One of the most remarkable evenings of my life was the time I hosted an assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago. I cooked, wine flowed, and we talked late into the night. I recall it started with his explanation of The Enigma Variations over farro and grilled vegetables and segued into a discussion of what symphonies he most wanted to conduct (with halibut and mango sauce as accompaniment). He went through my music collection (Oh, let’s start with the vinyl
Eventually we stood before the painting The Conductor by Nguyen Thanh Binh, a Vietnamese painter.
We stood there, drinks in hand, and I said that to me the piece was not just about a “conductor” but was really about the creation, the moment of creation, of a piece of art. There is as yet this unformed idea. It appears at first glance that the artist is staring into the void. But, oh, there is something out there, like the wind, which is about to explode. It could be a conductor about to summon the first note; or maybe, I said, it could be a trial attorney about to begin his closing argument. My guest stared at the man in black, at the minimalist swaying, and eventually he said, “This is it. You have to understand, they are all first-class musicians, each brilliant; but they are not your friends.”
The idea of this book intrigued me: conversations between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa about music. They, too, ate, drank and talked. Their discussions were, mostly, more structured than the one I described above. Murakami would take a piece of music, say Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, and play it for Ozawa. But he would play different recordings of the piece from his collection: Gould and Karajan, Gould and Bernstein, Serkin and Bernstein, Serkin and Ozawa, Uchida and Sanderling. As the piece played in its various incarnations, Ozawa and Murakami would discuss difference in style and interpretation. That is more musical nuance than I need or, for that matter, am capable of. But the structure allowed for some wonderful insights and phrasings. And tidbits.
“Music, of course, is an art that occurs through time,” Ozawa said, in discussing his difficulty in taking an Alban Berg score from reading to understanding. And, quoting Schoenberg (music is not a sound but an idea), Ozawa told Murakami that reading a score of music is an artistic experience. It amazed me that Ozawa never heard Mahler performed until he had started reading scores of Mahler’s symphonies. He knew immediately he had entered a different world.
One of the Conversations occurred after Ozawa invited Murakami to attend the Seiji Ozawa International Academy in Switzerland. Very highly skilled string players (in their twenties, mostly) play string quartets under the tutelage of Ozawa and a few others. I can’t begin to describe how jealous I am that Murakami was permitted to observe.
Perhaps my favorite Conversation was the one Murakami and Ozawa had about blues and jazz. When he was in Chicago, Ozawa would sneak out at night and visit blues bars. He became such a regular they used to let him sneak in through a side entrance. These are conversations, remember. So, at one point, Ozawa kind of stops their chat and says, “By the way, do they still play the blues in Chicago?” This floored me, and made me do a double- and triple-take, because that line – Do they still play the blues in Chicago? – is the start of the chorus in the great Steve Goodman song, A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HTRx…
And, they’re both fans of Junko Onishi. So, as a public service: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrOmu…
One last thing. I don’t know how they did it, but the transcribed dialogue between Murakami and Ozawa sounded just like two characters talking in a Murakami novel. Maybe it’s because of Murakami’s long-time translator, Jay Rubin. But perhaps it’s explained by this observation by Murakami:
No one ever taught me how to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm.