MUSIC & DANCE : Sony’s Stickman : By day, Norio Ohga runs the worldwide media and electronics giant. In the middle of the night, his thoughts turn symphonic

<i> Norman Lebrecht, a free-lance writer based in London, traveled to Tokyo for this story</i>

About 2 o’clock each morning, Norio Ohga, the president of Sony Corp., rises and heads for his study. It’s not concern for his company’s financial health that disrupts the 62-year-old chief executive’s sleep, rather the urge to fulfill a lifelong private ambition: to be a symphonic conductor.

On his desk at his home in Tokyo lies a full orchestral score of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony. Ohga will perform it in August with a Polish ensemble at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany, making his international conducting debut.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 21, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 21, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
A May 31 profile of Sony President Norio Ohga incorrectly stated that Jon Peters was fired as chairman of Sony Pictures. Peters relinquished that title along with his day-to-day management functions to establish an independent entertainment company.

“When I was young,” Ohga says, “I told everybody: ‘When I am 69 I’ll retire from Sony and start a new career conducting orchestras.’ ”


For his 60th birthday, the company bought him a celebratory concert with the Tokyo Philharmonic, in the hope that one night of glory would assuage his extramural aspiration. It had the opposite effect. Ohga has returned repeatedly to the podium, incurably bitten by the conducting bug. Judging by a private video, he conducts capably with a supple technique, rarely making eye contact with the players but conveying his intentions clearly enough with a precise and expressive beat. The pianist-impresario Justus Franz was sufficiently impressed to book him for the prestigious German festival, where his name will appear alongside those of the more eminent conductors Claudio Abbado and Giuseppe Sinopoli.

With only months to learn two symphonies--he’ll also tackle a work by Mozart--Ohga devotes three hours a night to his scores. He returns to bed at 5 and is awakened two hours later by a call from Michael P. (Mickey) Schulhof, Sony’s U.S. chief, whose business day is just ending.

Ohga wrenches his mind back to more mundane matters. “Unfortunately,” he sighs, “I am running this company. I cannot find a successor. If I find a good successor I’ll give him my title and become a conductor full time.”

The executive has always seen himself as a musician who got sidetracked into commerce. He was a music student when Sony hired him, a light baritone who trained in Berlin and longed to become the next Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Even after joining Sony, he gave regular concerts in Japan until an overrunning board meeting forced him to miss the general rehearsal of a Brahms Requiem and to make a final career choice between music and the manufacturing industry. But as late as 1974, he sang a decent Faure Requiem (recorded by Sony-CBS).

Ohga came from a prosperous family in Numazu, southwest of Tokyo, and was exempted from war service on health grounds. Moving to Tokyo in 1948 to study at the national university of fine arts, he was asked by friends of his family to inspect an embryonic tape recorder. He liked the device and recommended it to the president of his university.

According to internal Sony records, “Ohga then spoke to many people, insisting, ‘Tape recorders are a must for music schools; musicians must train themselves with tape recorders just as ballerinas study dancing by looking in a mirror.’ ” He pestered Sony co-founders Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, the visionary engineer, with suggestions on how to eliminate wow and flutter.

They dubbed him “the tough customer,” recorded him as soloist in the Brahms Requiem with a campus orchestra and put him on the payroll as an untitled employee as soon as he graduated. Ohga spurned their job and sailed off for Berlin with his fiancee, who was also his piano accompanist. Morita, undeterred, continued paying his salary, asking only that Ohga send back an occasional newspaper clipping on developments in German electronics.

His Berlin years were hugely exciting. He sang countless public recitals, including what he believes was the local premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Telephone.” As a bona-fide student he had free access to most rehearsals; a 1956 snapshot shows him, plump-faced and intent, sitting so close to the rear desk of the Berlin Philharmonic violins that he is almost speared by their bows.

He obtained an introduction to the new chief conductor, Herbert von Karajan, through the Japanese widow of an Austrian grocery king, Julius Meinl, who had shared her bomb shelter with the maestro in the dying years of the Reich.

His studies over, Ohga returned home to sing lieder while Sony continued to pay his wages. In 1959, Morita asked Ohga along on a sales tour to Europe and the United States and, with no one else for company on the four-day transatlantic voyage, talked him into joining the company as head of tape recorders and design.

Ohga’s impact was instantaneous. He transformed the Sony image, changing its logo and styling. At Ohga’s word, hi-fi casings changed from silver to black. He blinked, and videos shrank.

As head of advertising he cultivated a mythology that portrays Sony as endlessly inventive. In fact, none of its main products were conceived in Japan. The magnetic tape recorder came from Germany, the cathode-ray tube from Britain; transistors and videotape were pioneered in the United States, the cassette recorder and compact disc in the Netherlands. Sony’s contribution was to refine, miniaturize and market these concepts in a way that made them seem indispensable, selling the world gadgets it never knew it needed.

Though Ohga was unrecognized outside Sony, his internal authority increased inexorably. He founded and headed five divisions simultaneously. At 42 he became corporate managing director, at 46 deputy president. He was micro to Morita’s macro, feared for his ferocious eye for detail. On several occasions he scrapped a new product in the final stage of manufacture because a button was unsuitably placed. In mid-sentence he spots a loose connection on a visitor’s 5-year-old Sony microphone. At a rasped command, two aides rush in with a screwdriver and the president of Sony Corp. wordlessly repairs the fault.

The incident is momentary but significant. Ohga takes his responsibilities personally in a way that would be culturally unconscionable in a Western chief executive. He is said by business associates to have a fiery temper and no tolerance for failure; he is stingy with praise and unwilling to take credit for his own achievements, deferring to the genius of the company’s founders.

