Murakami and Ozawa

Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami; photo Nobuyoshi Araki

You can’t read far into the short stories or novels of Haruki Murakami without realizing how much he adores jazz. In his memoirs and other published essays, he relates how he was smitten when he heard Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in Kobe in 1964, at the age of fifteen, and how he went on to run a jazz club in Tokyo during much of the 1970s. His legions of readers will have no trouble summoning up recollections of music in his writings, perhaps beginning with the jazz records and trombone Tony Takitani inherits from his father in the eponymous short story. The website helpfully tallies the specific musical citations in his large corpus of writings and links to performances of all of them. Some books have only a few, but the references really pile up in others: 29 compositions each in 1Q84 and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, fully 46 in Norwegian Wood. Scrolling through the site, one is struck by how much non-jazz music is also there, including lots of Beatles tunes and a great deal of classical music. The listings for 1Q84 include links to an interesting assortment of pieces by Bach, Janácek, Schubert, Handel, Haydn, Vivaldi, Rameau, and Marcel Dupré.

Murakami, it turns out, is no less devoted to classical music than he is to jazz, even if that passion has been less discussed. It inhabits every page of his volume Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, in which he transcribes a series of six extended private conversations he had with the noted conductor, spread periodically through the years 2010 and 2011. The two being leading cultural figures of Japan, they had known each other casually, but the opportunity to deepen their connection arrived only when, at the end of 2009, Ozawa was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and had to cut back drastically on his musical engagements. Given Ozawa’s lightened calendar, Murakami proposed the interviews that ended up forming this volume. A specific exchange served as inspiration. As Murakami explains:

“During one of Seiji Ozawa’s visits to my home, we were listening to music and talking about one thing or another when he told me a tremendously interesting story about Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein’s 1962 performance in New York of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. ‘What a shame it would be to let such a fascinating story just evaporate,’ I thought. ‘Somebody ought to record it and put it on paper.’ And, brazen as it may seem, the only ‘somebody’ that happened to cross my mind at the moment was me.”

It is therefore with some eagerness that one plunges into the first interview, stoked with the promise of revelation. It begins with Ozawa recounting the anecdote, which is the one about Bernstein issuing a disclaimer from the stage prior to conducting the concerto with the New York Philharmonic because he and Gould held such divergent opinions about how it should be interpreted. It is one of classical music’s very famous stories, retailed in who knows how many biographies, general-interest articles, and music-appreciation books. The New York Times carried a bemused article by its chief critic, Harold C. Schonberg, the day after it happened. There was no possibility that the story might “just evaporate” if it were not enshrined in this book. Still, the reader forges ahead, hoping Ozawa will have a unique take on it since he was right there in Carnegie Hall, serving as one of Bernstein’s assistant conductors at the Philharmonic. “I couldn’t catch his English,” Ozawa says, “so I asked the people around me what he was saying, and I got the general idea.”

This is the first of several spots at which Ozawa voices regret that his limited language skills prevented him from understanding what his colleagues had to say. This would come as no surprise to people involved hands-on in the music world, where everyone acknowledges that he communicates in mysterious locutions that often resemble no language known to man. Murakami confirms that: “It’s true, the maestro does speak his own special brand of Ozawa-ese, which is not always easy to convert to standard written Japanese.” The conversations were in Japanese, as one would expect, and Jay Rubin has rendered them smoothly into English, but even so there is just so much one can do to cover for the speaker. Consider Ozawa’s comment, later in the book, about the aforementioned Times critic, who reviewed the Philharmonic week after week during Ozawa’s tenure as assistant conductor: “Unfortunately for Bernstein, there was this music critic for The New York Times named Sean Berg or something.” Not encouraging.

The conversations are at their best when Murakami plays records or CDs from his collection and then they discuss what they hear. Ozawa announces that he basically dislikes the whole idea of obsessive record collecting and the fetishism that can imply, but he is quickly won over by the fact that Murakami actually listens to the recordings he amasses. Indeed, he listens very carefully, and he brings well-honed skills to bear on comparing one interpretation with another. So does Ozawa, as one would expect, but they are not always struck by exactly the same things. “It’s hardly for me to point out how very high the wall is that separates the pro from the amateur, the music maker from the listener,” Murakami writes. “Our most important task is to search for an effective passageway through the wall — and two people who share a natural affinity for an art, any art, will be sure to find that passageway.” 

