Absolutely on music conv.., p.6
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.6Haruki Murakami
MURAKAMI: He was probably very different from Serkin.
OZAWA: Like night and day. They were complete opposites. Serkin was totally serious, a man of simple tastes. He was a devout Jew.
MURAKAMI: You’re close to his son Peter, aren’t you?
OZAWA: Peter was a real rebel in his youth and caused his father a lot of problems. So Rudolf asked me to look after him. I saw a lot of Peter from the time he was eighteen or so. I guess Rudolf had faith in me, felt that I’d know how to deal with his son. Peter and I did a lot of things together at first. We’re still friends, but in those days we’d go to Toronto or Ravinia and places like that every year and perform together. We often performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto arranged for piano.
MURAKAMI: There’s a recording of that, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra.
OZAWA: Hmm, now that you mention it, there was a recording, wasn’t there? That was the first and last time I did that, it’s such an odd piece, the Piano Concerto op. 61a.
MURAKAMI: You never recorded with Rubinstein, did you?
OZAWA: No, never. I was so young then, and I wasn’t signed to any record company. I hardly recorded anything in those days.
MURAKAMI: It’d be nice to have some new recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos with the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Come to think of it, though, I can’t think of an appropriate pianist offhand. Lots of people have already done the complete concertos.
OZAWA: How about Krystian Zimerman?
MURAKAMI: He was doing the complete concertos with Bernstein—and the Vienna Philharmonic, I think. Bernstein died before they could finish, though, so he did double duty on the rest of them, both playing and conducting. He ended up doing all the concertos. They’re on DVD, too.
OZAWA: Now that you mention it, I heard him play a Brahms piano concerto with Bernstein in Vienna.
MURAKAMI: I didn’t know they did that. But in the Beethoven concertos they recorded together, Bernstein is the one who sets the pace virtually all the way through. Zimerman’s piano is formally perfect and quite wonderful, but he is not the kind of musician who takes command, so the orchestra is pretty much in control—or so it sounded to me, as if Zimerman was in perfect agreement with Bernstein.
OZAWA: I got very friendly with Zimerman in my Boston days. He liked Boston a lot, too, and he was talking about buying a house and moving there. I thought it was a great idea and urged him to do it, but after two fruitless months of looking all over for a house, he gave up. It was really a shame: he was saying he’d rather live in Boston than Switzerland or New York, but he just couldn’t find a house where he could freely play the piano without disturbing the neighbors.
MURAKAMI: He’s a tasteful, rather intellectual pianist. I went to hear him once a long time ago when he came to Japan. He was so young! And his Beethoven sonatas sounded new and fresh.
OZAWA: You’re right, though, if you exclude the pianists who have already done the complete Beethoven concertos, I really can’t think of someone I’d like to record them with.
Mitsuko Uchida and Kurt Sanderling, Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 3 in C Minor
MURAKAMI: Now, finally, let’s listen to Mitsuko Uchida’s performance. I love the way she plays the second movement, and we’re running out of time, so let’s take a different approach and start with that.
The movement begins with a soft, tranquil solo.
OZAWA [as soon as the music begins]: Her sound is truly beautiful. She has such a great ear.
Soon the orchestra steals in (1:19).
MURAKAMI: This is the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
OZAWA: That’s a fine hall, too.
The piano and orchestra intertwine (2:32).
OZAWA [deeply moved]: It’s wonderful to think that Japan has produced such a marvelous pianist.
MURAKAMI: Her touch is so clear. You can hear everything so clearly—every strong note, every quiet note. She plays with total mastery: there is nothing vague in her performance.
OZAWA: She’s utterly confident.
The solo piano continues with long, evocative pauses [ma] (5:11).
OZAWA: Listen to that, those perfect moments of silence. This is exactly the passage where we heard Gould using those tiny silences.
MURAKAMI: That’s true, now that you mention it. The way she puts in those silent intervals, is it? Her free spacing of the notes is somehow reminiscent of Gould.
OZAWA: Yes, very similar.
The piano’s incredibly subtle solo ends, and the orchestra glides in again. This is truly miraculous music making. The two listeners groan simultaneously (5:42).
OZAWA: What an ear she has for music!
The piano and orchestra intertwine again for a time.
OZAWA: Three measures back, the piano and orchestra were out of sync. I’ll bet Mitsuko is pretty angry right about now. [Laughs.]
Beautiful piano solo unfolds, like an ink painting in space. A string of notes, perfectly formed and brimming with courage, each note thinking for itself (8:39–9:33).
MURAKAMI: I could listen to this part and never tire of it. The tension never lets up no matter how slowly it’s played.
The piano solo ends, and the orchestra enters (9:33).
MURAKAMI: This re-entry of the orchestra seems hard to do.
OZAWA: They should have done better.
OZAWA: It can be done better.
The second movement ends (10:27).
OZAWA [deeply moved]: Wow, this is just amazing. Mitsuko is an incredible pianist. When did they record this?
MURAKAMI: In 1994.
