Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

By Haruki Murakami

Published by Knopf

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

Masterful Conversations

Two musical giants were at the top of their games when they came together in Carnegie Hall on that April evening of 1962. In some ways they were alike, yet, in important ways they were very different. Glenn Gould, a piano prodigy out of the north, already famous for his distinctive recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was 29 and in his prime—yet unbeknown to anyone in New York Philharmonic crowd he was near the end of his public performing career.

Leonard Bernstein, 43, was musical director and conductor of one of the world’s great orchestras and already famous for West Side Story and the televised Young People’s Concerts, with which he seduced neophytes like me into the world of classical music.

Both men lived and breathed music—both were considered eccentric in their own ways, flamboyant performers with distinctive interpretations of their respective repertoires—Gould leaning more toward the baroque, Bernstein a champion of the romantics and fierce advocate for Gustav Mahler.

On the night of April 6, they would collaborate (perhaps it would be more accurate to say they would appear on stage together) on Brahms’s D-Minor Concerto. The first half of the program consisted of two works by Carl Nielsen. After the intermission, the audience and orchestra took their seats something unprecedented happened. Bernstein appeared before Gould came to the stage and faced the audience from the podium to deliver…. What? An apology? A disclaimer, really, for the performance ahead, the Brahms. The maestro, before Gould sat down at the Steinway at center stage, stated that he had invited Gould to perform and that he so respected the younger man’s gifts that he “must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith,” yet he felt compelled to make clear to the audience that “discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.” He went on to essentially say that the interpretation of Brahms was Gould’s alone and not his, not Bernstein’s, the conductor’s. The audience must have been stunned.

The longtime conductor of the Boston Symphony and other major orchestras, Seiji Ozawa, was then 28 and one of Bernstein’s three assistant conductors. Not long away from his native Japan he still struggled with English so he wasn’t certain what Bernstein had said until the buzz generated after the concert.

Why would a conductor both repudiate the interpretation and praise the talent of the soloist before conducting the piece? It’s a bit like a stage director coming to the apron before the curtain opens to announce that he has the highest respect for the leading actor, but that he disagrees with the actor’s interpretation of his character. Who’s in charge? It is, after all, the conductor who is responsible for the program.

Ozawa still ponders this a half century later in recorded conversations with the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in the wonderful new volume, Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, in which the two masters, in conversations over 2010 and 2011, explore the nature of music and writing with compelling wit and charm—both touching on the craft of the other as windows into their own creative processes.

Murakami transcribed and edited the two years of talks and provides an introduction and explanatory notes (the writer’s longtime American collaborator Jay Rubin translates), spinning an essential narrative for anyone interested in classical music and creative activity in general. The text is primarily a Socratic dialogue, Ozawa the teacher to the younger Murakami (at the time the writer was roughly 62 and 63, and the conductor was 75 and 76).

Perhaps Ozawa is still puzzled over the Bernstein-Gould showdown so many years later because the two musical geniuses in the story were so enigmatic. Gould was a perfectionist who morphed into an exuberant showman—filling concert halls on both sides of the Atlantic—until he suddenly withdrew from public life. Bernstein was an extrovert who was more of a performer than orchestra leader, and whose career is so diffuse that there is ongoing debate about his legacy. Was he primarily a composer of popular works or should he best be remembered for his late-career symphonic and choral creations or as an educator and popularizer of classical music? A world-class conductor?

Ozawa, who apprenticed with both Herbert von Karajan at the Berlin Philharmonic and Bernstein in New York, says Karajan, “never listened to anybody. If the sound he wanted and the sound the orchestra was producing were different, it was strictly the orchestra’s fault. He’d make them do it over and over until they played the way he wanted it.”

Conversely, Ozawa says, he wanted to learn from Bernstein, but the great educator didn’t look at himself as the teacher of the orchestra. He recalls, “the weird thing is, Lenny was such an outstanding educator… But, in dealing with the orchestra, where you’d expect him to do the same sort of thing, he didn’t. He had no concept of ‘teaching’ an orchestra…. ‘You are my colleagues,’ he used to tell us, ‘so, if you notice something that needs correcting, I want you to tell me about, and I’ll do the same with you.’”

Ozawa does, however, assert that it is a soloist’s interpretation that usually prevails in any given program.

I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s when Bernstein was an ubiquitous, a godlike figure. And, he was seemingly everywhere—conducting the New York Philharmonic, hosting the Black Panthers at his Manhattan penthouse (which fed into a scathing satirical piece by Tom Wolfe), extolling the virtues of Beatles music on his TV program. He was as much a public figure as a conductor of the premier American orchestra. He was also, Ozawa remembers, “a tremendously kind man, and he could accommodate my broken English, so we had wonderful long conversations.”

