? If you sing a-a-a, it’s all vowel. But if you add consonants to each of the a’s, you get something like ta-ka-ka or ha-sa-sa. It’s a question of which consonants you add. It’s easy enough to make the first ta or ha, but the hard part is what follows. If it’s all consonant—ta-t-t—the melody falls apart. But the expression of the notes changes depending on whether you go ta-raa-raa or ta-waa-waa. To have a good musical ear means having control over the consonants and vowels. When the instruments of this orchestra talk to each other, the consonants don’t come out. It’s not unpleasant, though.

  MURAKAMI: I see what you mean. But if they didn’t have the reverberation, it might be tiring to listen to.

  OZAWA: True. Which may be why they chose the hall they did for recording.

  MURAKAMI: I do find period instrument performances fresh and interesting, but you don’t actually hear many of them aside from genuine baroque music, especially with a Beethoven or a Schubert. More often, you hear orchestras using modern instruments that have been indirectly influenced by period performances.

  OZAWA: You may be right. In that sense, these are interesting times for music.

  On Gould Again

  MURAKAMI: What interests me when I’m listening to Gould is the way he deliberately brings contrapuntal elements into performances of Beethoven. He doesn’t just try to harmonize with the orchestra but deliberately overlays their music with his, and, as a result, creates a natural tension between the two. This was a fresh interpretation of Beethoven.

  OZAWA: That’s true, but what’s strange is that no one has emerged since his death to carry on and develop that stance of his. Really, no one. I guess Gould was a genius. He may have influenced others, but the way I s
ee it, there is nobody like him, nobody with that kind of courage.

  MURAKAMI: Even those few who bring a lot of invention to their performances seem to do so without a genuine sense of necessity and substance.

  OZAWA: Mitsuko Uchida is a courageous pianist. And Martha Argerich has a lot of that quality.

  MURAKAMI: Do you think female pianists have more of it?

  OZAWA: Yes, the women are bolder.

  MURAKAMI: There’s a male pianist named Valery Afanassiev.

  OZAWA: Never heard of him.

  MURAKAMI: He’s a contemporary musician who brings a lot of inventiveness to his playing—and he performs this Third Piano Concerto. Very interesting, intellectual, passionate—unique. But you get tired listening to him. His second movement is just too slow. “All right, I get it, I get it!” you want to say. He thinks too much. Gould never had that. Even when his playing is weirdly slow, he makes you listen to the end. You don’t get tired of him halfway through. His inner rhythms must be terrifically strong.

  OZAWA: It’s those empty moments of his—the way he puts in ma. He’s amazing. Listening to him today for the first time in a long time, I realized all over again how well he does that. It’s sheer guts, something he was born with, and absolutely not an act.

  MURAKAMI: But there’s no one like him. You watch a video of him playing, and he’ll suspend a hand in the air and twitch his fingers slightly to add vibrato to the sound of the piano—which is of course a physical impossibility.

  OZAWA: There’s no question he was an eccentric. When I first met him, I was just getting started, and my English was terrible. Thinking back on it now, it seems like such a wasted opportunity! If only I could have talked to him more! I could even have had conversations with Bruno Walter back then if my English had been halfway decent. Think of all the things I could have talked about with Glenn! What a shame! Lenny was a tremendously kind man and he could accommodate my broken English, so we had wonderful long conversations.

  Rudolf Serkin and Ozawa, Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 3 in C Minor

  MURAKAMI: Now I’d like to listen to your 1982 recording of the Third Piano Concerto with Rudolf Serkin. You don’t mind, do you?

  OZAWA: No, not at all.

  MURAKAMI: Because some people don’t like to listen to recordings of their own performances.

  OZAWA: No, I’m fine. I haven’t heard it for a long time, so I don’t remember what it was like. It’ll probably sound heavy to me now.

  MURAKAMI: No, it’s not heavy at all.

  OZAWA: I wonder.

  I lower the needle to the record. The orchestra’s introduction begins.

  OZAWA: Very quiet opening, isn’t it?

  The tranquil opening gradually begins to modulate.

  OZAWA: Now, this is “direction.” Hear those four notes? Tahn-tahn-tahn-tahn. It’s the first fortissimo of the piece. I put it together that way quite consciously.

  The orchestra swells and comes to the foreground.

  OZAWA: I should have done more of that, given it still clearer “direction”—like tah-tah-taahn with a more emphatic accent, more boldly. Of course the score doesn’t say “more boldly” anywhere. You have to read that in for yourself.

  The orchestra creates a clearer musical structure.

  OZAWA: There, the “direction” is taking shape, though it’s still not bold enough.

  The piano enters (3:22).

  MURAKAMI: Serkin is really moving the sound along, isn’t he—taking a very positive approach toward adding his own articulation?

  OZAWA: Yes, he knows that this is probably his last performance of this piece, that he won’t have another chance to record it while he’s alive, and so he’s going to play it the way he wants to. Period.

  MURAKAMI: The mood is totally different from the high-strung performance he gave with Bernstein, isn’t it?

  OZAWA: Pure elegance, his sound.

  MURAKAMI: But your approach here with the orchestra is very serious, isn’t it?

  OZAWA: You think so? [Laughs.]

  MURAKAMI: Serkin is making music the way he wants to.

  Behind the piano, the strings play in spiccato (with lightly springing bows).

