Absolutely on music conv.., p.9
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       Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.9

           Haruki Murakami
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  MURAKAMI: In his place, you mean.

  OZAWA: Yes. Lenny was rather fond of me, so I was often treated better than the others. Long before the Japan trip, the New York Philharmonic had commissioned a work by Toshiro Mayuzumi, who produced his Bacchanale for them. Mayuzumi naturally assumed that Bernstein would be conducting it, but Bernstein told me, as the assistant for that piece, to take charge of the rehearsal at Carnegie Hall. So I ran through the rehearsal with both Bernstein and Mayuzumi looking on. I assumed it was just for that one day, and that Lenny would take over after that, but the next day he told me to do it again. So I ended up conducting the work’s New York debut.

  MURAKAMI: Incredible.

  OZAWA: We went to Japan after the New York performance. In my mind, of course Lenny would be conducting the piece in Japan, but on the plane, he told me that I would be conducting it for the Japan performance—that my name was already printed in the program.

  MURAKAMI: So they were planning to have you perform it in Japan all along.

  OZAWA: And that’s exactly what happened.

  MURAKAMI: Was that your first public appearance conducting the New York Philharmonic?

  OZAWA: I think it was. No, actually, I had done it once before. The orchestra was on a national tour and—was it in Detroit?—I conducted an encore, probably in an outdoor performance. Lenny liked to play the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird as an encore. It’s a short piece, maybe five or six minutes long. So when he was called back to the stage, he took my hand and led me out and announced to the audience, “Here’s a young conductor. I’d love to have you listen to him perform.” The audience probably wasn’t too happy about that, though fortunately no one went so far as to boo me.

  MURAKAMI: You really did get special treatment, didn’t you?

  OZAWA: It was out-and-out favoritism. And it happened so suddenly that, psychologically, I wasn’t the least bit prepared to perform! I almost panicked, but I gave it my best and got terrific applause at the end. It was a great success. The same kind of thing happened two or three times after that.

  MURAKAMI: I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone conducting just the encore.

  OZAWA: No, it never happens. I felt really bad for the other two assistant conductors.

  MURAKAMI: What kind of salary does an assistant conductor get?

  OZAWA: Next to nothing. I was single when I started, so I got $100 a week. You can’t live on that, of course. When I got married, they increased my pay to $150, but that was still not enough. Altogether, I was in New York for two and a half years, in cheap apartments. The first one cost $125 a month, and it was a basement apartment with windows at sidewalk level. When I woke up and opened the window I’d see legs going by. After I got married and my salary went up, we moved into an upper floor. But New York summers are horrendously hot, and of course we didn’t have air conditioning, so when we couldn’t sleep, we’d go to a nearby all-night movie theater—the cheapest one we could find—and spend the night there. We lived near Broadway, so there were plenty of theaters. But they made you get out of your seat whenever a movie ended, which meant that every two hours we’d have to wake up and go out to the lobby to kill time.

  MURAKAMI: Did you have time for a side job?

  OZAWA: A side job? I had no time for that. It was all I could do to study each week’s music.

  MURAKAMI: You must have had a lot to learn if you could be called on at any time to take the stage and conduct.

  OZAWA: Sure, you have to prepare every last detail. And then there were the two other assistant conductors. They were in charge of the rest of the program, but there was always the possibility that one of them might not be able to appear. So you had to learn their music, too. I never had enough time for anything.

  MURAKAMI: I see what you mean.

  OZAWA: I had nothing else to do then, so I’d spend every spare minute in Carnegie Hall. They used to accuse me of living there! The other two assistant conductors, though, did have other work, I seem to recall. I think they were conducting Broadway musicals and maybe conducting some choruses. So sometimes they’d come to me and ask me to fill in for them. Then I really had a tough time! I’m pretty sure I was the hardest-working of the three of us. If I hadn’t taken on their share, and something came up, we’d have had a real mess.

