Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa
Translated by Jay Rubin
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, 325 pages
Haruki Murakami is, of course, the world-famous Japanese author of books like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84, as well as short stories and non-fiction books like Underground (which I’ve written about at this blog). As anyone who has read Murakami’s novels will know, he is an enthusiastic music fan with catholic tastes. Classical music has had a central role in several of his novels – for instance, Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta in 1Q84, and Franz Liszt’s piano travelogue Années de pèlerinage in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami admits to having little formal background or training in music. But he is obviously a serious and sophisticated listener with excellent taste and a great ear.
Murakami had known conductor Seiji Ozawa in passing for many years. Ozawa served as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty-nine years, and held the same position with the Toronto Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and Vienna State Opera, as well as at the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. While he lived in Boston from 1993 to 1995, Murakami went to many Boston Symphony concerts at which Ozawa conducted. He went on to attend many Ozawa performances around the world. Sharing a similar doggedness, conviction, and enthusiasm about their respective areas of expertise, Murakami writes, “I had never encountered anyone before Seiji Ozawa with whom I found it so easy and natural to identify.”
In 2009, when Ozawa developed esophageal cancer and had to take a break from musical activities, he and Murakami decided to formalize their musical conversations and turn them into the present book. “My only purpose in this book was for me, as a music lover, to have a discussion of music with the musician Seiji Ozawa that was as open and honest as possible. I simply wanted to bring out the ways that each of us (though on vastly different levels) is dedicated to music.” Their conversations took place from November 2010 to July 2011 in Tokyo, Honolulu, and Switzerland. They not only talked, but listened to recordings (handily, timing cues are included for the recordings they listened to, so readers can follow along, and Murakami’s official website includes a Spotify playlist of the recordings).
They begin by listening to the famous 1962 live performance by Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, which was preceded by a spoken disclaimer by Bernstein commenting on the unusually slow interpretation that was to follow. Ozawa, as Bernstein’s assistant back then, was present at that performance, and actually has many nice things to say about it. Ozawa talks about the way Gould phrases music, and relates it to Japanese music: “In Japan we talk about ma in Asian music – the importance of those pauses or empty spaces – but it’s there in Western music, too. You get a musician like Glenn Gould, and he’s doing exactly the same thing.”
At the end of a session in which they listen to some or all of several performances of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, they move to the recording by pianist Mitsuko Uchida, whose music making both of them love. Murakami’s comments about the recording show this: “truly miraculous music making … The two listeners groan simultaneously … 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.”
Ozawa reminisces about his two and a half years as one of Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductors. It was hard, ill-paying work, as Ozawa had to be prepared to conduct all of the music Bernstein was to lead, in case illness or something kept Bernstein from appearing. This forced Ozawa to do a lot of reading of scores, and he found that he liked it, getting into the habit of spending a few hours early every morning at the task.During that time, Ozawa also began his extensive recording career, conducting everything from Bartók and Honegger to Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Once he became Music Director of the Toronto Symphony, he recorded big pieces like Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony. Many, many more recordings followed with the Chicago, London, and, especially, Boston Symphonies. Comparing three Ozawa performances of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz, Murakami perceptively opines that in the earliest one with the Toronto Symphony, from 1966, “the music leaps and dances on the palms of your hands.” In the recording from seven years later with the Boston Symphony, “it feels as though you’re cupping your hands, embracing the music, carefully letting it ripen.” And in a much later one from 2007 with the Saito Kinen Orchestra, “you’re unfolding your hands a little, letting the air in, free it up.”
Gustav Mahler is a major topic of their talks. It happens that Ozawa’s period as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant coincided with Bernstein’s exploration of the music of Mahler, which, as the book reminds us, wasn’t at all popular or well-known prior to Bruno Walter’s early stereo recordings of a few of the works, and then Bernstein’s from just slightly later. Bernstein became engrossed with Mahler’s music during that time – “feverishly grappling” with it, in Ozawa’s words. At first, Ozawa had become aware of Mahler through the study of scores. “It was a huge shock for me – until then I never even knew music like that existed … I was amazed that there was someone who knew how to use an orchestra so well. It was extreme – his marvelous ability to put every component of the orchestra to use. And from the orchestra’s point of view, the Mahler symphonies are the most challenging pieces ever.”
Murakami ably summarizes part of the uniqueness of Mahler’s music: it is “filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without any logical connection, and sometimes even in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, fin-de-siècle overripeness, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldviews – a huge variety of stuff, no single one of which you can place at the center of things.”
Along with their conversations, Murakami attended the eighth annual Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland, a seminar for younger string players held from June 27 to July 6, 2011 in the town of Rolle, on the banks of Lake Geneva. The players, who go through an audition process to take part in the Academy, form string quartets and play in an orchestra. As they rehearse and present concerts, they also receive instruction and guidance from famous string players, including longtime Juilliard Quartet violinist Robert Mann. Murakami wondered at how rough the young musicians could sound in early rehearsals, and by contrast how polished they’d sound at the actual performances several days later – it was “like a mysterious rising of the air” as their performances came together. Even as Ozawa’s health problems continued, Murakami marveled at his dedication to his academy. “To hand genuine ‘good music’ on to the next generation; to convey that intense feeling; to stir the hearts of young musicians in such a pure and fundamental manner: these surely gave him a joy that was fully as profound as that to be gained from conducting such world-class orchestras as the Boston Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic.”
One gets lovely flashes of Murakami’s affectionate attention to music throughout this book. For instance, he remarks of a section from the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms, “Brahms uses the horns with great skill, as if calling the audience deep into a German forest. The sound carries with it an important part of Brahms’s internal spiritual world.” He and Ozawa discuss intricacies that most ordinary listeners, including Murakami himself, aren’t aware of. For instance, there is a passage in that same Brahms symphony where two horns, then two flutes, play alternating phrases that slightly overlap, so that there is no audible breath to break the phrase. Brahms deliberately wrote it that way, but all we normal listeners hear is a long phrase of music.
The insider anecdotes are many. For instance, Ozawa describes something I had never heard of before, the “shower.” When a conductor who has received some bad reviews comes out to take a second bow after a subsequent performance, “the musicians all make random noises with their instruments – the trumpets, the strings, the trombones, the timpani all together make one big fwaaan or gaaaan sort of noise …this was kind of like the orchestra’s musical protest to the critical reviews.”
These informal, accessible talks between the author and conductor are a delight, especially for music and Murakami fans. Even those new to classical music can learn much from these conversations, as Murakami, a musically enthusiastic layman with a gift for description and evocative metaphors, meets Ozawa, with the deep knowledge gained from a career spanning more than six decades. Buy yourself a copy of the book, fire up YouTube or Spotify, and prepare for some entertaining musical adventures.
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