  MURAKAMI: Isn’t this a little too slow, this part?

  OZAWA: True, both of us are playing too cautiously—both Serkin and I. This should be livelier, as if we’re chatting with each other.

  The cadenza begins (12:50).

  MURAKAMI: I’m particularly fond of Serkin’s approach to this cadenza. It’s like he’s climbing a hill with a load on his back. There’s nothing fluent here; it’s almost as though he’s stuttering—you have to admire him for it. Will he be okay? Will he make it all the way to the top? You worry for him as you listen, and the music gets to you.

  OZAWA: Nowadays, everybody just tears right through it. It’s nice to have one like this, too.

  The pianist’s fingers seem to falter for a split second (14:56).

  MURAKAMI: Ooh, he was kind of flirting with danger there, wasn’t he? That can be nice, too, though.

  OZAWA: Ha ha, really, it was touch-and-go.

  The cadenza ends, and the orchestra slowly begins to play (16:02).

  MURAKAMI: The orchestra’s entry here is so delicate, I tense up.

  OZAWA: Mmm, I see what you mean. But the timpanist here is excellent. He’s very good—Vic Firth. He was with the Saito Kinen Orchestra from the beginning for almost twenty years.

  The first movement ends (16:53).

  OZAWA: It was a lot better toward the end.

  MURAKAMI: I think so. Really working together.

  OZAWA: Fine cadenza, though, you’re right.

  MURAKAMI: I get this sudden wave of exhaustion whenever I hear it. It’s good, though. It brings out his personality.

  OZAWA: How many years before his death was this, I wonder?

  MURAKAMI: Well, the recording was made in 1982, and Serkin died in ’91, so nine years before. He was seventy-nine at the time.

  OZAWA: So he died at eighty-eight.

  MURAKAMI: Who set the tempo in this recording, I wonder—him or you?

  OZAWA: He was the old maestro in this one, of course, so we did it exactly as he wanted it. Straight through from rehearsals. I did my best to match his approach from the very first tutti. Here, I’m conducting strictly as an accompanist.

  MURAKAMI: Did you do a lot of rehearsing?

  OZAWA: Two solid days. Then the performance, and then we recorded.

  MURAKAMI: So what you’re saying is that Mr. Serkin decided a lot of stuff beforehand.

  OZAWA: The most important thing is the character of the piece. That was for him to decide. But listening to it again now, I can see I wasn’t bold enough. I should have plunged right in. It’s such a well-defined piece, I should have taken a more positive approach, but I don’t know, it’s not that I was too restrained, exactly…

  MURAKAMI: As a listener, it did seem to me to have a certain indefinable air of restraint about it.

  OZAWA: Well, it’s true I was trying not to overdo it. But listening to it now, with him playing so freely, making exactly the kind of music he wanted to do, I can’t help thinking I should have tried more to match him, to conduct with a little more freedom.

  MURAKAMI: He’s like an old master of classical rakugo storytelling, just going along with his instincts.

  OZAWA: Yes, he’s completely at ease, not the least bit concerned if his fingers stumble a little. That part where you said he was kind of flirting with danger—he really was. But that just adds to the overall flavor when you’re that good.

  MURAKAMI: When I first heard this recording, I worried that his action or touch or whatever you call it was just a bit slower than it used to be—but, strangely enough, the more I listened to it, the less it bothered me.

  OZAWA: That’s because a musician’s special flavor comes out with age. His playing at that stage may have more interesting qualities than at the height of his career.

  MURAKAMI: That was certainly t
rue of Rubinstein when he recorded the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Barenboim and the London Philharmonic in his eighties. His touch is the tiniest bit slower than it used to be, but the music is so rich you eventually forget about that.

  OZAWA: Speaking of Rubinstein, he was very fond of me.

  MURAKAMI: I didn’t know that.

  OZAWA: I went all around the world with him for maybe three years, conducting accompaniment for him. It was while I was still in Toronto, so it was a very long time ago. I remember he played a recital at La Scala that I conducted using the La Scala Orchestra. Hmm, let’s see, what did we play then? A Tchaikovsky concerto and maybe a Mozart or the Beethoven Third or Fourth. He would usually play a Tchaikovsky after the intermission, though sometimes it would be a Rachmaninoff. No, I think it was a Chopin concerto, not Rachmaninoff. Yes, we went all over, performing together. He’d always take me with him. We’d meet at his place in Paris and leave from there. It was always quite a trip, but the pace was relaxed—say, a whole week at La Scala. We went to San Francisco, too. We would go to places he liked, have two or three rehearsals with the local orchestra, and give a performance. I always had the most marvelous meals with him.

  MURAKAMI: So you were always playing with different orchestras. Isn’t that hard?

  OZAWA: No, no, I got used to it. It’s fun being a hired conductor. As I said, I think I did it for three years. I especially remember one Italian vermouth…Carpano…Punt e Mes Carpano. I learned about it from him.

  MURAKAMI: He enjoyed living well, didn’t he?

  OZAWA: Very much so. He had this personal secretary he took everywhere with him, a tall, slim woman. His wife was always complaining about his ways. He was quite the ladies’ man. And he loved to eat well. In Milan he’d go to this incredibly high-end restaurant and order stuff they made especially for him. I never had to look at the menu—I’d just let him do all the ordering, and they’d bring out these special dishes. That’s when I learned what real luxury living could be.

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