Seiji Ozawa ends summer on high note

Japan's celebrated conductor talks about artistic technique and plans for the future

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reportedly once said “God is in the details.” Conductor Seiji Ozawa would literally agree.

He meets The Japan Times at a cafe he frequents in Tokyo’s Seijo district. It’s peaceful with a steady flow of classical music being streamed through the speakers. I mention the background music to him, but he responds by making an “X” with his arms in front of him.

“These are not the originals,” he says politely. “They are arrangements specifically made for this kind of background music. The sounds are like pastries dusted unnecessarily with powdered sugar.”

It’s impressive that he’s able to tell the compositions are not faithful to the originals, even though the cafe is filled with the hum of people chatting over their tea.

“The other day, though, I was surprised when I heard a real piece by Mozart here that was faithful to the original,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s our mission as performers to faithfully re-create what composers write and realize their intentions in those pieces.”

This is how Ozawa operates as a conductor. He reads the music scores thoroughly and gives clear directions to orchestra members while he conducts. With large ensembles, like an orchestra, the conductor’s role is important. And he says sometimes the conductor interprets the intention of a composer differently from what the musicians think.

“That’s the difficult part of an ensemble,” he says. “When we launched the Saito Kinen Orchestra, it was important that the members and I often discussed how to play a particular piece.”

The Saito Kinen Orchestra was created in 1984 in memory of Hideo Saito (1902-74), Ozawa’s music teacher and cofounder of Toho Gakuen School of Music. Originally a temporary orchestra, it became a permanent fixture when the Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto was established in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1992.

“Many of the members do not usually belong to orchestras. Instead, they are active as soloists or chamber musicians, especially in the case of the string section,” Ozawa says.

That makes the Saito Kinen Orchestra a supergroup of sorts. Each of the musicians is capable of delivering first-rate performances by themselves. Ozawa steps in as conductor to pull each minute detail together and create an impressive wave of music. This is why many critics regard Saito Kinen Festival as one of the best classical music events in the country.

“Every year, the orchestra’s membership is slightly different,” Ozawa says, adding that this is due to independent musicians coming and going according to their own schedules. “But our sound stays true to the feel of Saito Kinen, isn’t it strange? I find it interesting.”

This year, Ozawa returned to conduct performances at Saito Kinen after having taken two years off due to bad health. The musician underwent surgery in 2010 after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. During his time off he focused on his health and even canceled some scheduled public events to ensure he would be in tip-top shape for the festival.

In Matsumoto on Aug. 23, he conducted Maurice Ravel’s “The Child and the Spells” for a packed crowd that included Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. He performed the same piece three more times before taking up the baton at the festival’s grand finale on Sept. 6.

Now that it’s all over, Ozawa says he is relieved and will take a well deserved break: “What is necessary for me most at the moment is to restore my strength. I will take a rest for the remainder of the year and then will gradually start performing again.”

After the break, he is scheduled to conduct the Mito Chamber Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in January. That ensemble was launched with the conductor a few years after the Saito Kinen Orchestra, and both groups have many members in common.

“The latter part of the concert will be conducted by French mezzo singer Nathalie Stutzmann, who learned the craft from me,” Ozawa says.

The maestro then hopes to focus on the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy in March, where he will also conduct Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” The academy nurtures young musicians through opera. He will then teach at Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland in June and Ozawa International Chamber Music Academy in Okushiga, Nagano Prefecture, in July. The Swiss academy mostly comprises European pupils, while the Okushiga academy includes mainly Asians.

Then comes the next Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto, where Ozawa is set to take on the roles of director and conductor once again. Regarding the opera program, the maestro mentions that the festival will feature Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” under the baton of Fabio Luisi. The Italian conductor is currently active at many opera houses worldwide including New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The performance will be directed by France’s Laurent Pelly and star U.S. baritone Quinn Kelsey. All three were requested specifically by Ozawa.

The finale at this year’s Saito Kinen was notable for its mixture of classical and jazz, the latter courtesy of jazz pianist Junko Onishi and her trio. Ozawa is keen to point out that his love for music isn’t limited to the classical realm. He mentions that he is a huge fan of enka, a form of sentimental Japanese balladry, and describes in particular detail why he likes singers Shinichi Mori and Keiko Fuji, the latter of whom recently committed suicide.

Ozawa says enka, which is particular to Japan, is based on Western-style music and staff notation. Mori expresses his emotions by “using the Japanese language to infuse nuance into the melodies he sings.”

“It’s like (Franz) Schubert’s lieder, such as ‘Winterreise’ (‘Winter Journey’) and ‘Die schone Mullerin’ (‘The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter’), which are performed using the same excellent command of the German language,” he says.

“There is no difference (in execution) between the way Mori sings and what we do as an orchestra.”

As he demonstrated by using Onishi at this year’s festival, Ozawa points out that it’s not the genre that is important, but the quality of performance the musician delivers.

“There are many singers in classical music who deliver performances that are just according to the lyrics, without adding their own character,” he says. “You can’t make an impact on an audience with such performances.”

Ozawa says being able to strike the right chord with an audience comes from the depth of the performers’ own understanding. They need to “truly absorb” the piece they tackle, even bringing their life experiences into it.

“Performances that just go through a performer’s mouths or arms are never good,” Ozawa says. He adds that there is a lot of this going on at classical music concerts, because “the scores are difficult and require technique.”

“It often happens that the notes in a score are too difficult for the musicians to perform. Or it’s too difficult for them to understand the reasons why the composer wrote them. The audience will naturally become bored during such performances.”

While Ozawa feels that it is important for the classical musician to understand and re-create the composer’s intention, he points out that he likes jazz for the opposite reason.

“In jazz the way you treat the original is quite different,” he says. “If George Gershwin was still alive and listened to his “Rhapsody in Blue” (at the finale of Saito Kinen), he would have been completely blown away by the performance.” (Pianist Onishi performed the cadenza very differently from how Gershwin originally wrote it.)

While some of Ozawa’s previous collaborations of the piece, with Bulgarian pianist Alexis Weissenberg and U.S.-based pianist Andre Watts, were faithful to the original, “Onishi’s performance was only 5 percent faithful to it. Onishi has her own style, it’s solid, not corrupt.”

Ozawa says he and Onishi rehearsed three times before the Sept. 6 performance, but that every time she played the cadenza differently.

“I think she just has a lot of guts,” he says regarding her performance. “Her trio collaborated closely, but once she started playing alone, she got into her own world. I never knew where she was going.”

Ozawa’s comments on Onishi’s improvisations sound a little like he is paying respect to a fellow composer.

“I’m sure the members of Saito Kinen Orchestra were very inspired by her way of performing,” he says. “It was a great experience for me, too.”

The resulting performance was a fantastic merger of Onishi’s free jazz improvisations and Ozawa conducting the orchestra in a disciplined manner faithful to the original Gershwin score.

For all his gushing toward jazz, Ozawa still marvels at what he sees as the longevity of classical music. He thinks it is amazing that people today can re-create the same notes that inspired entire societies hundreds of years ago.

“I think that music is just emotionally engaging for human beings,” he says. “There is a harmonic tone with which people feel comfortable and such characteristics never change. In this sense, though, there is no difference between classical, contemporary and many other genres of music.

“I believe all music influences human beings. It’s as essential for us as food is.”

  • pmay0922 .

    I hope the Maestro will grace the North American and European stages. I am certain that orchestras in Boston, Vienna and Berlin miss him. Here’s wishing you many more years of great music making, Maestro Ozawa.