Seiji Ozawa and “The Musings of the Maestro”

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Seiji Ozawa and “The Musings of the Maestro” – Wall Street Journal Nov. 19, 2016

(http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-musings-of-the-maestro-1479494754)

It was interesting to open the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 19 and find a review about a newly published book titled, “Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa” by Haruki Murakami. I immediately ordered a copy of the book online. As of this writing, I have yet to read it. However, the photo of Ozawa that accompanied the WSJ review ignited a slew of memories from my personal encounters with Seiji Ozawa over many years beginning in October 1967 – before NEXUS was formed – when I was excused from my senior year classes at the Eastman School of Music in order to tour with the Toronto Symphony under Ozawa’s direction. (see my May 21st, 2016 blog posting titled, “1967 – The Canada Centennial Tour of the Toronto Symphony through Northern Ontario”). After that TSO tour in 1967, it turned out to be only a few months until I would cross paths with Ozawa again.

Toronto 1968

A few months after the 1967 centennial tour the Toronto Symphony announced an opening for the position of principal percussionist and that there would soon be auditions. Of course my future colleague in NEXUS, John Wyre, was already the timpanist in the TSO, and in those days word-of-mouth was the typical manner by which information of this kind was most rapidly transmitted, so John naturally called his friend (and future colleague in NEXUS) Robin Engelman to give him the inside scoop. John and Robin had performed together in the Milwaukee Symphony and though their playing styles were different (in some ways, almost opposite) they shared a common openness to each other’s individual musical sensibilities, thereby lending their stamp of credence to the old saying, “opposites attract.”

In 1968 Robin was in his second year as the principal percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and because his was the only full time percussion position, I was fortunate to be the first-call extra percussionist, which meant that I was playing with the RPO on virtually every concert, even though I was still a student. Having had a very positive shared experience on the recent TSO tour, John also filled me in about the upcoming audition. He and I had known each other even before the 1967 TSO tour from our shared backgrounds as high school students in Philadelphia, our shared experiences working in lessons with the timpanist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Dan Hinger, and our shared performance together of Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” at the 1964 Marlboro Music Festival along with the Philadelphia Orchestra percussionist, Mickey Bookspan.

Robin and I both were invited to the TSO audition, and when the audition day arrived we agreed that it would be convenient for the two of us to make the four-hour drive to Toronto together. As Robin drove his car, with me in the front passenger seat, there was – counter-intuitively – no sense of rivalry between us. We each simply wanted to do our best and let the chips fall where they may.

John and Seiji Ozawa jointly ran the audition, and one of its biggest challenges was that Seiji would conduct the bass drum part for the closing section of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” a mixed-meter minefield. Ozawa made one comment to me just before I played that excerpt, and I don’t remember what it was about, but it was the only time I can recall of Ozawa ever speaking directly to me. Usually, I was just a fly on the wall as John and Seiji engaged in conversation. In any case, when my audition was over I thought that I had played my best throughout, and I was quite satisfied.

I listened from the back of Massey Hall as Robin played his audition, and it was wonderful. The result was that Robin was chosen. Not only did he play a great audition, but he was also an experienced professional, while I was still a student. The decision was what we would today call a “no-brainer.”

AND, Voltaire was right: “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Robin’s accepting the position in Toronto created an opening in Rochester, which I would soon fill.

Chicago – July 8, 1971

The next time I saw Ozawa was at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago on July 8, 1971 at the American premiere performance of Toru Takemitsu’s “Cassiopeia.” Stomu Yamashita was the percussion soloist and Ozawa was conducting the Chicago Symphony. His career had skyrocketed after Toronto. He was in demand as a conductor internationally, which would soon lead him to the position of Music Director with the San Francisco Symphony and eventually to Boston, Vienna and beyond.

NEXUS had recently performed its first concert in Rochester on May 22. With that positive experience still fresh in our minds, three of us – Robin, John, and I – had decided to meet and drive about 8-hours from Toronto to Chicago in my Volkswagen beetle to hear the Takemitsu premiere. We arrived at Ravinia just in time to sit in the audience beside Toru Takemitsu. Ozawa had championed Takemitsu’s music in Toronto, and John and Robin had even been invited by Takemitsu to perform his music at EXPO ‘70 in Osaka, so both knew Takemitsu well. The Ravinia concert provided the first opportunity for me to meet Toru.

John Wyre had a very good reason to attend this premiere because he would be performing the solo part to “Cassiopeia” later that summer in Tanglewood at the Berkshire Music Festival with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. “Cassiopeia” had been jointly commissioned by the Ravinia and Berkshire Music Festivals, and Yamashita was unable to make the Tanglewood performance. Ozawa was always very fond of John’s playing, and that fondness would eventually lead to John (and Robin) touring in Russia with the San Francisco Symphony and to John performing as timpanist with the Boston Symphony for several summers at Tanglewood whenever Vic Firth was away.