But, he was also criticized for spreading himself too thin in his early years with the Phil, not doing enough to develop the repertoire. He had detractors. In an uncharacteristically self-serving colloquy in the book, Ozawa recalls how New York Times critic Harold Schonberg routinely savaged Bernstein’s conducting, but that, when the younger Ozawa conducted in a student performance at Tanglewood, the critic said, “People should keep the name of this conductor in mind.”

On the other hand, and perhaps out of deference to the older Ozawa—the conversations are polite to a fault—there is no mention of the critical thrashing he took over his years at the helm in Boston. Boston Phoenix critic Lloyd Schwartz earned a Pulitzer for a body of work that largely attacked Ozawa’s tenure with the symphony.

Ozawa’s long career with the Boston Symphony must have left scars. He led one of the top five symphony orchestras in the country and profited beyond his dreams when he was a young assistant at the New York Philharmonic living on $100 a week in a flat without air conditioning, recalling that he and his wife sometimes slept in all-night movie houses during sweltering New York summers.

It was said he came into his position at Boston untested and too young at 36, and that he never fully grew into his role. Other maestros have met with similar initial skepticism. Bernstein, a protégé of Aaron Copland, was suspected of being a musical dilettante by many in New York when he was hired at 39 to be director of the New York Phil. He, like Ozawa, had been an assistant conductor of the orchestra. But Bernstein became a titan on the music world with multiple recordings to his credit (a distinction that eluded Ozawa). Coincidentally, both conductors were disdainful of managerial duties associated with directorships. But, while others had Bernstein’s back, Ozawa was personally faulted for often flat performances and failure to effectively nurture new talent.

It is remarkably coincidental that after leaving New York, Bernstein was, as Murakami says, “welcomed with open arms by both the public and the press when he went to Vienna,” (to lead the Vienna Philharmonic), where he subsequently conducted all nine of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies to critical acclaim. Coincidentally. in 2002, Ozawa became director and principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera, which for him was perhaps a better fit than was Boston. “Vienna was like best friends getting together to make music,” he recalls.

Of particular value in this book is the close consideration of particular pieces of music that the writer and conductor listen to together. Murakami says that he had no musical training and is strictly an amateur music lover, but many of the most insightful comments are by the writer himself. Ozawa tells him “Throughout our conversations, I’ve been so impressed by how deeply you have listened to each piece of music.”

The following is an exchange over Mahler:

MURAKAMI: I often find myself incapable of grasping the order in which the music unfolds. Take the fifth movement of Second Symphony, for example. It goes this way and that way, and I start wondering why it does what it does at any one point… and, before I know it my brain has turned to mush.

OZAWA: Yeah, there’s no logic to it.

MURAKAMI: No, none at all. That never happens with Mozart or Beethoven.

OZAWA: Because there works adhere to certain forms. The point with Mahler is to destroy those forms, deliberately. So, in a Sonata form, where the piece is telling you, “Here, I want you to go back to this melody,” he’ll bring in a whole new melody. In that sense, of course, his works can be hard to learn…

About Mahler, Ozawa says that of the composer, “If you had two motifs going at the same time—theme A and theme B—there was a clear distinction between primary and secondary. In Mahler, though, the two are completely equal. So, the musicians who are playing the theme A have to put their heart and soul into playing them A; and the musicians who play theme B have to put their heart and soul into playing theme B—with feeling, with color, everything.”

It is heart and soul that comes through in this book, and the affirmation that music and art and literature matter.

A chapter on music and its relation to writing is revealing. Murakami says, “You can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music. The two sides complement each other: listening to music improves your style; by improving your style, you improve your ability to listen to music.”

He says that he learned to write from listening to music (besides the classical, he is also a jazz aficionado). The most important thing in writing, he says is rhythm. “No one is going to read what you write unless you have rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.” Ozawa concurs that that must be the obstacle he finds when a piece of writing fails to hold his interest.

This book rarely fails on that score. It would be useful, however, to know more about what initially inspired in these two masters in their love of quintessentially Western music. We know that as a teenager Ozawa studied piano until a hand injury left him unable to continue. His teacher, Hideo Saito, recommended that he study conducting with him. Saito was primary influence on Western Classical music in Japan.

Murakami’s work has always been interlaced with musical influences. The narrator’s girlfriend in Norwegian Wood (titled after the Beatles song) had been trained as a pianist. After the girlfriend’s death, the narrator’s friend plays on her guitar Ravel’s “Pavanne for a Dying Queen” and Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” commenting afterward that Naoko’s (the deceased girlfriend), “taste in music never rose above the horizon of sentimentalism.”

There is nothing sentimental about the talk in these pages. Both men have admirable bodies of work and long consideration of music to share with us and do so frankly, without pretension. We can be grateful to listen into these conversations.

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