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Crash Course in Passion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can passion be taught?

Conductor Seiji Ozawa is trying to find out with a novel program in his homeland aimed at drawing young Japanese musicians out of their shells. He is trying to instill emotion in their performance of Western classical music by inspiration, or at least osmosis, using the gusto of opera.

Ozawa, the music director of the Boston Symphony, has set up an institute to teach young musicians to play Mozart’s great operas. He hopes the undercurrents intended by the 18th century composer--be they romantic, melancholic or tragic--will stir the students enough to overcome their cultural reserve and play with more zeal.

“I’m sure I was a timid Japanese student, but I worked in Europe and America,” said Ozawa, who in 2002 will become music director of the Vienna State Opera. “The [final] thing I want to do in my life is to teach this.”

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It is this reserve that can hinder otherwise highly proficient students and musicians in Japan, Ozawa believes. It’s difficult to put his finger on exactly what’s missing--it’s not, for example, a matter of a violinist hitting a string too high on the bow, or beginning a second later than he’s supposed to. It’s about communicating, he says, the ability to move an audience that distinguishes a good from a brilliant performance. He recalled once hearing Czech musicians who weren’t perfect technically but nevertheless produced a powerful, stirring concert.

Perhaps because of Japan’s prevailing Confucian philosophy, he mused, with its reverence for hierarchy and respect for elders, the culture tends to encourage reserve. Japanese don’t “break their own wall to go out to express themselves.”

Ozawa’s three-year program, which has just gotten off the ground, is aimed strictly at music students. However, it strikes a much broader chord in Japanese society, where individuality and creativity are often stifled.

Japan excels in manufacturing and perfecting technologies, for example, but often comes up short when it comes to nurturing inventors and entrepreneurs. The country’s education system is based on rote memorization, making Japanese “very good foot soldiers but not imaginative leaders,” said Tadashi Yamamoto, president of the nonprofit Japan Center for International Exchange.

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“You are taught not only to suppress your own thinking but to suppress emotions as well,” said Yamamoto, who directed a commission appointed by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi that recently called for encouraging creativity, individuality and a “pioneer spirit” as Japan’s top goals in the 21st century.

Yamamoto applauds Ozawa’s efforts as exactly the type of inspirational programs the commission supports. For two months each year, Ozawa and 10 others will teach about 40 skilled students to perform operatic music. Ozawa is hoping that the inherent blend of drama and music in opera will inspire the young musicians, some of whom have never been to the opera.

Though performed in Japan for more than a century, opera is not as ubiquitous here as in Europe or the U.S. Ozawa’s program will perform one opera each year, beginning with “The Marriage of Figaro,” then “Cosi fan tutte” and “Don Giovanni.”

Ozawa is mostly going on gut instinct that it will work. Even he is not sure if creativity or passion can be taught or learned, or is really a product of the heart. Or experience. Or nature. “This is really the question,” he said. Any time he teaches someone chamber music, he tries to find out who the musician is and “find out what I want to get out [of him].”

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Was the stirring performance by the Czechs stimulated by a history of political upheaval and resistance that might have made performers more passionate than those in Japan, where most people these days live comfortable lives in a society with little crime or disorder?

Ozawa is not sure.

“If you’re hungry, then you really want to do something,” he said. “If you’re happy and you go home to warm food and a bed waiting . . . well. . . .” He stretches out his hands without completing the sentence.

Ozawa is anything but reserved: He wears his shaggy salt-and-pepper hair almost shoulder length. He is known for wearing tunics and casual clothes when conducting the Boston Symphony, which he joined 27 seasons ago. He’s dynamic and emotional on stage, and charming and funny when talking with a group in fluent, though often broken, English.

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But he also has had far from a typical Japanese upbringing, starting with his birth in Manchuria, China, in 1935 while his nation’s troops occupied the region. His father also was a rebel: Working for a Japanese railroad company as a dentist, he became increasingly sympathetic to Chinese resistance against Japan’s aggression. Following an attempt on his life, the father took his family back to Japan. Ozawa was 6.

“I had a problem to become a real Japanese right away,” Ozawa said.

He began playing the piano, but quit after breaking two fingers in rugby and switched to conducting. He studied at Tokyo’s Toho School of Music. Awards in international competitions brought him to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who in 1961 appointed Ozawa assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

But Ozawa was humiliated when he returned to Tokyo in the early 1960s and was branded “too Western.” When he arrived to conduct Japan’s NHK Orchestra in a special performance, the orchestra pit was empty: The musicians were boycotting him.

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“I thought maybe I would not come back” to Japan, he said. But he was supported by many other artists, such as fashion designer Hanae Mori, and he relented. He now spends several months a year in Tokyo.

Among his other achievements in Japan was starting the international Saito Kinen music festival in memory of Hideo Saito, his teacher at the Toho school--and a key figure in bringing Western music and technique to Japan. Ozawa also runs a clinic there, teaching chamber music.

Most of the musicians selected for the opera program are in their 20s. Is that too late in life to learn passion? Ozawa doesn’t think so.

“When you talk about emotion and life experience, you can’t teach that to an 11-year-old. How do you explain to a 12-year-old what pathetic is, or the depth of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony ending when he says goodbye to the world?”

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Ozawa only started performing opera at age 30, when he went to Austria for the first time. “I went crazy,” he said.

The experience changed everything, including the way he conducted. “If you don’t play opera, you may never know the beauty of Puccini, Verdi or Wagner, or really understand Mozart.”

One of the young musicians he taught at the Saito Kinen festival, 19-year-old violinist Kota Nagahara, will be among the 40 symphony members already chosen for the opera program, which Ozawa dubbed Ongaku-Juku, meaning music cram school or tutorial.

“Ozawa is full of energy about everything,” said Nagahara, who began playing at age 5 to accompany his mother on piano. The young musician hasn’t had the money or time to see opera in Japan, where it is quite expensive. But he seems to have the enthusiasm Ozawa is talking about, if a phone interview is any indication. Asked to compare the playing styles of Japanese with foreigners, he said: “Japanese musicians are trying to kill their own feelings, so they cannot express themselves when they are playing the music. They’ve got to change.”

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But when Nagahara is playing the violin, “it’s just so fun, I’m just doing what I like. So I’m expressing myself as much as foreigners do, and I don’t feel shy or embarrassed about it.”


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