“Cassiopeia” was a great success with the Ravinia audience, and after the performance John, Robin, and I escorted Takemitsu back to the bar at his Chicago hotel for a post-concert drink and an informal assessment of the performance. During the discussion I introduced Takemitsu to a cocktail called a “stinger” (white creme de menthe and brandy), which he really liked. I was later told that it became his favorite cocktail.

The next day all four of us – I, John, Robin, and Takemitsu – drove all the way from Chicago to Toronto with one stopover in Ann Arbor, Michigan to visit with musicologist, William P. Malm. Along the entire way, as I drove, we all sang dozens of popular songs – whatever came into our minds – with Takemitsu’s voice sometimes the loudest. We even tried to whistle classical melodies such as the “Merlitons” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Ballet” which provoked much silliness and laughter during the long drive from Ann Arbor to Toronto through most of the night.

Tanglewood – July 30, 1987

I next crossed paths with Ozawa indirectly during a NEXUS visit to Tanglewood in 1987 to perform a recital in the small shed. It was the second time NEXUS had given a solo concert there. The first time had been in June 1982, and it was a resounding success. This time the program was equally appealing to the Tanglewood audience:

          African Suite (Traditional): Fra Fra, Mbira, and Kobina

          Rain Tree by Toru Takemitsu

          Third Construction by John Cage

          Music for Pieces of Wood by Steve Reich

          Novelty Ragtime Selections arr. by Bob Becker and Bill Cahn

While NEXUS was at Tanglewood, I had the opportunity to observe an afternoon rehearsal of the Boston Symphony under Ozawa, and it was especially interesting because John Wyre was subbing as timpanist. Of course, John sounded great, though I couldn’t even begin to imagine the kind of pressure he must have been under in that situation. What affected me most, however, was the intensity of Ozawa’s rehearsal. He was constantly and deeply focused on the music at hand without let-up, and the driving energy with which he propelled the orchestra unleashed what seemed to me to be the force of a steam locomotive at full speed. By the end of the rehearsal I was exhausted just from observing Ozawa’s non-stop energy. I was still in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at that time, so I had a pretty good sense of how orchestra rehearsals usually go, but this rehearsal was on another intensity level. I also noticed that Ozawa wasn’t referring to his scores much. When I asked John about it he told me that Seiji has a photographic memory.

Boston Symphony Hall – Oct. 10, 1990

The next time I came into direct contact with Seiji Ozawa was with NEXUS at a rehearsal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on October 10, 1990. Having checked into Boston’s Back Bay Hilton the day before, NEXUS was filled with the anticipation of performing Takemitsu’s music for the first time as soloists with the BSO.

Almost a year earlier NEXUS had been extremely gratified when after years of trying, we learned that Takemitsu had formally committed to composing a concerto for NEXUS. Takemitsu had even traveled to Toronto in order to see and hear the large collection of NEXUS percussion instruments from all over the world, and the five solo percussion parts had then been orchestrated specifically for the five individual players in NEXUS with their instruments.

The commission of Takemitsu’s “From me flows what you call time” had been realized through a perfect storm of circumstances surrounding the Carnegie Hall Centennial celebration in New York City. Throughout the 1990 Centennial year Carnegie Hall would be hosting a series of concerts titled, “Great American Orchestras,” and each of the selected orchestras would include a premiere performance of a newly commissioned work. The Boston Symphony was among the chosen orchestras and Seiji Ozawa was the orchestra’s Music Director. Perhaps the most important connection was the fact that Ozawa had known John Wyre and Robin Engelman since the 1970s, when they were all together exploring and sharing their common musical sensibilities in the Toronto Symphony. Another important connection was that ever since the Toronto years Ozawa had been a champion for the music of Toru Takemitsu, with whom John and Robin had also established a mutual admiration. In 1976 Takemitsu had invited NEXUS to Japan, and he had even been our host, traveling around Japan with us during the NEXUS tour, which included performances on his “Music Today” series in Tokyo.

But what made this storm of circumstances a perfect storm was that the Artistic Administrator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival at that time was Costa Pilavachi, who had also managed NEXUS when he was the Director of Sales at David Haber Artist Management in Toronto from 1976 to 1979. Costa was the hub – the nexus – who tied all of the strings together.

After the good news about the Takemitsu commission was confirmed and after all of the contractual details were resolved, we knew that the Carnegie Hall event was actually going to happen and that NEXUS was at last going to have its wish fulfilled of a work by Toru Takemitsu. Then the reality set in. There was going to be a period of purgatory during which there would be a persistent low-boil anxiety about the details. How would the composition sound? What specific instruments would be needed? How much time – individual and ensemble – would be required in order for the solo parts to be prepared? What unforeseen and unexpected challenges would have to be faced and resolved?

