The music they hear and the music they make
ABSOLUTELY ON MUSIC: CONVERSATIONS WITH SEIJI OZAWA
By Haruki Murakami Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 352 pages
Probably the two best-known Japanese cultural figures in the west are conductor Seiji Ozawa and novelist Haruki Murakami, so the very idea of listening in on their conversations entices — the more so since Haruki Murakami invariably evokes music in his novels. “Listening to jazz and the classics has always been both an effective stimulus and a source of peace to my heart and mind,” he writes in the introduction to “Absolutely on Music” — a transcript of six interviews with Seiji Ozawa.
But though music is so important to him, he hastens to note that he has “virtually no technical knowledge of the field,” describing himself as “a complete layman where most things musical are concerned.” This is an advantage to untrained music lovers among his readers because he phrases his remarks in everyday terms, sometimes reaching for a telling metaphor. Comparing Mr. Ozawa’s two recordings of Mahler’s First Symphony he suggests one resembles “making a leisurely tour in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz,” while the other is “like zipping around in a sports car with a nice stick shift.” As this suggests, he is adept and describing and focusing on differences between two or more works or conductors.
In the first interview Mr. Murakami plays three performances of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. The first is a 1957 recording with soloist Glenn Gould and conductor Herbert von Karajan. The other two were conducted by Leonard Bernstein: one in 1959 with Gould, the other in 1964 with Rudolf Serkin. Both conductors were important to Seiji Ozawa’s musical education. When he came to the west he studied with von Karajan in Berlin, then became an assistant conductor with Bernstein in New York, so his commentary is informed by his knowledge of — and also sympathy with — both of them.
Noting that under von Karajan, Gould and the orchestra are not always together, he says that von Karajan was performing the concerto “as though it were a symphony,” ignoring Gould’s different interpretation and pacing. He recalls that von Karajan taught his students, “if the specific details didn’t all work together, you didn’t let it worry you. The most important thing was to maintain this long, bold line — in other words ‘direction’ — and he drilled the orchestra in this.” Bernstein, in contrast, he describes as a more “instinctive” conductor. He also thinks he was typically American in his egalitarian approach. He tolerated opposing opinions; did not stop the musicians talking to each other during rehearsals. Mr. Ozawa clearly disliked this behavior — though equally clearly liked and admired Bernstein. Nonetheless, when he became conductor of the Boston Symphony orchestra — a position he held for 29 years — he said he wanted to play German music, explaining, “I studied with Maestro von Karajan so my music is basically German.”
Such reminiscences of his early career are one of many reasons that this book is so fascinating. They form a musical biography of the conductor through his early, pretty impoverished, days in New York in the 1960s on to his later work. Much of this is based on the Saito Kinen orchestra, which he founded and named after Hideo Saito, the early teacher who diverted his attention from the piano to conducting. The number of references to Saito probably exceed the frequent references to von Karajan or Bernstein, making clear the powerful impact of his mentors. Similarly, he frequently describes the amount of time he spends studying the scores of the works he is conducting — evidenced often by his noting tiny divergences as he listens to recordings.
Equally fascinating are the commentaries on the ways different orchestras sound. Mr. Ozawa followed von Karajan in training his orchestras to produce the sound he required. For example, because he wanted to play the monumental classics of the German repertoire, he trained the Boston Symphony to play “into the strings.” He explains, “The players put the bow in deep. It makes for a heavier sound.”
As for Haruki Murakami, as interviewer he gives his interlocutor space to expand on his views or memories. He not only asks the piercing questions that prompt interesting responses, he also reveals much of his own musical life as a sharp and avid listener. Together he and Seiji Ozawa paint an enviable word picture of the artistic life of two men at the top of their professional games.
At one point Seiji Ozawa exclaims, “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.” Readers, especially music lovers, will agree. Those who buy the book — or perhaps find it in their Christmas stocking — will find its freshness doesn’t pall because it offers so much that bears re-reading and considering.