  MURAKAMI: It sounds as if you were doing the work of three people.

  OZAWA: Well, think of what would have happened if Lenny suddenly became ill when one of his assistants was working on Broadway! We couldn’t have had a performance! So I learned all the music. For better or worse, I was always hanging around backstage.

  MURAKAMI: By “learning the music,” you mean, specifically, closely reading the score, correct?

  OZAWA: That’s right. They wouldn’t let us run the actual rehearsal, so all we could do was read the score until we had it memorized.

  MURAKAMI: And I suppose you were there, watching, when Bernstein rehearsed?

  OZAWA: Yes, naturally. I’d watch and memorize every little movement of his. There was a small room in the auditorium designed for that purpose. You could hear everything but the audience couldn’t see you. There’s a room like that [at the former Philharmonic Hall, now David Geffen Hall] in Lincoln Center. In Carnegie Hall, too, there’s one like it, though not so specialized. It’s positioned a little above the conductor at an angle and has just enough room for four people to sit. I watched a concert once from that room with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

  MURAKAMI: No kidding!

  OZAWA: They were there as Lenny’s guests. It was at the height of their popularity, so it would have caused too great a commotion for them to sit among the audience. “Why don’t you take them in to sit in your place, Seiji?” Lenny said. So the three of us squeezed in there—literally [laughter]—and watched the concert. I remember they spoke to me, but my English was so bad, I didn’t know what to say.

  MURAKAMI: But anyhow, living like that, so closely attached to one orchestra, you must have learned a lot.

  OZAWA: It was a tremendous learning experience. I’m just sorry my English was so bad. For example, Bernstein had a television series called Young People’s Concerts and I would attend the meetings for every broadcast, but I hardly understood what he was saying. It was such a wasted opportunity. I still feel bad about it.

  MURAKAMI: Yes, you could have learned even more.

  OZAWA: Exactly. But when it came to actually conducting, Lenny gave me lots of opportunities. Talk about still feeling bad—I still feel sorry for the other two assistants.

  MURAKAMI: Do you know what they’re doing now?

  OZAWA: Maurice Peress was active on Broadway and did some big shows. He also performed in London and New York. John Canarina was conducting a rather small orchestra in Florida or somewhere. You know, some people who remain assistant conductors too long end up as assistants. I did it for two and a half years. As I mentioned before, we were supposed to be replaced by new assistants after one year, but none of us had positions to go to after our first year with Lenny, so we all stayed on. I even ended up house-sitting for Lenny when he went on sabbatical.

  Close Reading of Scores

  MURAKAMI: So it was during that time that you came to like reading scores? Or at least you put a lot of energy into reading them?

  OZAWA: Well, sure, because I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I didn’t have a piano at home, so I’d spend hours studying scores backstage, using the piano on hand to sound them out. But come to think of it, it was the same for me while I was in Vienna, until quite recently. I didn’t have a piano at home, so I’d go to my room in the opera house nearby and play until all hours of the night. I had a really good grand piano there. I found it very moving at times, to think back to those days when I was doing the same thing in New York. There was a piano in the conductors’ room in Carnegie Hall, and I’d go there late at night and practice to my heart’s content. Those were easygoing days, with hardly any security, so you could do something like that ra
ther freely.

  MURAKAMI: I’m not too sure what’s involved in reading a score, but I think of it in terms of the translation work that I do every day. I sit there reading English books and converting them into Japanese, and sometimes I’ll come up against a passage that stumps me. I just can’t figure out what it means, no matter how much I think about it. So I’ll just sit there with my arms folded, staring at the lines for hours, and sometimes I manage to get it, but other times not at all. So then I’ll skip that passage and go on to the rest of the text, and every once in a while, I’ll go back and have another look, and after two or three days of doing that, it finally dawns on me, like, “So that’s what it says,” and the meaning will just rise up off the page like nothing at all. At first glance, the hours I spend staring at the passage would seem to be a waste of time, but I think that’s the time when I’m really getting it. I can’t help feeling that reading a score is a similar experience.