In July 1990 there was a flurry of activity as the first details of the score reached NEXUS. The score required that two arrays of bells be suspended in Carnegie Hall over the audience, with ribbons in five colors connected between the bells and two of the performers on the apron of the stage. While the score included a pencil sketch of how the arrays might look, nevertheless the reality was that everything would have to be designed first and then constructed. The question was, who would be responsible to do this? At first Carnegie Hall thought that they would have to assume the responsibility, but after a few back-and-forth communications with NEXUS’ management (Peggy Feltmate) it was determined that NEXUS would be in contact with Garry Kvistad at his company, Woodstock Percussion.

Russell Hartenberger and Bob Becker knew Garry well because they had all performed together with Steve Reich and Musicians for years. I also know Garry from his performances with the Blackearth Percussion Group. With Garry’s knowledge of acoustics and his incredible success with Woodstock Chimes, he was the logical person to contact about designing the suspended bell units.  Garry embraced the challenge of designing and building the arrays of bells, and after meeting with Takemitsu in Japan, he got to work and delivered the goods – two arrays of specially-tuned wind chimes – each with a clever spool device containing the color ribbons – in time for the October premiere.

By September 1990, with less than a month to go before the performance, NEXUS received the individual solo parts, on which the ink had barely dried. Among the immediate issues was a major solo part for a chromatic steel drum, an instrument that none of the members of NEXUS had ever studied. In fact, a chromatic steel drum wasn’t even in the large reservoir of NEXUS instruments. It became Bob Becker’s challenge to obtain steel drums having all of the required pitches and to learn from scratch the unique placement of tones on their surfaces, not to mention having to learn a rather demanding solo vibraphone part with overlapping passages for glockenspiel. To further complicate that task, each of those instruments requires its own specific type of mallets that would have to be juggled to produce the desired sounds. These were some of the significant issues to be addressed in the relatively short amount of time remaining before the first rehearsal with Ozawa and the BSO.

Other kinds of instruments were needed too, and although there were some examples of these already in the NEXUS collection – crotales (small tuned cymbals in pairs), angklung (Indonesian bamboo rattles) and rin (small Japanese temple bells) – some of the specific pitches required for the new piece were not included. They would have to all be located (in the days before Google search), and then purchased and delivered immediately to arrive in time for practice and rehearsals. On September 11, 1990 following a frantic overseas phone call (in the days before cellphones and Skype), a fax message was sent to a percussion shop in Germany to order many of the needed instruments, and fortunately all were available, and all arrived in time for NEXUS rehearsals in Toronto.

The manuscript copy of the score that NEXUS had received earlier in the summer was not accompanied by a CD or MIDI reduction (in the days before digital files and Sibelius), so if NEXUS wanted to have some idea of what was going on in the orchestra, it would be necessary to have a piano reduction made, and to have a pianist available to play it for NEXUS rehearsals. NEXUS contacted the Canadian composer, John Hawkins and a fee was settled upon, making it possible to have several piano rehearsals before the premiere. For me this also meant scrambling to find time away from my duties with the Rochester Philharmonic, and fortunately, the RPO schedule allowed it to happen successfully.

Also in the weeks prior to the BSO Carnegie Hall premiere were non-musical business matters. NEXUS hired a publicist to get word out to the local and national press about this upcoming historic event. In Canada this included a feature article in the October 22, 1990 issue of Maclean’s, one of the foremost of nationally distributed magazines.

Carnegie Hall itself held a press conference in the center of its stage to which representatives of all participating orchestras were invited. Robin and I flew down (on our dime) to New Your City on a day trip to represent NEXUS. When we arrived and met each other at LaGuardia Airport we jumped into a taxicab together for the drive into town. Along the way the taxi driver asked where we were from and Robin told him Toronto. The driver then asked in all seriousness and with the thickest of all NYC accents, “do they have cabs up there?” Robin and I looked at each other gasping to hold back a burst of laughter, and then Robin replied, “we mostly do now, but some of the drivers are still using dog sleds.” That was the end of the conversation and the remainder of our drive to Carnegie Hall was deafeningly silent.

At the press conference a luncheon was served on center stage and there were speeches from various dignitaries in celebration of the Hall’s 100th anniversary year. Robin and I had the opportunity to speak with Isaac Stern, with whom (but obviously, without his recollection) we had both performed in the context of our orchestra positions in Toronto and Rochester. After the formal ceremonies ended we also chatted a bit with New York City Mayor Ed Koch as members of the press moved around the stage gathering information about the series of orchestra concerts and world premieres from as many attendees as they could. Then, after another short taxi ride back to the airport, Robin and I flew home.

