Two great minds merge for one long conversation — and the result is catnip for music lovers.
‘Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa’
by Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf, 325 pp., $27.95
What happens when you get a great Japanese writer and a great Japanese conductor together for some free-ranging conversations about music?
If you’re lucky, you have recording equipment on hand, and a stellar writer like Haruki Murakami to turn his talks with maestro Seiji Ozawa into a wide-ranging written dialogue. On paper, that dialogue reads like a playscript, and while it’s fairly short on plot, “Absolutely on Music” is packed with insights likely to enthrall music lovers.
The conversations took place after Ozawa’s 2009 diagnosis of esophageal cancer, during a long recovery period in which this workaholic conductor was unable to pursue his usual jampacked schedule in the world’s concert halls. Murakami, not a musician but a respected writer and music aficionado who once ran a record shop, came to know Ozawa in the early 1990s in Boston, where Ozawa was music director of the Boston Symphony. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and ages (Ozawa is now 81, Murakami 67), the two men are deeply in sync.
Murakami says in his introduction that his goal was not to produce “a standard book of interviews” or “celebrity conversations.” Instead, he was searching for “something akin to the heart’s natural resonance,” and in doing so, he found that he and Ozawa shared a great deal — including work habits that found them in intense daily concentration on scores or manuscripts at 4 a.m.
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What comes through in these conversations is the devotion both men feel for music; the degree to which every detail of a work matters to them; and the strength of their yearning to connect to great symphonies and concertos (and the composers who penned them).
The conversations are loosely organized around several topics: Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, Brahms at Carnegie Hall, “What Happened in the 1960s,” the music of Mahler, the joys of opera, and “There’s No Single Way to Teach. You Make It Up as You Go Along.” Along the way there are discussions of specific places, periods, people, and other details, right down to Ozawa’s theft of three batons from the desk of Eugene Ormandy.
This book will enthrall those who wonder what a conductor does (“to find compromises, or to keep pushing until the musicians come around”), and what it takes to master a score. There are close discussions of what it means to be a Japanese musician working in an overwhelmingly Western cultural tradition. The biographical details are fascinating, too: we learn that Ozawa didn’t buy any recordings when he was a student at Tanglewood because he could afford neither records nor a machine to play them. Among other enthralling stories: the time Ozawa broke a finger conducting “Das Lied von der Erde,” and the fact that Mirella Freni’s Mimi (in “La Boheme”) always made him cry: “You can tell yourself, ‘I’m not going to cry today,’ but you can’t help yourself.”
In some chapters, the conversations referring to specific musical moments can get pretty technical; it would be great if the book had a companion CD or a web page where readers can hear specifically what Ozawa and Murakami are reacting to. And then there is the odd enigmatic note here and there: for example, Murakami writes, “Unfortunately, some of the anecdotes revealed at this point cannot be committed to print.” What a tease!