  OZAWA: A difficult score can often be like that, it’s true. Except, well…this is kind of like exposing trade secrets, but a musical staff has only five lines, you know. And there’s nothing at all difficult about the notes themselves. They’re like the letters of the alphabet. But the more they pile up, the more difficult things become. You might know all your letters and be able to read simple words, but the more they’re combined into complex sentences, the harder they become to understand and the more background knowledge you need to understand what they mean. It’s the same with music, but that “knowledge” part gets really huge. It’s precisely because the symbols used to write music are so simple—simpler than the written word—that when you don’t understand something, you get seriously lost.

  MURAKAMI: I guess that’s because explanatory comments are usually kept to a minimum in a musical score, and the rest is indicated with these pure symbolic notations, right?

  OZAWA: Sure, there’s basically nothing written in words in the score that tells you what to do. The first time I had it really tough was with the opera Wozzeck. You know it, I suppose?

  MURAKAMI: By Alban Berg.

  OZAWA: Right. The first time I conducted that, I read the score and figured I pretty much understood it. And then I started rehearsals. With the New Japan Philharmonic. My schedule wasn’t going to allow me much time for rehearsals just prior to the performance itself, so I made special arrangements to rehearse with the orchestra some three or four months ahead of time. I figured I’d take a few days to work with them while I was briefly in Japan before returning to—I think it was Boston, back then. And then I’d come back to Tokyo just before the performance, for the actual rehearsals. I was so glad I did that! Those three or four months in between were a lifesaver! By which I mean that once I got started with the orchestra, one thing after another came up that I didn’t know how to deal with. It was full of stuff that I just couldn’t sort out.

  MURAKAMI: You mean, you assumed you understood everything when you were reading the score, but in fact you didn’t?

  OZAWA: Right. I understood for the first time that I didn’t understand what I thought I understood.

  MURAKAMI: And you came to that understanding when, at your direction, the orchestra actually produced the sounds that were in the score?

  OZAWA: When I read the score and translated what was written into the sounds of the piano, I thought I understood it. But when I made those sounds with the orchestra, it was one “Oh no!” moment after another. In other words, I’m conducting, and all the while the sound is moving around like crazy. And once that starts to happen, I get totally lost.


  OZAWA: What a shock that was! So in my panic, I started rereading the score from scratch. And that’s when I got it. I had understood the “language” of the music well enough when I was just reading the score—what the music was trying to say. And I had been able to grasp things having to do with rhythm. But what I didn’t understand were the harmonies. No, I guess I had understood the harmonies, too, intellectually. But the second they started to move through time, I was lost. Music, of course, is an art that occurs through time.

  MURAKAMI: Yes, of course.

  OZAWA: When I played the music exactly as Berg had written it, using the tempi that he had indicated in the score, my ear simply couldn’t keep up with the time. No, not my ear—my ability to understand. My understanding couldn’t keep up. Mind you, we were playing exactly as Berg had written it down on paper. And the musicians were all quite capable of playing the music as written. In spite of that, there were several passages that I simply couldn’t understand. Not a lot of them, but a significant number. That was the first time I ever experienced such a thing, which is what got me to start studying the score again in such a panic. It was just plain lucky for me that I happened to have those few months in between to study the score again.

  MURAKAMI: So what you’re saying is that there are cases in which the harmonic flow of a composition can’t be understood unless you sound it out with the orchestra?

  OZAWA: That’s the idea. You know, up to about the time of Brahms, whom we’ve been talking about, or Richard Strauss, you can pretty much tell what kind of harmonies you’re going to get just by looking at the score. From experience. But you get to somebody like Charles Ives, and you have absolutely no idea what the harmonies will be like without actually producing the sound. After all, he was making music in a deliberate attempt to destroy such things. You might try to produce the sound of the orchestra on the piano, but ten fingers on a keyboard are not enough for some things. You’ve got to hear the actual sound. Of course, when you become accustomed to such music, you kind of get the hang of which chords to leave out to play it on the piano. Or, to put it the opposite way, you begin to see which sounds you can’t leave out.