Finally, the day of NEXUS’ first rehearsal in Boston with the Boston Symphony arrived. At 8:00 AM on October 10, 1990 the truckload of NEXUS instruments, which had arrived in New York the night before from Toronto, was unloaded into Symphony Hall. At 9:00 NEXUS arrived to unpack everything and setup the five stations around the stage, as suggested in Takemitsu’s score. Then, with everything in place except the orchestra NEXUS rehearsed alone to get a sense of balance in the hall.

At 1:00 PM after lunch NEXUS met with Ozawa for a run through of “From me flows . . .” with piano. During that session Seiji seemed to be stressed. The 2:00 rehearsal with the orchestra would start in less than an hour and that would be the only rehearsal until the day of the premiere performance over a week later, and there was also a Brahms symphony on the program.

The orchestra score to “From me flows . . .” was barely legible with its notation in very tiny manuscript for such a large orchestra with augmented instrumentation, and this made the score somewhat intimidating in appearance, even though – after hearing it played – the music sounded relatively simple and pleasant. There was also the normal stress of a performance in New York, and especially this one with all of the added attention focused on the celebration of Carnegie Hall’s 100th year.

Through the 45-minute piano run-through and the 60-minutes or so of the orchestra rehearsal, Ozawa and the orchestra were able to bring the score to life. I do not recall Seiji ever saying a word to me directly, though he did have a few short exchanges with John Wyre about details in the score. After the rehearsal the NEXUS instruments were repacked and loaded onto truck. NEXUS flew home and the truck drove back to Toronto.

Carnegie Hall – Oct. 19, 1990

(L-R) Russell, Bill, Robin, Bob, & John in front of Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1990.

(L-R) Russell, Bill, Robin, Bob, & John in front of Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1990.

The premiere performance by NEXUS of “From me flows what you call Time” occurred on October 19, 1990 at Carnegie Hall in New York City with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The day’s activities began at 8:00 AM as the NEXUS truck was unloaded and all of our instrument trunks were rolled onto the stage to be unpacked and setup around the orchestra. Then the two windchime arrays had to be hung out in the hall with the color ribbons attached and draped over the audience down to the front of the stage.   At 10:00 AM we met with Ozawa briefly to scope out our plan for the NEXUS procession down the aisles at the beginning of “From me flows . . .”  Our main concern was the timing of the orchestra entrances during the NEXUS processional down the very long aisles in Carnegie Hall at the beginning of the piece.   It was critical that the first playing on stage by NEXUS at our stations be coordinated with the orchestra.  If the orchestra entered too soon – before we reached our onstage stations, NEXUS would not be in place with the proper instruments yet.  The dress rehearsal with the orchestra began at 10:30, and all went well, though again, I don’t recall that Seiji ever said a word to me.

Even though I had performed in Carnegie Hall before as a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, it was still quite a special experience to be walking slowly in procession down the aisles of a sold-out Carnegie Hall, passing row after row of seats that were filled to capacity as the evening performance got under way. Thirty-minutes later, when the music reached its closing, and the sound of the windchime arrays slowly receded into the mists of history – gently giving Carnegie Hall itself the final word in Takemitsu’s masterpiece, the audience erupted into a genuine display of appreciation.

After the intermission the BSO performed the Brahms Symphony No. 1, and during that performance there was time for NEXUS to meet and greet friends backstage, all the while trying to get our instruments repacked into trunks to be loaded out that night. That also included taking down and packing the wind chime arrays and ribbons after the audience departed. With a sigh of relief when everything was back on the truck, I picked up my clothing bag from the dressing room and walked across 8th Avenue to join a reception for Takemitsu and his family that was already well in progress.

(L-R) Garry, Russell, Bill Toru, Bob, John, & Robin on the Carnegie Hall stage - October 1990 (photo by John Kleinhans)

(L-R) Garry, Russell, Bill Toru, Bob, John, & Robin on the Carnegie Hall stage – October 1990 (photo by John Kleinhans)

For NEXUS the performance was certainly a triumph and a high peak in the ensemble’s career that was approaching its 20th year. A few days later we read the New York Times review and interestingly, while the overall review was very positive, the reviewer didn’t really “get” it. Aesthetically, the music ran against the grain of the concurrent zeitgeist. Instead of being wildly dense harmonically and filled with the rhythmic pulsations of a New York City which NEVER sleeps, Takemitsu’s music was quietly introspective with periodic swells of passionate epiphany, in a brilliantly orchestrated double-concerto sound world – bringing together the worlds of the symphony orchestra and of the contrasting percussion orchestra.

The reviewer used the term, “new age,” to describe his perception of the experience. This sort of perception is certainly understandable on the first hearing of “From me flows . . .” but although Takemitsu’s music and the new age genre both have a common value of  intuitive “feel” and heart instead of “formal structure” and mind, “From me flows what you call Time” delves much more deeply into the nuances of the feelings, particularly when connected with the poetic titles of the music’s separate sections.

Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. – Oct. 20, 1990

The next morning we all took the Trump shuttle for the flight from LaGuardia to Washington National Airport. Upon arrival we checked into the Watergate Hotel as the NEXUS truck arrived at the Kennedy Center to unload the instrument trunks at around noon. Again we had to scope out the stage and the hall to find the best place to hang the wind chime arrays and ribbons and to find the best pathway for the NEXUS procession at the beginning of the piece. There was to be no rehearsal and in fact, there was barely enough time to get everything setup in place before the 5:00 PM concert.

The performance was in every way a reaffirmation of the gentle energy experienced only the night before, and The only interaction I had with Ozawa was as he conducted the performance, although there may have been a brief handshake or two backstage after the bows. The review in the Washington Post said, “Takemitsu’s latest exploration into his storehouse of subtle sounds has produced a work of mesmerizing beauty, whose mildly programmatic spirit the orchestra and soloists captured superbly.”

New Japan Philharmonic – Nov. 7 (Tokyo Suntory Hall) & 9 (Hadano), 1991

After the October 1990 premiere, another whole year would go by before I would see Seiji Ozawa again, this time in Tokyo for the Japan premiere of Toru’s piece for NEXUS. Upon arriving at the ANA Hotel next to Suntory Hall in Tokyo on November 4, 1991, NEXUS met with the hall’s stage manager to over the setup, including the windchime and ribbon arrays, before settling into our rooms for a good night’s sleep after our long flights.

The next morning we met at the hall at 9 AM to unpack our trunks and setup for a NEXUS run-through with Seiji in the mid-morning prior to the 4 PM rehearsal with the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, which consisted entirely of musicians selected personally by Ozawa. The rehearsal was in a large warehouse space at the JNR (Japan National Railway) facility in Tokyo. It was always amazing to travel half-way around the world and then to walk into a rehearsal space and find our instrument trunks sitting right there, and upon opening them to see that our instruments, some of which were quite delicate, had made the journey from North America to arrive at the JNR facility in good shape. The road trunks had been packed well and though they were more expensive than many of the instruments they protected, nevertheless they had served their function well.

Poster with images of Takemitsu and Ozawa

Poster with images of Takemitsu and Ozawa

Throughout the afternoon rehearsal with the New Japan Philharmonic Seiji was very efficient in guiding the orchestra through its first reading of “From me flows . . .”   Also on the program was the Strauss “Alpensinfonie,” a rather large work that would need much of the available rehearsal time, so it was likely looming large in Ozawa’s mind too. One of the most memorable scenes from the first rehearsal was during the break, when about half of the orchestra musicians gathered in an adjacent glass-walled office to have a quick smoke on their cigarettes. The room was soon so filled with cigarette smoke that, even though there were at least two-dozen people in the room, it was impossible to see any one of them from my side of the glass wall.

The next day, on November 6 following the orchestra’s afternoon rehearsal, John called my room at the hotel (which was adjacent to Suntory Hall) and asked if I’d like to hang out with him, so we agreed to meet in the hotel bar. When we both got out of the hotel elevator and went into the bar we were surprised to see only two other people there, Seiji Ozawa and another older bearded Japanese man. They were both sitting at a large round table and in the table’s center was a rather large decanter – at least a gallon size – that was about 4/5ths filled with whiskey. The other 1/5th was evenly divided between their glasses, so they had obviously been settled into their seats for a while.

When Seiji saw John he invited both of us to join him at the table, and we were immediately presented with two glasses of whiskey. Since the rehearsing was finished for the day, I didn’t have any reservations about having a few sips, but only very slowly over the next hour or so. I was introduced to Yamamoto, who was once Seiji’s conducting teacher (or so I remember being told). He had an intense expression, and an insatiable thirst for the contents of the decanter. Over the next two hours Yamamoto and Ozawa were engaged in an intense conversation – in Japanese, of course – and I could figure out that it was mostly about music although I had no way to grasp any of the details. I never said a word the whole time as I remained in my usual role with Ozawa – a fly on the wall. Through the entire conversation, the entire decanter of whiskey was consumed, mostly by Yamamoto with Ozawa’s help, but neither one ever displayed any sign of its effects. John and I eventually excused ourselves to get ready for dinner with NEXUS and Takemitsu, and we left the bar with the two amigos still intensely engaged.

In the early evening NEXUS was joined by Takemitsu in the hotel lobby and with Toru was Yamamoto, who was also one of Toru’s composition teachers (or so I was told). I was impressed that Yamamoto was still quite coherent and even able to walk after at least a half-gallon of what was surely high-end whiskey.

