From hutong to who's who
After a 17-hour flight from New York, 68-year-old Seiji Ozawa looked very tired when he arrived at Beijing International Airport at 6:45 pm last Sunday. The swarming fans and press were prevented from troubling him.
The dropped interviews suggest that the renowned conductor's eighth visit to Beijing was squeezed into an overly packed schedule.
But this does not mean that his stop in Beijing is just for commercial reasons. Ozawa, who was born in Shenyang, in Northeast China's Liaoning Province and spent five years of his childhood years in Beijing, in fact, has a special love for China.
On Monday morning, he paid a visit to his former courtyard home in No 69 Xinkai Hutong, where he lived from the ages of 2 to 6, and in 2002 he buried part of the ashes of his deceased mother under a tree in the garden.
Born in 1935, Ozawa moved to the hutong home in 1936 with his parents and spent five years there, until they returned to Japan in 1941.
After visiting his old hutong residence, Ozawa went to the home of renowned composer Wu Zuqiang for a simple home-cooked lunch of traditional boiled dumplings jiaozi with some old friends, including pianist Liu Shikun, conductors Han Zhongjie and Huang Feili, pipa artist Liu Dehai and Wang Cizhao, president of the China Central Conservatory of Music.
It was a happy and nostalgic meeting for these old friends, whose connections go back a quarter of a century. They talked about the good old days and the future of classical music in China.
"He is nostalgic about his childhood in Beijing and hopes Xinkai Hutong will not be pulled down like some other old hutongs in Beijing," Wu Zuqiang told China Daily later that day.
While Ozawa is nostalgic about his childhood in China, his Chinese friends like to reminisce about their work together and his every visit to the country.
In December 1976, Ozawa returned to Beijing for the first time and stayed for a week. One-and-a half years later in June 1978, he conducted what was then China Central Symphony Orchestra (today's China National Symphony Orchestra) in Beijing. In March 1979, he brought the Boston Symphony Orchestra, of which he was artistic director from 1973 to 2002, to Beijing. It was the first world-class orchestra from the United States to perform in China, arriving very shortly after the two countries formally established diplomatic relations. After that, Ozawa paid four more visits to China, during one of which he conducted the local symphony orchestra in Shenyang.
Today, Ozawa is one of the most familiar world-renowned conductors among Beijingers. His every arrival still attracts avid attention, even though he has been here many times and local classic music enthusiasts have heard so many famous conductors over the past 25 years.
In the eyes of Chinese musicians who have worked with him, Ozawa is a very easy-going person.
Pipa artist Liu Dehai says, "I feel natural and comfortable working with him."
They first performed together in 1978 when Ozawa conducted the then Central Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the pipa concerto "Heroine Sisters on the Grasslands," with Liu as the soloist.
"I never expected that a foreigner would conduct a piece of Chinese music without making a single mistake in the first rehearsal, but he didn't," Liu said, adding that Ozawa had studied the score very carefully before that rehearsal.
Liu also recalled that when he played the same concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Ozawa in Boston, he made a mistake, but Ozawa managed to cover it up.
"He never talks about it, but I will remember the mistake forever," Liu said.
Conductor Han Zhongjie has even more interesting stories about Ozawa. In 1978, when Ozawa came to conduct the Central Symphony Orchestra, Han was the orchestra's principal conductor. So Han was given the job of looking after Ozawa. Unexpectedly, the humble conductor politely declined a room in a hotel, asking instead if he could share Han's apartment.
At that time, living conditions in China were very poor, even for the conductor of a national orchestra. So Han had no idea how to look after such a famous conductor. Ozawa said simply that he would live how Han lived and eat what Han and the family ate. That evening, Han and his wife made jiaozi, the most traditional local dish, for Ozawa.
Han also thinks highly of Ozawa's contribution to the development of China's classical music.
"Ozawa initiated the opening up to the West of China's orchestral music circles," Han said.
Before Ozawa's first visit to Beijing in 1976, none of China's symphony orchestras had co-operated with established conductors from world-class orchestras.
"He brought freshness to us. His conducting is so passionate and impressive to both the orchestra members and audience that many music students have made him their idol and imitate his conducting," Han said.
On the other hand, Wu says Ozawa is especially interested in Chinese orchestral works based on Chinese folk tunes. According to Wu, Ozawa was very much impressed by the Chinese symphony "Moon Reflected in the Second Spring," which was composed by Wu, based on a traditional Chinese folk melody of the same title played on the erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument, when he first heard it played by the Central Symphony Orchestra in 1976. Wu said he even asked to listen to the original erhu version.
"Although a foreign conductor, Ozawa vividly and accurately interprets Chinese music," Wu said. "Of all the versions I have heard, his is the most touching."
Ozawa not only invited Liu Dehai, Han Zhongjie and Liu Shikun to perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but also arranged for a number of Chinese students to further their studies in the United States. Han Xiaoming, the Chinese-German French horn player is one of the lucky ones who have risen in the musical world with his help.
Han got to know Ozawa in 1978 when he conducted the China Central Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No 9. The then 17-year-old Han so impressed the conductor that he invited the young Chinese student to a summer music festival in the United States and arranged for his further studies there, even helping the young musician out financially.
Beyond this, what makes Han feel Ozawa's expectations of him and the conductor's love for China is that he often asks Han, "When will you return to your homeland?" Now that Han has finished his studies in the United States and Germany, he now also enjoys a high reputation in Europe.
But responding to Ozawa's wish, Han now serves as the guest principal French horn player for both the China Philharmonic Orchestra and the China National Symphony Orchestra and also works as a professor at the China Central Conservatory of Music.
Ozawa's special love for China shows through in his concern for the development of classical music here. Wu said that last year Ozawa sent his assistant to Beijing to talk about plans for conducting the Vienna State Opera performance in the yet-to-be-finished China National Grand Theatre, as he knows that the theatre bordering on Tian'anmen Square will soon be completed.
Every time he has come to perform in Beijing, Ozawa has given master classes at the Central Conservatory of Music. This time is no exception, although he is terribly busy and tired from travelling and giving performances. Last Monday afternoon, he conducted the students' orchestra of the conservatory in a performance of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony.
During lunch with the Chinese musicians at Wu Zuqiang's home, he talked about the number of young instrumentalists from China, Japan and South Korea who are rising rapidly in the world, capturing various awards in international competitions, and wondered if they might become some of the great musicians of the 21st century.
Ozawa and these old Chinese musicians share the view that most of today's "prodigies" have marvelous skills, but that this does not mean they express the music well. In their view, because these young musicians lack life experience and a comprehensive education in the arts, culture and history, their understanding and interpretation of the music is sometimes shallow. They agreed that once they understand the spirt of the music, maybe one will become the next Ozawa.