MATSUMOTO, Nagano Pref. — “What does everyone think?”
There is silence. The maestro waits a few beats, and with perfect timing, he asks again, “What do you think?”
The reputation of world-renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa is daunting, as is his appearance, with his dramatically busy hair, thin, square shoulders and intense eyes. But he doesn’t have to cow his musicians, including the more than 2,000 children he faces today, into doing what he wants. His charisma is unmistakable, drawing them out naturally and making them want to play inspired music.
Ozawa, who recently became music director of the Vienna State Opera, is here to give guidance to thousands in preparation for the annual Saito Kinen Festival, which from Aug. 24 to Sept. 12 would see the staging of a production of Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes,” symphonies, chamber concerts, a concert for children, a chorus and a children’s brass band parade.
At the end of the rehearsal, Ozawa offers this advice: “You know when you are playing music, you have to play with the feelings that match the music. A little smile on your face will surely help. What does everyone think?”
Again there is silence.
“I want you all to think about that until next time.”
Indeed, the children all appear to be deep in thought, as if Ozawa’s question has penetrated each one’s soul.
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Ozawa was born to Japanese parents in 1935 in Shenyang, China, and received his education as a conductor under the late Hideo Saito at the Toho School of Music, Tokyo. The Saito Kinen Festival, which started in 1992, is actually an offshoot of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama, the current music director of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, formed in 1984 to perform in commemoration of their teacher. With the orchestra and the annual festival, Ozawa is paying tribute to his former professor and carrying on the spirit of Saito to develop the culture of Western classical music in Japan.
Ozawa’s international career began with his first prize at the 1959 Competition of Orchestra Conductors held in Besancon, France. In 1973, he was named the 13th music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with which he toured around the world, strengthening the orchestra’s international reputation. Ozawa’s resignation this year to pursue his career in Vienna was met with great regret by both the BSO’s members and audiences.
The conductor’s influences — giants such as Charles Munch, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein — are well-known. However, Ozawa says it was one of his junior high school teachers, Nobuo Imai, who had the greatest influence on his character, helping him to develop his own vision as a musician.
“You know, at that time, movies were getting popular, and I went to see them myself in Shinjuku. But Imai-sensei said, ‘You guys pay money and go see those movies, but if you watch a movie, you’re given the director’s images. For instance, a girl appears, and you know you’re going to think, ‘Ah, that’s the girl.’ It is going be your image of that girl. On the other hand, if you read books, you can create your own image of a woman yourself.’
“I took him so seriously and trusted him fully, I ended up reading a lot.”
Ozawa emphasizes his teacher’s crucial point: “Imai-sensei said, ‘Do the imagination yourself, and that’s important. That image is important.’ ”
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The day after his rehearsal with the children, Ozawa turns 67 — though he appears to have the energy and vitality of a youth turning 17. At this suggestion, the maestro breaks into a big laugh — and doesn’t disagree.
Writing in a recently published essay, Ozawa’s daughter, Seira, offered some insight into her father. Not surprisingly, she used adjectives such as “playful” and “mischievous.” Indeed, he does have a young boylike charm.
Even after a hard day of back-to-back practice sessions, he shows few signs of fatigue. Where does this energy come from?
Ozawa cites his desire to understand music more deeply and broadly. He is always focused on the challenge of a Japanese musician trying to perform Western music:
“This is an experiment,” he says intensely. “This is to see how far a man — born in China, raised in Japan — can go. By this, I don’t mean how successful I will be or what kind of position I can attain. I mean how far I can go in understanding Western music.”
This is not just just a personal quest. Ozawa says his “understanding of the music” only matters when he can actually convey the greatness of the music to others.
“This understanding is a tricky thing,” he adds. “You have to have a result. Even if you think you understand it, the orchestra has to understand; the audience has to understand it, too; and those you teach have to understand it.”
With the creation of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, the conductor became that much closer to his goal. “To be honest,” he says, “until I was given the chance to conduct [this] orchestra, I was distressed and worried about my future. I was very busy in Boston, as well as in Europe, but I was always telling my manager that I was determined to go back to Japan [to raise the standards of Western music here]. Still, I had less and less opportunity to do so. That’s why this opportunity [to work with musicians at home] is a blessing.”