OZAWA: Sixteen years ago, huh?
MURAKAMI: I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to it, it never gets old. So graceful, so transparent.
OZAWA: Of course, this second movement itself is a very special piece of music. I don’t think Beethoven ever did anything else quite like it.
MURAKAMI: To draw out a slow piece of music like this takes tremendous power, I would think—both for the pianist and for the orchestra. Especially those moments where the orchestra re-enters. As an observer, those seem especially tough.
OZAWA: They are tough. The hard part is making the breaths match. The strings, the woodwinds, the conductor, everybody has to be breathing together. It’s not easy! You just heard an example of what happens when it doesn’t go very smoothly.
MURAKAMI: I suppose you can work all that out in rehearsal—“We come in here, with this exact timing”—but a different flow takes over in the actual performance. Things like that must happen.
OZAWA: Yes, of course they do. And then the orchestra’s entry can be thrown off.
MURAKAMI: When you’ve got an empty moment and you have to glide into it, the musicians all watch the conductor, I suppose?
OZAWA: That’s right. I’m the one responsible for putting it all together in the end, so they’re all looking at me. In that passage we just heard, the piano goes tee…and then there’s an empty space [ma], and the orchestra glides in, right? It makes a huge difference whether you play tee-yataa or tee…yataa. Or there are some people who add expression by coming in without a break: teeyantee. So if you do it by kind of “sneaking in,” as they say in English, the way we heard, it can go wrong. It’s tremendously difficult to make the orchestra all breathe together at exactly the same point. You have all these different instruments in different positions on the stage, so each of them hears the piano differently, and that tends to throw off the breath of each player by a little. So to avoid that kind of slip-up, the conductor should come in with a big expression on his face like this—teeyantee.
MURAKAMI: So you indicate the empty interval [ma] with your face and body language.
OZAWA: Right, right. You show with your face and the movement of your hands whether they should take a long breath or a short breath. That little bit makes a big difference.
MURAKAMI: So the conductor has to decide how to proceed on a moment-to-moment basis?
OZAWA: Pretty much
MURAKAMI: Can the musicians and conductor understand each other through eye contact?
OZAWA: Yes, of course. Musicians love conductors who can do that. It makes it a lot easier for them. Say in this second movement, the conductor has to become the representative of the players and make the final decision of how they’re going to come in—whether it’s going to be haa or ha or, more ambiguously, with emotion,…ha…And then he has to convey his decision to everybody else. Doing it that last way is a little dangerous, I suppose. But you make everybody properly aware of the danger, and then you all go in together—you can do it that way, too.
MURAKAMI: The more you tell me, the more I see how hard it is to conduct an orchestra. Writing a novel all by yourself is way easier than that. [Laughter.]
On Manic Record Collectors
OZAWA: Now, you might find this a little offensive, but I’ve never liked those manic record collectors—people with lots of money, superb music reproduction equipment, and tons of records. Back when I was poor, I occasionally went to the homes of a few people like that. You go in, and they’ve got everything ever recorded by Furtwängler, say, but the people themselves are so busy they can’t spend any time at home listening to music.
MURAKAMI: People with money are usually busy.
OZAWA: True. But throughout our conversations, I’ve been so impressed by how deeply you have listened to each piece of music. Or so it seems to me. In your case, you have collected a lot of records, but you don’t listen to them like one of those collectors.
MURAKAMI: Well, I’ve got lots of free time and I’m mostly at home, so luckily I can listen to music from morning to night, not just collect records.
OZAWA: You’re not concerned with the record jackets—you’re listening to what’s inside them. That’s what I’ve been finding so interesting in our talks, right from the first discussion of Glenn Gould. I found myself thinking, “Hey, this is not bad.” The other day, though, I had to go to a major record store in downtown Tokyo, and after looking around for a while, I felt the old distaste coming back.
MURAKAMI: Distaste? You mean, toward records and CDs and stuff as things—as commodities?
OZAWA: Yes. I had let myself forget all about those things. I don’t have anything to do with them anymore. But spending time in the record store, I felt that old, unpleasant feeling coming back. Now, you are not a musician, and if anything, you’re closer to one of those record collectors, wouldn’t you say?
MURAKAMI: It’s true. I just collect records and listen to them. Sure, I go to a lot of concerts, but since I don’t actually make music, I’m more or less a dilettante.
OZAWA: But I’m enjoying talking to you about music like this because your perspective is so different from mine. It’s that difference that has been making it a learning experience for me, something fresh and unexpected.
MURAKAMI: I’m very glad to hear that. Listening to recorded music has been one of the greatest joys of my life.
OZAWA: It occurred to me while I was in the record store that I don’t want to have these conversations be for record collectors. I want them to be something that people who really love music will enjoy reading. I’d like that to be our guideline.
MURAKAMI: Absolutely! Let’s make sure to keep our conversations as un-interesting as possible for collectors! [Laughter.]
