Conductor Seiji Ozawa is far too modest a man to write an autobiography, or to have one written about him. During the early 2010’s, when Ozawa was recuperating from esophageal cancer and its many complications, the conductor sat down on many occasions with novelist Haruki Murakami to discuss his musical life, his views on music and on certain composers, as well as teaching. The result is this delightful and marvelous book of musical talk: Absolutely on Music – Conversations with Seiji Ozawa (Bond Street Books, 2016), a sort of Tuesdays with Morrie on music. This is probably as close as we will ever get to having a glimpse into the life of the great conductor.
The book is divided into six conversations/chapters, with shorter “interludes” in between. Ozawa and Murakami began their conversations with a discussion on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which Ozawa was, at the time, preparing to conduct. As a tangent, Ozawa shared his experience of being in the audience when Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein gave that infamous performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Ozawa felt that Bernstein’s disclaimer before the performance was inappropriate. He and Murakami then discussed and compared Gould’s performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Herbert von Karajan (a live recording) as well as Leonard Bernstein (a studio recording), thereby highlighting the difference between the two master conductors, both of whom were mentors to Ozawa. They also compared recordings of pianist Rudolf Serkin’s two recordings of the same concerto, one with Bernstein, and the other one with Ozawa himself and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
I find it interesting to contrast Murakami’s questions/comments about certain musical subjects, in the language of a knowledgeable music lover, and Ozawa’s answers/comments in much more the language of a musician. In Murakami’s own words, “(T)here is a fundamental difference that separates the way we understand music...it’s hardly for me to point out how very high the wall is that separates the pro from the amateur, the music maker and the listener.” That said, Ozawa never condescends, never gives pat answers, when answering Murakami’s questions, and his responses are always respectful to the writer as well as thoughtful.
In a subsequent chapter, Ozawa shared his memories of his experiences as assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, some of his early recordings and performances, and his appointment as music director of the Chicago Symphony’s Ravinia Festival, as well as his time as music director of the Toronto Symphony.
Fascinating also is an entire chapter on Ozawa’s views on the music of Gustav Mahler, whose nine symphonies Ozawa performed and recorded extensively. Again, Ozawa related his experiences with Bernstein when he was in the process of performing and recording the Mahler symphonies.
Ozawa also shared with Murakami his experiences as an opera conductor. Although he did not grow up, like many of the older conductors, in the tradition of an opera house, he certainly grew into opera with a steep learning curve, so much so that he was appointed music director of the Vienna State Opera. It is therefore not surprising that one chapter is devoted to Ozawa’s activities as in opera.
In spite of the fact that Ozawa is one of the most famous names in the music world, this very private man has never revealed very much about his life or about his past musical experiences. These different chapters give us a tiny glimpse into the great conductor’s musical life, his many accomplishments, and his thoughts on various aspects of music.
It is fascinating to read Ozawa’s recollections of the many great musicians whose path he crossed. He was forever lamenting - and I’m sure he meant it - about all the missed opportunities he might have had in learning from and talking to older musicians – Glenn Gould and Bruno Walter were the two figures he specifically named - because of his poor English. Unlike many musical memoirs, this book does not degenerate into becoming a series of self-aggrandizing anecdotes. The self-effacing Ozawa seemed to always divert the conversation towards other musicians, or about the composer and the works he conducted.
A friend who read this book in the original Japanese told me that it is impossible to capture the tone and the flavour of the conversation with any translation. Even so, Ozawa is one of my musical heroes, and reading this book has been the highlight of the Christmas season.
Since falling ill in 2009, Seiji Ozawa’s convalescence has been a long and difficult process. Even today, the conductor only makes two or three appearances a year, and often share a concert with another conductor because of his limited strength. Which is all the more reason we should be thankful for this inspiring book. Music lovers, students of music, as well as musicians would all enjoy and learn from the many reflections and insights by this master musician, and one of the 20th century’s great conductors, now in the twilight of his life.
Christmas Eve, 2016