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.”