But, he says, there is still a gap between the world’s best and the musical standards prevalent in Japan.
“I would like to find Japanese performers who can succeed in this effort to raise the standard of Western classical music in Japan to a world-class level. It isn’t easy, but we have to find them and make a list, because otherwise our decades of effort here will leave only a dot in history, rather than create a line [to continue from].”
While there are recordings of performances, music is a temporal art that dies each time a piece ends. Whatever Ozawa has mastered must be conveyed while he can perform and play music together with the next generation.
“Music education is unique in that sense, because there are things you can learn alone, but you cannot learn everything from books,” he explains. “Unless you play great music together with great musicians, you cannot develop your sensibility.”
He goes on to define his style of teaching and the goal of education. “It is not about education in general, like changing the system or changing the rules; like changing from the 6-3-3 system to 6-6. Education is about a teacher truly confronting two or three students and very seriously sharing what he or she has learned. True education has been always like that. It is what ‘I’ can teach ‘you.’ A very personal thing.”
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We’re at a casual izakaya (Japanese pub), one that Ozawa often frequents with orchestra members when in town. It is where the conductor comes to eat soba (one of his favorite foods), drink big mugs of draft beer and listen to the master’s collection of enka music. It is where he can relax.
Everyone, from the izakaya staff to the taxi drivers who drive him here, speaks with deep affection for Ozawa. They note his approachability and lack of pretension. But while these comments are based on the off-duty Ozawa, they also apply to Ozawa the conductor. The maestro uses language that can speak to different groups, from children and amateurs to an international orchestra of world-class musicians. His explanations are always easy to grasp and, as much as he knows how he wants the music to be, he still gives performers the freedom to fully express themselves. Most of all, he encourages interaction with questions, suggestions and eye contact.
All these efforts are rooted in his strong sense of responsibility as a musician, which in turn stems from his deep reverence for music. “If a musician makes bad music,” he says, “then we are doing such harm to the music.
“In Vienna, I am still a ‘guest,’ so I don’t know how things are yet, but one thing I can say is that people in Vienna understand that music is very important to human beings. When you reach a certain point, you can’t tell which music is good and which is bad. What I am trying to do is step back, and see whether or not [the musicians] are meeting the world standard.”
In Vienna, Ozawa will focus more on operas than on symphonies, hence the selection at the Saito Kinen Festival of the opera “Peter Grimes,” which portrays the tension between a fisherman, the title character, and the people of his village.
“It is a very complicated opera,” Ozawa says. But watch the conductor carefully, and you can see the drama unfold. The darkness of the dawn, the dark depths of the ocean, the antagonism of the villagers and Peter’s desire to justify himself; all these are perfectly expressed through the conductor’s myriad body movements, like a tai-chi master or a ballet dancer.
“When you’re doing music really seriously, your music becomes like prayer. I feel that once in a while; very rarely, but when the music is going well, I feel there is something much bigger than me. Whether that is God, I don’t know, but I do feel that there is someone.”
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Ozawa himself was greatly influenced by his family, and their support in helping him develop as a musician is well-known. Once his father and brothers transported a piano by pushcart all the way from Yokohama, where one of his relatives was keeping it, to Tachikawa. The trip took three days and two nights. This was just so the young Seiji could play.
Ozawa is also devoted to his own family: “My family is an ordinary family, I think, but my kids have seen that it is very hard to be a musician. You have to study all the time. They know it well, because I had to stay home and study while everyone else went off to play. So none of my children wanted to do music. They know it is hard.”
Describing his routine, Ozawa says he starts each day with “morning self-study,” getting up at around 5 a.m., 4 if necessary, to study scores before rehearsing with his orchestra. The lamp in his current hotel room, he notes, is making things difficult for him.
“I told my wife to bring me a desk lamp, a bright one.”
It’s an offhand comment, but it belies his passion and invincible will to embrace music. To raise musical standards in Japan, he’ll get up at dawn every day.
“Me? Diligent?” he says. “All musicians work hard.”