East meets West

Ran, a film scored by Takemitsu (photo: Rialto Pictures)Scene from Ran, a film scored by Takemitsu, whose music is at the centre of the festival (photo: Rialto Pictures)

Seiji Ozawa curates a festival of Japanese culture in the US

Some, but not many, conductors feel like links to a vanished past. Temperamentally, Valery Gergiev is probably the closest we get today to the old-school autocratic maestro (minus the temper and the watch-throwing, pace Toscanini). But Japan’s most famous classical export, Seiji Ozawa, is very directly the product of many cultures, multiple pasts. Once a protégé of both Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, he learnt the European and the American ways of doing things from the best. But it was a conducting guru from the East, Japan’s Hideo Saito (after whom Ozawa has named his Saito Kinen Orchestra and Festival) who had the first impact.

Today Ozawa embodies all of their philosophies and much of his own, but at 75 he has had health problems – he looks painfully thin, though he has beaten cancer – and gives one-on-one interviews only rarely. So I take advantage of my invitation to report on his festival (for Gramophone's Awards issue) to talk to him at length about the upcoming JapanNYC festival, an exploration of Japanese culture at and around Carnegie Hall, with a West Coast incarnation (JapanOC) at the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which he has been invited to curate. Frail he may be, but enthusiasm stills bursts from him like a life-force.

The festival itself, like 2009’s China-focused Carnegie events, reaches far beyond Western classical music. There are the traditional shamisen players, Yutaka Oyama and Masahiro Nitta, a focus on ancient Imperial Court music, or gagaku, the admired jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, a retrospective of films scored by the pre-eminent Japanese composer Takemitsu and the quasi-religious Kodo Drummers. Away from music itself, there is Noh theatre, painting and calligraphy from the zen master Hakuin, even a manga-drawing workshop. There are bonsai trees (in Brooklyn Botanic Garden), sculpture installations and dance (celebrating Martha Graham’s collaboration with the artist Isamu Noguchi). Yet classical music, of course, is at the centre of the Carnegie fest. Ozawa’s own Saito Kinen players will be joined by Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan and by the NHK Symphony Orchestra under André Previn. The New Juilliard Ensemble explores the music of post-World War II Japanese composers, and the violinist Midori leads a multi-cultural chamber music line-up that also features Jonathan Biss, Antoine Lederlin and Nobuko Imai.

For Ozawa, this multi-faceted approach is crucially important even though, he freely admits, he may not be the right person to talk knowledgeably about every art form the festival will host. “I am very open to the idea that it’s important to give a balanced image of Japan to America, and the music can feed into the art and vice versa. Above all it is important to show today’s Japan, what we have now. If we’d had the money I’d even have wanted to show fashion!”

Central for Ozawa is the music of his friend Toru Takemitsu, which features throughout the schedule, and the film music in particular. “Very few people in the West really know his film music well,” he smiles, “but it is so clever. He showed me how when he put music into one movie, Hara Kiri, he brought together two musicians from completely different traditions – this was to score a story about scary Japanese fairy tales. And it worked brilliantly, because the musicians didn’t really understand each other musically, so it created a tension. An amazing idea.”

Talking about his old friend in a dressing room at Saito Kinen today brings a special glow of warmth from Ozawa, because the festival’s press officer, who sits in with us, is Takemitsu’s daughter Maki. When I note that, for all the talk of showcasing today’s Japan, there are no really young contemporary composers in the festival, and ask whether that points to a problem within the country, Ozawa sighs, “I don’t know. There are no good chances in Japan, that’s for sure.” But it is Maki who expands – “Composers today have many commissions in small concerts and have small successes, but that’s it. The pieces are never repeated.”

This, adds, Ozawa, is a definite parallel to American culture. “The Boston Symphony has a tradition to commission a new composer every year. When I ran that orchestra we tried to encourage other orchestras in America to do these pieces. They didn’t want to. Even though in the history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra they had premiered Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Messiaen’s Turangalîla, works of that calibre.”