Murakami note: I thought about this afterward and realized that part of me has always derived a lot of joy from collecting records, which maybe makes me like one of those “manic record collectors” that Ozawa was talking about. I don’t see my own collecting as “manic,” but I’m fairly obsessive, so I do have a tendency to become more or less obsessed with certain things. For example, in my teens I fell in love with Mozart’s String Quartet no. 15 in D Minor (K. 421), one of the six “Haydn” quartets, in a set recorded by the Juilliard String Quartet, and for a time I listened to it exclusively, again and again. So even now, if someone mentions K. 421, I automatically start hearing the Juilliard’s keen-edged performance in my head and picture the album cover. It’s imprinted there, and it tends to be the internal standard by which I judge other performances. Records were expensive back then, and I would give my undivided attention to each precious disc, so in my mind (and with a degree of fetishism) a piece of music and the material thing on which it was recorded often comprised an indivisible unit. This may not be entirely natural, but since I didn’t play music myself, it was the only way I could engage with it. Once I had made a little money, I started buying other records and enthusiastically attending concerts. Then I discovered the joy of comparing performances by different musicians—of relativizing the music, in other words. In this way, over time, I gave shape to what each piece of music meant to me.
By contrast, when one relates to music, as Ozawa does, primarily by reading scores, music must become purer, more internalized. Or at least it is not so readily identified with tangible things. The difference may be quite substantial. I imagine that relating to music like that must be very free and open. It may be a bit like the enjoyment and freedom of being able to read foreign literature in the original, rather than in translation. Arnold Schoenberg has said that “music is not a sound but an idea,” but ordinary people can’t listen to it that way. When I told Ozawa that I envied his ability to do so, he suggested that I study to the point of being able to read a score. “Music would become even more interesting for you than it is now,” he said. I took some piano lessons many years ago, so I can read a simple piece of music, but I would be lost in a complex score such as a Brahms symphony. “If you studied for a few months with a good instructor, I’m sure you could learn to read that well,” he urged me, but I’m not ready to go that far. I do feel I’d like to give it a try someday, but I have no idea when that will happen.
We were chatting along these lines one day before an interview session when it struck me, in a precise, three-dimensional way, that there is a fundamental difference that separates the way we understand music. This was an extremely important realization. It’s hardly for me to point out how very high the wall is that separates the pro from the amateur, the music maker from the listener. The wall is especially high and thick when that music maker is a world-class professional. But still, that fact doesn’t have to hamper our ability to have an honest, direct conversation. At least that’s how I feel about it, because music itself is a thing of such breadth and generosity. Our most important task is to search for an effective passageway through the wall—and two people who share a natural affinity for an art, any art, will be sure to find that passageway.
Brahms at Carnegie Hall
This second conversation took place during two hours spent in my Tokyo office on January 13, 2011. Ozawa was scheduled to undergo endoscopic surgery on his lower back a week later. Unable to remain seated for long, he would often leave his chair and talk while he walked slowly around the room. He also needed to periodically stop to eat. His December performances at Carnegie Hall with the Saito Kinen Orchestra had been an overwhelming success, but this apparently had come at great cost to him physically.
The Emotionally Charged Carnegie Hall Concert
MURAKAMI: I recently listened to the live CD of your performance of the Brahms First Symphony at Carnegie Hall, and it was truly wonderful—so full of life, so perfect in every detail. You know, I actually heard you conduct the Brahms First when you brought the Boston Symphony to Tokyo in 1986.
OZAWA: No kidding?
MURAKAMI: That was twenty-five years ago, but I remember what a great performance that was. The sound was beautiful in every way, and the music seemed to rise up vividly before my eyes. I can still hear it. But to tell you the truth, I felt this recent performance was still more amazing. It had a special some
OZAWA: No, it was just the opposite. Something had been building up inside me and it burst out all at once. For a long time before that performance, I was dying to make music, but I couldn’t. I had badly wanted to conduct at the Matsumoto music festival in the summer, but I didn’t have the strength. All that was building up inside me.
There was also the fact that the orchestra had been charging ahead without me. We had a full four-day rehearsal in Boston before the Carnegie performance, during which time the orchestra made very minute adjustments in their work schedule to accommodate my strength and physical restrictions—to a degree that was almost inconceivable with a professional orchestra. For example, we’d rehearse for twenty-five minutes and take a fifteen-minute break, or work for twenty minutes and break for ten. Their concern was really something special. We couldn’t use Symphony Hall for the rehearsals, so we practiced in a small classroom at the Boston Conservatory.
MURAKAMI: You’ve played the Brahms First at the Matsumoto festival, too, with the Saito Kinen Orchestra, haven’t you?
OZAWA: Yes, we’ve done all four Brahms symphonies, but the First we did way back in the early period of the orchestra. It must have been a good twenty years ago.
MURAKAMI: So the membership of the orchestra at Carnegie Hall must have been very different from that time.
OZAWA: Oh, sure, very different, practically a different orchestra. There are a few string players left, but I wonder about the wind instruments. Hmm, maybe one or two left, that’s about all.
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