  MURAKAMI: When do you read scores?

  OZAWA: You mean, what time of day?


  OZAWA: In the morning. Very early. I have to concentrate, and I can’t have a drop of alcohol in my system.

  MURAKAMI: I’m not presuming to compare my work with yours, but I also work early in the morning. That’s when I can concentrate best. I always get up at four o’clock in the morning when I’m writing a novel. I prepare myself to get completely absorbed in the writing while everything is dark.

  OZAWA: How long do you work?

  MURAKAMI: About five hours.

  OZAWA: I can’t last that long. I might get up at four o’clock, but by eight o’clock I’m hungry for breakfast. [Laughter.] In Boston, rehearsals used to start around ten-thirty, so I’d have to eat by nine at the latest.

  MURAKAMI: Is reading scores fun?

  OZAWA: Fun? Sure, I suppose so. Especially when it goes well, it’s lots of fun. But when it doesn’t, I hate it.

  MURAKAMI: Can you give me a concrete example of when it hasn’t gone well?

  OZAWA: When I can’t get the music into my head. Say, when I’m tired, or when my understanding or my concentration is off. I may be revealing trade secrets again here, but it often happens that the music you are going to perform at night is very different from the music you need to study that same morning. Say, in Boston, I’d have four programs to play in four weeks, so after the opening night of one program, I’d have to start studying for the next one. That was the toughest thing, now that I think back on it.

  MURAKAMI: You get overwhelmed by the schedule.

  OZAWA: Ideally, you’d have two weeks between the end of one concert series and the start of the next one to study, but there was never quite enough time for that.

  MURAKAMI: I suppose you must have had a lot of busywork—or should I say administrative duties?—as music director of the Boston Symphony.

  OZAWA: Yes, of course, a lot. There would be at least two meetings a week, and those would inevitably be long when there were complicated things to discuss. Some of them could be quite enjoyable, though. What I liked most was putting together programs. I also enjoyed the meetings where we’d choose guest conductors and soloists. The wor
st were discussions of personnel matters—what to do about so-and-so’s salary, who gets promoted, who gets demoted: we had to decide things like that. And the Boston Symphony had no mandatory retirement age, which meant that if there were older players members whose playing had begun to decline, I’d find myself in the position of having to urge someone older than me to start thinking about retirement. That was the most painful thing. I had a few cases like that during my time as music director, some of them good friends. That was really hard.

  From Telemann to Bartók

  MURAKAMI: Let’s talk about the sixties again. I believe your first American recording was an accompaniment for the oboist Harold Gomberg. It contains concertos by Vivaldi and Telemann, and the recording date is listed as May 1965. I happened to come across this copy at a used-record store in the US.

  OZAWA: How incredible that you found this thing. Wow, it brings back memories!

  MURAKAMI: I guess there was still no real consensus back then as to the meaning of “baroque music.” Listening to these performances, I got that impression. The oboe’s phrasing sounds more romantic than baroque to me.

  OZAWA: Well, sure, in those days nobody knew how to perform this music. We knew there was something called “baroque music” and that there were some musicians who played it, but we hadn’t really heard the repertory. This was my very first time performing it.

  MURAKAMI: To me it seems as if the orchestra is producing something closer to a baroque sound than the soloist. What was this “Columbia Chamber Orchestra”?

  OZAWA: That was a made-up name. They were really a bunch of string players from the New York Philharmonic picked by Gomberg to make the recording. None of us had played baroque music before. As an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, I was chosen to conduct.

  MURAKAMI: It’s hard for me to think of you performing Telemann.

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