But his own genius is legendary. In 1964 Ohga sweet-talked Philips into releasing its patent on cassette recorders, which the Dutch envisaged as an office machine. Ohga recognized its potential as a mobile music carrier to be installed in the home and automobile. Fifteen years later, he persuaded Philips to share its compact-disc know-how and rushed it into production, outselling the Dutch brand many times over.

The Netherlanders are planning a rematch this autumn, pitting their digital compact cassette against Ohga’s mini-disc as the natural successor to the tiring music cassette. Both formats record and play music in digital quality, but only Sony’s can call up any track at the touch of a button. Philips’ machine, on the other hand, has the advantage of playing existing analog cassettes, which means owners will not have to throw out their old tapes.

It should be an epic contest, and Ohga has no doubts about the outcome: “The music market is teen-agers and 20-year-olds. Young people don’t care if it’s digital or analog. They want music, and they want that song now. DCC has the same problems as cassette--how can they sell that to young people?”

Ohga rejects and becomes visibly impatient at any suggestion that music might have intruded into his working life.

“I am a businessman,” he says flatly. “I make budgets, run divisions, project profits and sales. When I come back home, I make a big switch to being a musician.”

Ohga’s musical tastes and opinions were permanently molded by Karajan. He favors Romantic repertory and abhors modernism, believing that the symphony came to an end with Shostakovich. Karajan and Ohga shared a love of flying. Both piloted their own jets, and Ohga designed a cockpit for the airborne conductor.

In an interview in his office in a Tokyo suburb, Ohga reminisces fondly of parties at Morita’s home outside Tokyo and lazy lunches at Karajan’s converted farmhouse at Amif outside Salzburg, where the chef would cook whichever national cuisine took their fancy that day. (Karajan coincidentally met Morita on the latter’s first sales trip to Europe. His eventual 35-year axis with the Sony chief gave Karajan, obsessed by new technology, instant access to electronic frontiers. In return he gave massive support to Sony gadgets, holding press conferences at Salzburg to launch the compact disc and laser disc and promising to star on Sony’s newly acquired CBS record label.)

Unbidden, Ohga begins to recount in graphic, halting English how Karajan died in his arms on the eve of the 1989 Salzburg summer festival.

“He told a doctor who came to give his heart an electrocardiograph test, ‘I have my most important friend here today, and even the king of China cannot disturb our discussion,’ ” Ohga says. “He sent the doctor away, and we were chatting and laughing on many subjects. I took along Mickey Schulhof, who is a physicist and a doctor, and also a good pilot--the ideal combination.

“Just after 1 o’clock he suddenly stopped talking and said, ‘I wish to have some water.’ Mickey Schulhof gave him a bottle of mineral water. He took a sip, his face slumped to one side, and he started to snort. Mickey Schulhof said, ‘My goodness, a heart attack.’ I said, ‘Herbert, Herbert. . . .’ We called his wife, but he had already passed away.” (Ohga himself was taken seriously ill two days later. Last summer he underwent open-heart surgery.)

In his 10th year at Sony, Ohga set up a joint venture with the American entertainment giant CBS to manufacture and distribute records in Japan. He anticipated a local boom in Western concert and pop music and doubtless wanted to have more of it available for his personal pleasure. Sony-CBS became the largest record label in Asia. In 1987, he bought the parent company for $2 billion, precipitating a wave of U.S. outrage at foreigners owning such apple-pie heritage as Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Leonard Bernstein.

The deal was credited to Morita, more famous in the West than any Japanese prime minister; he was shaken by the hostility that greeted the venture. Ohga, who planned and negotiated the coup, was unnoticed. While Chairman Morita, 71, courts the limelight, Ohga runs the business. A lifelong heir apparent, he lost none of his shyness on becoming chief executive in 1989. He gives interviews grudgingly and refrains from generalizations. He is a mystery to movie-makers, where ego is all, and an enigma in electronics circles, where men are known by the gizmos they invent.

The music takeover, huge and unprecedented, was merely the overture to a more major operation.

In 1989, Sony paid $3.4 billion for Columbia Pictures, and Ohga authorized hundreds of millions more to recruit and then rapidly retire or buy out a string of colorful executives, including producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber. He also committed another $1 billion to secure the services of superstar Michael Jackson.

Things started to go wrong for Sony while the ink was still wet on the contracts. Walter Yetnikoff, the flamboyant and controversial record boss who helped pushed through both the CBS and Columbia sales, fell out of favor and was dismissed with a multimillion-dollar handshake.

Sony was sued by Warner Bros. for luring Peters and Guber away from their contract; the payoff in cash and kind was worth an estimated half a billion dollars. Peters was later fired at a severance cost estimated at $25 million. Frank Price, a 61-year-old executive brought in to create order at Columbia in 1990, departed after 18 months with a purse of between $15 million and $20 million.

Meanwhile, at the high-prestige Sony Classical, the purchase closest to Ohga’s heart, Karajan’s death robbed Sony of its trump card. Millions were paid for his unreleased videos, and his former producer, Gunther Breest, was hired from Deutsche Grammophon to sign up a galaxy of stars. Breest moved the former CBS operation to Germany but failed to attract a single conductor from his erstwhile allegiance. While Sony Classical remains market leader in Japan and the United States, its share in some European countries has dropped to an invisible 3%-4%.

Confronted with these adversities, Ohga simply stonewalls. He admits no hint of error. And still endorses the executives he fired. “I know how to run a record company,” he insists. “I knew what I was buying.”

Ohga has allocated two hours to the interview and terminates it on the minute. As he walks through the silent lobby, a wall of high-definition television screens flashes up the latest money market movements. Ohga’s gaze narrows and his expression lightens momentarily. “Gott sei Dank ,” murmurs the Sony president, in the language of his music studies, “the dollar is coming back up.”