They listen together to passages from competing readings of piano concertos and symphonies by Brahms, Beethoven, and Mahler, among others. (The author’s website,, provides Spotify links to many of the recordings they hear.) These listening sessions offer occasional flashes of insight. A particularly fine example involves a passage in which Brahms, in his First Symphony, divides phrases between two horn players, overlapping them to create the illusion of a single horn playing seamlessly without stopping to breathe. So great is the conductor’s appreciation of this detail that one is shocked when, a few pages later, Murakami confronts him with a videotape in which he leads the Boston Symphony in that very piece — with the entire passage being played by the principal hornist alone. Ozawa shrugs it off. “Yes, he decided on his own, and he absolutely insisted on doing it his way. In other words, he rejected Brahms’s little trick.” 

That exchange encapsulates what keeps this volume from soaring. Murakami often seems too much in awe to press his interviewee deeply. “Why did you allow it?” you want him to ask. Who stands up for Brahms, if not the conductor? But this is Seiji Ozawa, who, in what seemed an endless music directorship of 29 years, trudged with the Boston Symphony through the realm of glossy but complacent generality. He was certainly capable of polished work during his time at the helms in Boston, at the Vienna State Opera, and with the Saito Kinen Orchestra he co-founded in Japan; but the general critical consensus is that he never stood at the top of the pack, that his readings never claimed definitive status compared to those of other conductors.

One is willing — indeed, eager — to make allowances under the circumstances. The Ozawa we meet is a man in his autumnal years undergoing cancer rehabilitation. One can forgive lapses of memory, but Murakami is not always equipped to steer him as securely as he requires. Even at his best, Ozawa can come across as lackadaisical when it comes to details, with Murakami accepting what he says as a pronouncement from an oracle. Murakami occasionally rambles on with words that lie somewhere between statement and question, and when he yields the floor to Ozawa, the response is “Hmm … I wonder.” Conversations sometimes grind to a listless halt:

Murakami: La Bohème is an opera that won’t work unless Mimì makes the audience cry, don’t you think?

Ozawa: That’s quite true.

Murakami: And Freni could do that naturally.

Ozawa: You can tell yourself, “I’m not going to cry today,” but you can’t help yourself. I’m thinking I’ll go visit her in Modena next time I’m in Florence.

He drinks hot tea.

Ozawa: This is sugar, isn’t it?

Murakami: Yes, it is.

The tone may seem more natural to Japanese readers, by which I mean the book’s attitudinal pose rather than anything specifically linguistic. Murakami’s reverence for Maestro Ozawa is always present, and so is Ozawa’s reverence for his own masters, particularly Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan (who oversaw his apprenticeships) and Prof. Hideo Saito, his original conducting teacher. Both parties to the talkfest are well placed to appreciate the activities of Japanese performers in Western classical music, but even there they skate along the surface. An entire interview is devoted to the music of Mahler, and Ozawa predictably extols Bernstein’s missionary work on that composer’s behalf, which was in full swing during Ozawa’s time as assistant conductor. They give little credit to any of the conductors who pushed the Mahler agenda before that, and it is supremely strange that neither mentions that the first-ever recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony — the first electrical recording of any Mahler symphony — was made in 1930 in Japan, of all places, with Hidemaro Konoye conducting the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo. Since Ozawa finds nothing original or authoritative to say about Mahler in the 83 pages devoted to him, at least that historical oddity might have led to some thoughts of unique value from two figures in Japan’s current cultural diadem.

One should not discount what is good about the book. Murakami is genuinely interested and alert, hungry for Ozawa to deepen his grasp of a subject he loves. He arrives with ears well prepared, even if his background research seems often limited to what he gleans from the recordings he owns. Ozawa comes across as genial if sometimes faraway. Every now and then there are flashes of insight. Still, the book peaks too early, leaving readers to stroll through its second half with waning interest. This will not go down as an important entry in Murakami’s oeuvre, but one wonders if it might lead to one. I ended up wishing he had drawn on it for a work of fiction instead — but then, of course, Ozawa would not likely have devoted so much time to a project that did not have a biographical aim. And yet, Murakami harbors palpable interest in the phenomenon of conducting, in details of interpretation, in wanting to understand the kind of person who would get swept up in such things. Who knows — maybe some day such a character will stand at the heart of a Murakami novel, one that is not straitjacketed by the limitations of mortal banality. ◀

“Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa” by Haruki Murakami was published by Alfred A. Knopf last November.