Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

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Release Date: 
November 14, 2016
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Seiji Ozawa was a gifted piano student studying at Toho Gakuen School of Music in Japan, but after he hurt his hand playing rugby, he switched to conducting and received a scholarship to study under Herbert von Karajan, where he was scouted by Leonard Bernstein to be his assistant conductor in what was a golden era for the New York Philharmonic. 

By the early 60s Ozawa was becoming an international sensation on concert stages all over the world. He went on to carve an internationally distinguished career as musical director for the San Francisco Symphony and for 29 years head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  

Among his legions of fans was Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who had been attending Osawa’s concert performances and collecting his recordings for decades.       

Eventually Murakami met and socialized with the maestro, and after hearing his stories about working with Bernstein, approached him about interviewing him about his life in music. Murakami has just released transcriptions of their conversations in book form called Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa.

Ozawa notes that after their sessions he never thought much about the past or about the musical achievements of his career, but “once I started remembering, I couldn’t stop, and the memories came back with a nostalgic surge. This was a new experience for me.” 

Mostly formatted in verbatim transcripts, their often rambling conversation starts with a specific musicological subject but drifts to great backstage anecdotes. One is a long segment about Ozawa’s working under Leonard Bernstein and the impact of Canadian virtuoso Glen Gould’s seismic impact on the classical music world. With Bernstein, Ozawa was a favorite as one of three assistants, but admits to maintaining a more authoritative approach than Bernstein, who related to the musicians more like a peer.    

Murakami also may be a musical layman, but he has an impressive knowledge of composing, musicianship, and conducting. He can get obsessive, in fact, as he tries to nail down specific points of a performance 25 years ago from Ozawa. 

There is a good measure of filler in the transcripts, and the conversations can careen into circular discussions and the back and forth on specific performances can get clammy, especially if you are not a musicologist or historian. But shifting past that, there is musical gold in their talks as they banter about the intricacies of conducting and musical theory. Ozawa articulating the technical challenges and Murakami dissecting different examples as he plays samples from his extensive record collection.

Interesting exchanges about how Ozawa’s changed the sound on an orchestra of the Boston Symphony, is very instructive. Less highlighted by a wall of sound or “into the strings” as Karajan was known for with the Berlin Philharmonic. When Ozawa was with them and getting the orchestra rehearsing for a more detailed sound, he cued individual players for a more chamber like clarity. Von Karajan told him to in no uncertain terms to stop doing that.

Most interested and given a bit of short attention is Ozawa’s Sainto Kinen Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1984. He made his post surgery comeback appearance conducting them in Carnegie Hall 2010. The orchestra is in honor of his mentor Hideo Sainto, carrying on his musical philosophy and sound. They touch on Japanese technique and sound as it is and is not reflected in western music.

Murakami was invited to observe and write about Ozawa retreat for musicians at the Seiji Ozawa International Academy on the Banks of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in 2011, doubly poignant because Ozawa had missed the previous year due to his illnesses. Murakami writes most eloquently about his return and the maestro’s inestimable artistic guidance among a new generation of musicians.