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Putting the words to the music

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

By Haruki Murakami


325 pages; $27.95

This is a new English translation of the book published in 2011 in Japan, a series of conversations between the now almost legendary Seiji Ozawa, who was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years, and Murakami, a prize-winning novelist with a distinctive bent for fantasy. Ozawa’s illness with esophageal cancer in 2009 and his subsequent need to cut back and recuperate led to these interview sessions, spread over a two-year period in several locations (Tokyo, Honolulu, Switzerland).

Murakami considers himself an amateur, but has long been a fan of both jazz and classical music and an avid record collector. Ozawa comments in the postscript: “I have lots of friends who love music, but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity. Jazz, classics: he doesn’t just love music, he knows music. Tiny details, old stuff, musicians - its amazing”.

That knowledge, amateur enthusiasm and a writer’s natural propensity to elaborate is the main problem in this book of interviews: sometimes it’s more about Murakami than it is about Ozawa. The author tends to pontificate with his own thoughts and theories, often seeming to merely ask the maestro for confirmation. A typical passage:

Murakami: First you’ve got Wagner, then you go from Brahms to Richard Strauss, which more or less brings the German romantic line to an end. Then you go straight through from Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music to, like, Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, and that’s more or less how the history of music flows, without much room to squeeze in Mahler or Bruckner. At least that’s how it was for a long time.

Ozawa: True.

To be fair, this is an extreme example, and there are plenty of revelatory gems from the conductor, especially in the realm of political dish about famous conductors, composers, concert venues, soloists and orchestras, where Ozawa was both principal and witness. Anecdotes abound.

In one three-hour session, the two listen to records. Ozawa starts by telling the famous story about the 1962 performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 by Glenn Gould with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. “Yes, I was there. As Lenny’s assistant conductor. All of a sudden, before they started playing, Lenny came out on the stage and started talking to the audience ...”

In that speech, Bernstein disavowed the interpretation of the piece while validating Gould’s right to his conception and the “spirit of adventure.” They go on listening to the Brahms, discussing the unorthodox performance in detail. Then Murakami pulls out recordings of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto (Gould and Karajan, Gould and Bernstein, Serkin and Bernstein), the two minutely dissecting the performances. They compare more performances and discuss the “New Beethoven Performance style.” Talking about Gould, Ozawa says, “I heard all kinds of weird stories about him when I was music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra [from 1965 to1969]. He invited me to his house, too...” and then Murakami throws in this teaser,

“Unfortunately, some of the anecdotes revealed at this point cannot be committed to print.”

Other sessions are more wide ranging, with subjects including the music of Gustav Mahler, the joys of opera (how Ozawa got booed at La Scala, a rite of passage), working in the 1960’s as assistant conductor with Bernstein, the art of score reading, conducting under Karajan, perceived bias against Asian interpreters of Western Music, the the qualities of various orchestras and individual performers, singers, and conductors.

There are some charming and funny anecdotes – how Ozawa swiped some of Eugene Ormandy’s batons - how he left an under-age Peter Serkin listening at the window outside a blues joint in a rough Chicago neighborhood. On Murakami’s part, there is a brief section discussing the relationship of writing to music where the author makes a case for musical sensibility in good writing, especially as it applies to rhythm.

Sometimes intensely focused, other times all over the place, the book is nevertheless refreshingly honest and enthusiastic, a mental sampler from both the writer and the musician. As the author describes him, Ozawa’s language is unique, “[he] gesticulates grandly, thoughts emerge in the form of songs, [his] own special brand of Ozawa-ese”. It’s all a bit like herding cats, with Ozawa’s ebullient manner reflected in the form and style as Murakami attempts (sometimes heavy-handedly) to guide him.

The final section is a description of the activities at the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland on the banks of Lake Geneva which Murakami attended for ten days in 2011. This is all about Ozawa’s legacy, his commitment to young musicians and how a communal work of art is created. Again, the subject matter veers and twirls, from the philosophy of education to the phrasing of a specific passage, to the bringing out of an inner voice. And perhaps therein lies the charm of this book - material that only a music wonk could love, some spicy “Real Housewives of Vienna” type dish, intellectual probing of the most arcane musical subjects, and personal expressions of amazement and sheer joy.

Kenneth Young is a veteran Buffalo music critic.

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