Two taxicabs arrived and we all jumped in for a wild 20-minute ride through Tokyo’s narrow winding neon back-streets until we stopped in the middle of one very narrow street, and got out of the cabs to enter into a restaurant that turned out to be an opera-themed night club. I could hear the sound of a soprano accompanied by a pianist performing live in the middle of the rectangular room. The soprano was singing an aria from one of the Puccini operas.

We were led us to a table to be seated in the very back of the room, and along the way we each passed directly in front of the soprano. Yamamoto was walking just in front of me when suddenly, he stepped to the right and sat down on the piano bench. He nudged the pianist to move over and get out of the way, and then without dropping so much as a semi-quaver, Yamamoto took over the piano accompaniment, playing entirely from memory. It was one of the most amazing musical feats I have ever witnessed. Yamamoto then remained at the piano to accompany more arias while the rest of us were having our dinner.

After dinner we waited for taxis on the street outside of the opera club. When the first taxi arrived Robin, Takemitsu, and I got into the back seat and as Yamamoto was seating himself in the front passenger seat, I made a few comments to Robin about the amazing behavior I had seen during the past few hours with Yamamoto. I was still under the effects of the small amount of whiskey from the afternoon, but even though I don’t remember saying anything that was in the least objectionable, I do remember feeling Takemitsu’s elbow to my ribs – an extremely uncharacteristic gesture, to say the least – and I knew immediately to zip my mouth for the ride back to our hotel, after which I never crossed paths with the amazing Mr. Yamamoto again.

At the Opera Club - (front L-R) Bill, Yamamoto, John, soprano? / (back L-R) Bob, Toru, Russell, soprano?

At the Opera Club – (front L-R) Bill, Yamamoto, John, soprano? / (back L-R) Bob, Toru, Russell, soprano?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The NEXUS downstage setup (showing the ribbons on stage left) in Suntory Hall on November 7, 1991.

The NEXUS downstage setup (showing the ribbons on stage left) in Suntory Hall on November 7, 1991.

The Suntory Hall premiere of “From me flows what you call Time” took place on November 7, 1991 and it was a great success. The NEXUS performance with the New Japan Philharmonic was part of the Suntory Hall 5th Anniversary Festival, and it also celebrated Takemitsu’s 60th birthday year. The premiere took place before a sold-out house consisting of senior Japanese business figures and musical dignitaries from around the world. The 10-minute ovation from the audience after hearing Takemitsu’s music was genuine and left no doubt that “From me flows what you call Time” would become a significant part of the future for NEXUS.

One review – translated from the original in the Nihon Keizai Shinbun Newspaper published on November 20, 1991 – remarked, “ . . . the best thing was this Canadian percussion group. Their unbelievable delicacy of feeling and rich expression were something just beyond my words. They were not only performers but also a part of the piece itself. The audience was completely absorbed by their performance, and as the sound of the chimes quietly disappeared the hall formed a harmonious whole.”

During the second half of the Suntory Hall concert, while the orchestra played the “Alpensinfonie,” NEXUS changed out of the concert dress – black shirts and color handkerchiefs – and suited up for the post concert reception. As the featured soloists NEXUS had been invited, along with key musicians from the orchestra, to a high-level (literally – on the top floor of the ANA Hotel) gathering of patrons and supporters. The reception’s host was Mr. Keizo Saji, the Chairman of the Board of Suntory Limited – the leading producer of whiskey and spirits in Japan. Mr. Saji also was a patron and friend of Takemitsu and he had personally funded both the Carnegie Hall premiere and the Japan premiere of “From me flows . . .” including all of the orchestra and NEXUS expenses, with our trans-Pacific business-class travel and substantial trans-Pacific air freight costs for our instruments.

After the concert ended we found the elevator to take us up to the top floor of the ANA Hotel. Upon reaching our high-level destination the elevator doors opened and we stepped out into a long narrow hallway extending straight ahead about 50-feet or so. Along each wall on both sides of the hallway was a row of chairs positioned so that when seated each guest would be facing the center aisle and opposite wall as the newly arriving guests would walk up through the aisle to find an open seat. Along the walls were hung many framed oil paintings, all of which appeared to me to be important original works, and some probably VERY important. At the far end of the hallway, opposite the distant elevator, was a closed door. The scene was surreal, with an exaggerated sense of linear perspective in the long hallway – something like a Bergman movie scene.

In time all of the guests arrived and took their seats. Then in a quasi-ritual manner the closed door slowly opened and all of the guests arose to stand in front of their chairs. Mr. Saji appeared from behind the open door and with a brief welcoming introduction he invited the guests to join him. The long double-row line of guests followed Mr. Saji into the large reception room, which was well provisioned with numerous tables loaded with various hors-d’ourves, delicacies, and beverages.