Interestingly, he has opted to conduct Britten’s War Requiem with the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Is there something in it, I ask, that speaks particularly strongly to the Japanese spirit? He nods. “Yes. Because of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, older people especially feel the war still as though it was very close. Maybe not my children, maybe not this one,” he gestures with a smile to Maki, “But it is a work that has felt important to me for a long time.” He recounts how Msistlav Rostropovich asked him to be the War Requiem’s second conductor (of the chamber group) for performances in Russia. “The people in the audience started to cry. I thought, ‘They’re very open to crying here!’ But then I brought the work to Japan in a Japanese translation and people cried there too.” He pauses. “I saw the war. From the age of about four, I lived near an air force base. We had a lot of bombs and had to live in underground bunkers. My classmate’s house got bombed. So this work is very important before we forget.”

Jazz is a rising art form in Japan, hence the presence of Akiyoshi. “She is a big figure in Japanese jazz,” says Maki, “but we don’t have many big figures.” Ozawa grins, “Look, before we came to the town of Matsumoto with the Saito Kinen Festival there was only the Suzuki method here that people talked about, musically, because Mr Suzuki lived here. Now you find the jazz here, in the cafés, and people have jazz discs – more LPs than CDs though.”

Yet the purest form of music remains for Ozawa the string quartet. This, he says, is the centre of everything. He plans to bring some of his students from Japan to play chamber music before several of the events. The students will learn and, he hopes, “We can show that Japanese musicians can play Western music. It is a problem we have, to convince the Japanese audiences’s minds as well.”

This is a problem that goes back to the days of Saito himself, the music evangelist who brought back from his travels a knowledge of the style with which Western music must be played. What puzzles me, I say, is that still, after all these years, it is only Ozawa himself and a handful of other Japanese classical musicians who have built a career in the West. Are we really that prejudiced? The problem, it turns out, lies less with us than with the Japanese. “It’s very dangerous, when young people make a success in Japan they are often satisfied. They should know, but don’t, what’s going on musically in America and Europe and Russia.”

Ozawa tells what is clearly a favorite story. “I’m very Japanese. After I became assistant to Bernstein, I came back to Japan to lead the NHK Symphony Orchestra as artistic director. And the players didn’t like me, and they boycotted me! And I was so furious that I went back to New York and said to the orchestra’ s manager that I never wanted to return to my country! Of course I went back the next year. But I needed a big push to go out, to make that jump. And then I went straight to Ravinia, which is where my career took off.” The point is made. And by bringing his young players to New York he hopes that they will be inspired to explore the West themselves. He laughs. “When I see great young musicians in Japan, I try to help them sometimes. And I say, “Go out!”

James Inverne

JapanNYC runs through December and then March and April 2011. JapanOC runs through April

Festival artists on disc

Seiji Ozawa
DG 459 643-2GH Buy now
Seiji Ozawa is the perfect accompanist for this recording of Rachmaninov’s First and Second Piano Concertos with Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is one of the very finest recordings of the First Concerto on record.

Toru Takemitsu
BIS BIS-CD1300 Buy now
Tadaaki Otaka leads the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a series of bewitching peformances of Takemitsu’s late works (including, riverrun and A String around Autumn), featuring soloists Sharon Bezaly (flute), Philip Dukes (viola) and Noriko Ogawa (piano)

Sony Classical SK89700 Buy now
Midori’s 20th Anniversary album contains some of her finest recordings, not least a thrilling Wieniawski First Concerto.

Mitsuko Uchida
Philips 468 033-2PH Buy now
Uchida’s distinctive musical personality and outstanding technique make her Schoenberg (Piano Concerto), Berg (First Piano Sonata) and Webern (Variations, Op 27) well worth hearing.

Bach Collegium Japan
BIS BIS-SACD1841 Buy now
Masaaki Suzuki leads sumptuous peformances of several Bach Motets. The perfect introduction to the BCJ’s extensive Bach discography

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014