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Interview with Seiji Ozawa

Seiji Ozawa is in Europe to work with the young musicians from the academy he founded ten years ago in Japan and in Switzerland. He has kindly taken of his time to answer a few questions for ConcertoNet. He will conduct his academy in Geneva at Victoria Hall on June 28th and in Paris at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on July 1st.

(© Antoine Leboyer)

How did you come with the idea of the Academy?
Seiji Ozawa. My professor, Hideo Saito, was a cellist who studied in Germany with Emanuel Feuermann. He was the founder of my school, the Toho School and later became a conductor. He believed that the string quartet form was the best way of getting to know Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Debussy, Ravel... When all these composers wrote string quartets, they composed at their most honest. There is no decoration. This is music at its straightest. He used to say that when you study very well string quartets, then you understand the composers very well. You can then go to sonata, symphony, and opera, whatever... The way to learn Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven... is through their quartets.
I am not a string player so he asked me to coach string players from scratch. My colleagues who were students would form a quartet, study a piece and I would come and coach them. It was a big work and I enjoyed it very much. Then, when I was appointed music director in Boston and in Tanglewood, about twenty years ago, before I retired, we also worked on string quartets there but there were so many students that I had to recruit a coach. Twenty years ago, I started the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto and immediately started the same string quartet coaching. But again, I was so busy during the Mastumoto festival that I could not concentrate on teaching.
The big hit was when we found Robert Mann who had retired from Juilliard String Quartet that he founded. I immediately asked him to join at Tanglewood, and he came immediately and ten years later we came here for the academy.

Last year, the youngest player was 15. Isn’t it very challenging for young players to play string quartet?
Seiji Ozawa. It is true. In a string quartet, players are almost “naked”. There is no decoration, no make-up. Intonation between viola and second violin based in the celli has to be perfect. But young people are amazing, usually the first three days are so-so and then, somehow, everything comes during the last three days and then when we go to Victoria Hall, it is just wonderful.

The style and level in Tokyo and Geneva were very high.
Seiji Ozawa. Yes, but the level here in Geneva is a little higher. We have players from lots of countries: Poland, Russia, France, Germany, Switzerland... Individual level is higher. In Japan, standards are getting better but we only have musicians from Japan, China, Canton, Taipeh, and Korea.

The level of musicians in China is also increasing.
Seiji Ozawa. Last month, the Boston Symphony visited China and so did the Philadelphia Orchestra.

You heard the Boston Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic recently when they toured in Japan. Has the sound changed?
Seiji Ozawa. The sound of the Boston Symphony is very good. They have an excellent new brass section. This is one of the strength of American orchestras. I heard Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and they have two young ideal tuba players there, two young players whom I had never seen.

Speaking of sound, both in Tokyo and Geneva, when all the players are together, you get there and the sound is changes, very big, and with wide dynamics. What happens when you conduct?
Seiji Ozawa (smiling). I do not know.
Blanche d’Harcourt (Director of the Ozawa Academy). I still remember the first year (2005). We had a shock from the sound of the orchestra when you first conducted the Tchaikovsky Serenade.
Seiji Ozawa. I guess this comes from Saito, my teacher. He has a fantastic way of bringing string sound, where to start the bow, where to put the pressure … Saito was “maniac” about these. And also how to breathe. Robert Mann does the same thing.

Herbert von Karajan also modified the bowing. When you saw the Berlin Philharmonic, they all had the same bow.

Seiji Ozawa. Karajan worked also on breathing but I cherish the memory I have of Mstislav Rostropovich. He was like my brother. He told me: “Seiji, we tour in a caravan”. He had travelled like this in Siberia, in a caravan, with accordion and cello, and in India with pedal organ. But he wanted to do this with a string orchestra, and he said: “Seiji, we must do it together”. I said I could arrange it in Japan, so he came for two weeks. We played the Haydn Concertos in C Major and D, no winds, only strings and Boccherini and one more baroque piece. We worked three days in the mountains, he was crazy about working, working... We travelled by truck in the mountains and played up to three concerts per day – end of morning, lunch, and after dinner. But sometimes we had just a small audience because there was no announcement. So, I said to Slava, we have spent so much energy, it is not good for the musicians if there is no audience, so, I asked him to give a class. We did this and actually some audience came. There was a young girl who played a Bach Prelude and it was very good but then Slava spoke about breathing, the very same thing, just like Professor Saito or Maestro von Karajan, almost the same words. And then he made some comparisons – this was Slava’s great talent. He spoke about Greek columns which have a special shape, they are not symmetrical and they have a broader part which is close to the base and not in the middle. He showed the young lady the music and how to think of the phrasing thinking about the Greek columns and she played even better.
Usually, composers do not write the phrasing so clearly, and all these things. We, performers, must feel it, understand and do it, then the audience will be more satisfied and will understand much more easily.

What are your musical plans?
Seiji Ozawa. I just conducted the Mito Chamber Orchestra, which we created twenty years ago, same as Saito Kinen Orchestra. It is made of thirty musicians of the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Mito is actually a city where we had an earthquake. We want to do all Beethoven Symphonies. We played Beethoven Fourth last January and it was very good and Beethoven Seventh at the end of May, which I will repeat in Nagano in late July. Last March, I did Le nozze di Figaro. I did about half, my assistant Ted Taylor, who is an excellent cembalo player from Metropolitan conducted some arias and I conducted the ensembles. I will conduct Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in Tokyo next month.
Haruki Murakami is a very famous writer In Japan. He is crazy about music. We will play one concert “gig” which is slang in American for jazz with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the first part will be conducted by Diego Matheuz who worked with Claudio Abbado. I remember the last time I had a long talk with Claudio Abbado in Berlin. I was conducting Elias with Nathalie Stutzmann and Matthias Goerne. This was wonderful and Matthias Goerne did Bartók’s Bluebeard in Tokyo.
I must tell you one more thing. There is a young Japanese boy who won first prize in Lausanne, Haruo Niyama. He is only 16 years old. He and I had a press conference before I came here. He is from Matsumoto where he still lives. I thought this was the last place for ballet but he got “premier prix”. He is a very nice boy. We talked and I will conduct for him, small pieces, some Mozart minuets, or baroque. Young artists are wonderful.

The Ozawa Academy’s Website

[Interview by Antoine Leboyer]



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