The mu­sic they hear and the mu­sic they make

AB­SO­LUTELY ON MU­SIC: CON­VER­SA­TIONS WITH SEIJI OZAWA

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Claire Ho­p­ley Claire Ho­p­ley is a writer and edi­tor in Amherst, Mass.

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.

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