During the next hour I consumed some of the finest, freshest sushi I’ve ever had, along with some great French cabernet wine from vineyards in France owned by Mr. Saji. Interlaced with the consumption of this great cuisine were a number of small-talk conversations with various guests. In my case it was very small talk since I didn’t speak Japanese, but many (if not most) of the guests spoke some English, at least enough for our small talk. Eventually Mr. Saji approached and introduced himself to me. There are definitely some social skills that are often displayed by persons in positions of leadership: the ability listen carefully and the ability to have a meaningful conversation on any subject while making the person to whom one is speaking feel that he/she is the only other person in the room. Mr. Saji had those skills in abundance.

Our conversation centered around the great acoustics of Suntory Hall, which perfectly supported small ensembles – like NEXUS, which would also perform a solo recital there the next day – and large orchestras like the augmented orchestra for “From me flows . . .” and the Richard Strauss “Alpensinfonie.” When I asked Mr. Saji if he thought that Suntory Hall’s great acoustics were simply the result of good fortune, or the result of great acoustical architecture – in other words, did the architects really know what they were doing – he responded affirmatively regarding the latter explanation, and he cited several examples of other concert halls in Japan with great acoustics, for example, Izumi Hall in Osaka, a “shoebox” concert hall in which NEXUS would soon be performing on November 11. Mr. Saji also asked if we liked the French wines from his vineyards, and of course, we gave him a positive response.

The appointed hour for the end of the reception arrived with a sole “clap, clap” at which time everyone took the ritual cue, said their “good-night” (“kon bahn-wa”) and departed.

The program cover for the NEXUS solo program at Suntory Hall - November 8, 1991

The program cover for the NEXUS solo program at Suntory Hall – November 8, 1991

 

 

 

 

 

 

The NEXUS solo concert in Suntory Hall on November 8 again highlighted the venue’s great acoustics. Not every concert hall is capable of properly displaying the sound of both a small chamber ensemble and an augmented symphony orchestra, but Suntory Hall had already demonstrated that capacity the preceding night for the New Japan Philharmonic’s concert, and judging from our afternoon dress rehearsal for the NEXUS solo concert, the sound would be perfect for our tour solo repertoire:

            African Suite arr. NEXUS

            Rain Tree by Toru Takemitsu

            Drumming (Part 1) by Steve Reich

            Mudra by Bob Becker

            Marubatoo by John Wyre

            Kichari by NEXUS

            Novelty Ragtime Selections arr. Becker & Cahn

The solo concert was a complete success and it would be repeated in Osaka on November 11 at Izumi Hall. The reviews tended to focus on the Takemitsu and Reich pieces. “The timing of pauses, taken between sounds in the first half of this piece [Rain Tree] displayed an ultimate of refinement. . . The performance of bongo and drum (although only Part 1 was played) was overwhelming and dynamic [in a way] that only a live performance could have brought forward” (S.Nagaki)

Poster for the New Japan Philharmonic concert with NEXUS in Hadano - November 9, 1991

Poster for the New Japan Philharmonic concert with NEXUS in Hadano – November 9, 1991

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Early on the next morning, November 9, NEXUS left the ANA Hotel for a run-out to the town of Hadano in the hills of west-central Kanagawa Prefecture for the second performance of “From me flows . . .” with Ozawa and the New Japan Philharmonic. It was another day of load-in, unpack, setup, sound-check with the orchestra, scarf down a few bites of food, perform the concert, re-pack the instruments and wind chimes, load out and travel back to the ANA Hotel. As NEXUS took its final bows with Seiji and the orchestra following the performance on the first-half of the concert, I didn’t realize that it would be years until I would see Ozawa in person again..

Boston Symphony Orchestra – October 5, 6, 7, and 10, 2000

The next time I crossed paths with Seiji Ozawa was in October 2000 during a fabulous week of four performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston’s Symphony Hall. On October 2 after playing in the morning for a 30-minute school assembly at the Phillips-Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, NEXUS drove to Boston, checked in at the Eliot Suites Hotel, and walked over to Symphony Hall to setup for a 7:30 PM rehearsal of “From me flows what you call Time” in private with Seiji in the Chorus Room.

NEXUS had performed Takemitsu’s piece with a number of orchestras since the Carnegie Hall premiere 10-years earlier – Youngstown, Rochester, Orchestré National de Lyon (France), Kitchener-Waterloo and London (Ont)., Pacific Symphony, Chautauqua (NY), Louisville, Toronto, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Columbus, Sacramento, New Jersey, Tampere (Finland), Stavanger (Norway), Phoenix, Hannover (Germany), Kansas City, Saarländer Rundfunk Orch. (Saarbrücken, Germany), National Symphony (Washington, D.C.), Minnesota Orch., and the Chicago Symphony.

