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Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami. Knopf.

Book review
Reviewed by Kevin T. McEneaney

This book consists of recorded conversations on music by two music appreciators, yet neither one is a musician. Both men happen to be on the genius level. Although neither has ever played an instrument, they have a deep understanding of classical music—how it should sound, its history, how a non-musician listens to music. While most books on music remain too technical for the average reader, this book sparkles with accessibility, wit, and honed opinion with honest conversation that remains a delight.

Early on, after mutually denigrating record collectors, Ozawa accuses Murakami of being a mere record collector, which Murakami admits with the qualification that he does attend many concerts, and confesses that he’s “more or less a dilettante.” Ozawa rejoins that he enjoys talking to Murakami “because your perspective is so different from mine,” a perspective that is “fresh and unexpected.” In the course of these interviews, witty skepticism yields to a surprising level of eventual intimacy on the part of both artists.

There is much on Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler, plus a chapter on blues as well as opera. There’s a long chapter on how classical music progressed in the 1960s. Seiji Ozawa was one of the few legendary conductors who began conducting early (in his second year of high school), becoming the unexpected protégé of Leonard Bernstein before rising to international star. Haruki Murakami is Japan’s leading novelist, on both the domestic and international stage. I’ve read a few of his novels and they are unusual and rewarding.

 Amusing anecdotes sprinkle the book. When Ozawa substituted for Philadelphia’s Eugene Ormandy, Ozawa stole three of Ormandy’s batons. Accosted by Ormandy’s secretary, Ozawa admitted the theft and promptly returned the batons. Ormandy told him where he could have special batons made. While Sir Roger Norrington does not use a baton, most conductors use them. Yet most fans in the audience don’t know the origin of the baton, so I will digress.

The leading baroque composer of the Sun King’s court was Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87), prince of French musicians. At that time a conductor was also the principal percussionist. With a high five-foot thick pole, the conductor would beat the floor of the hollow wooden stage to keep time. Lully had an accident while conducting his Te Deum—he smashed his foot. Gangrene set in. He refused medical advice to amputate his toes, foot, and eventually leg because that would inhibit his dancing. After his death due to gangrene, a committee was formed to prevent such a disaster from repeating itself. And so the baton was born and has been around ever since. Ozawa waved a near-magical baton. Murakami has a keen ear and acute sense of musical history. The book is quite lively.

Ozawa bemoans that many Eastern musicians achieve technical perfection without emotion and that such mastery is the worst thing that can happen to classical music—it begins to sound like elevator music.

The book is excellent about how musicians interact in their playing. Ozawa talks about his different recordings of Stravinsky and others—and why such recordings are different, whether through the technology of recording, the musicians involved, or his evolving interpretations. Ozawa has many observations on how and why other conductors do certain things. In the end, this is a behind-the-curtain book about the vagaries of making music on the world stage.

It’s no surprise that the genial conversationalists conclude with the possible threat of doing a sequel.