However, Seiji had not performed this piece since Suntory Hall and Hadano in 1991, so it was certainly helpful for him to refresh his memory with this private rehearsal. Also with so many performances under our belts by this time, NEXUS could be a bit more authoritative in helping as well.

At 8:00 AM the next morning all of the NEXUS instruments were moved to the Symphony Hall stage for the 10:30 AM rehearsal with the orchestra. After the rehearsal we drove back up to Exeter, NH for an evening solo recital at the Academy and a post-concert drive to our Boston hotel; it was that kind of a week.

On October 4 we were able to sleep in for the morning, in order to be freshened for the 1:00 setup immediately following the orchestra’s morning rehearsal (without NEXUS). The 2-hour rehearsal at 2:00 PM was devoted entirely to the Takemitsu piece.

The first concert day, October 5, was actually scheduled with two performances – an open dress rehearsal at 10:30 AM and the evening concert at 8 PM, which meant setting up and tearing down twice.  By the time of these BSO performances NEXUS had learned that after our performance on the first half of the concert, it was important to stow the ribbons as closely as possible on the far left and right sides of the stage. This could be done without having to disconnect the ribbons from the wind chime arrays, while also avoiding any obstruction of audience sightlines to the stage during the music on the second half of the concert. It had already become a rule-of-thumb that the wind chime units should not be suspended over any audience seats, not only for liability concerns, but for the peace of mind of those in the audience who might worry about having the chimes directly overhead during the performance.

The Boston Globe review on October 6 was glowing: “The players of Nexus are uncanny in their precision of ensemble, in their individuality, and in the subtlety of their interaction; each is a master of attack, dynamics and color.”

One extremely fortunate coincidence occurred on October 6 when the Cleveland Orchestra was on tour and performing in Symphony Hall. The opportunity to hear the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra back-to-back is certainly rare, and doubly inspiring. It was also a great opportunity to spend time with percussion friends in both orchestras, including Tom Morris, the Executive Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, who is from Rochester and who knows his way around a percussion setup., and Paul Yancich, the great timpanist in the Cleveland Orchestra, whom I also knew from Rochester.

The October 7 Boston Herald was equally enthusiastic: “This will be hard to top. In the second concert of this Symphony Hall centennial season Thursday evening, the BSO delivered a two-fisted wallop. The setup was Toru Takemitsu’s “From me flows what you call Time,” a percussion concerto with the five member ensemble Nexus as soloists. The closer was Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” first performed during the BSO’s inaugural season in February 1901.”   Referring to the Takemitsu piece the review continues: “. . . the sound energy is always strong, and the Nexus players are astounding virtuosos.”

The second and third concerts on the 6th and 7th generated the same sort of responses from the audiences. On the morning of October 7, NEXUS had also presented a masterclass at the Boston Conservatory, and on the 8th NEXUS drove up to Rockport, Maine for a solo recital at the Rockport Opera House. The 9th was free, so NEXUS visited the Zildjian cymbal factory for a tour of the facility and a gathering with our friends at Zildjian.

The fifth and final concert of this BSO series was on October 10 and Toru’s wife and daughter Asaka and Maki were in attendance. This was the last of my personal encounters with Seiji Ozawa and every one was intense and engraved in my memory.

Bows at Symphony Hall (L-R) John (facing away), Bill, Ozawa, Robin, Bob

Bows at Symphony Hall (L-R) John (facing away), Bill, Ozawa, Robin, Bob

Coda

Between 1998 and 2015 I was a visiting artist-in-residence for two weeks at a time at the Showa Academy of Arts in Kawasaki, Japan. During my last two visits I occasionally noticed Ozawa being interviewed on Japanese TV news programs. Apparently Ozawa was dealing with some health issues that were serious enough to be newsworthy. He appeared gaunt, and he was canceling conducting commitments. Happily, since then he has regained enough energy to return to conducting, though on a reduced schedule.

The last time NEXUS saw Takemitsu was in February, 1995 when NEXUS performed at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Concert Hall in Ueno. NEXUS had a wonderful dinner with Takemitsu in Shinjuku along with some long-time Japanese percussion friends and several of their students.

Shortly after this Japan tour NEXUS was saddened to hear that Takemitsu was in the hospital. John Wyre and Robin Engelman exchanged letters with Takemitsu during his hospital stay and his passing in 1996 came as a great shock to all of us.

NEXUS has now performed “From me flows what you call Time” almost 100 times with many orchestras all over the world. This music has been (and we trust will continue to be) a wonderful gift from the master, Takemitsu, not just to NEXUS, but to the entire world of music.

One Response to “Seiji Ozawa and “The Musings of the Maestro””

  1. Edward Choi

    What a fascinating read! Thank you so much for letting us see behind the scenes with such detail and candor.

    Reply

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