Hilary interviews conductor Eiji Oue

Q: Is chocolate a drug?
A: Yes.

Q: Pets?
A: I love them. I don’t like snakes as pets, but I love most animals people keep as pets. I don’t have any myself, because I travel so much. I did grow up with two dogs – two Pekingese.

Q: What about Bach?
A: Bach is like a bible: it’s required reading, and everyone should try to understand it, which can lead to so many possible interpretations. Then again, whatever you do with that interpretation, it will make sense.

Q: Classical music in schools – what difference does it make, and why is it important?
A: Well, I don’t know if this answers the question or not, but about 10 years ago, in a school in California, there was a small experiment done with students about to take an SAT test. Before the test, the students were divided into five classrooms, each classroom containing probably 50 students. Each group listened to something like 30 minutes of music. One room played pop, another rock, another Elvis, and another hard rock. The fifth room played Mozart, and the students in that room got a 20 percent better score on the SAT’s than the students in the other rooms. The kids who listened to Mozart weren’t classical music students, just a random slice of the average student population.

I think that illustrates that there’s a certain place for classical music. There must be a reason why classical music has lasted this long. I think today, people are dealing with so many emotions on such big levels: daily occurrences as well as disasters such as September 11 and the recent tsunami. They feel so much – and I think young people can draw a lot of strength and emotion from the music they hear. They have enough emotion in their hearts and bodies that they can listen to all sorts of music and still identify with each genre – including classical music. It gives them hope; it can bring peace; and leave them with space to dream. And especially, classical music inspires great imagination.

Q: Applause between movements (sections of a piece) in a concert?
A: Well, I think it’s great. You know, if the audience is genuinely excited, and applause breaks out, that’s good. I figure that if genuine emotion leads to applause, then why not.

There are a couple of stories to illustrate this:

A few years ago, a conductor performed Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, and the audience was very enthusiastic. They applauded heartily after the first movement, but he was so upset by it that he turned around and stopped them. After the second movement, there was a small spattering of applause; he turned around and stopped them again. After the third movement, the audience was very tentative. And finally, after the great, rousing ending of the last movement, at the end of the symphony, nobody applauded – once they lost the opportunity to start clapping, they couldn’t get back into it. The conductor had to walk offstage to silence.

Mozart, on the other hand, wrote a letter to his father after a performance of his Paris Symphony. He reported proudly that, after the second theme of the first movement, people applauded – and he was so excited. If it’s good enough for Mozart, it’s definitely good enough for me.

Q: Reality TV shows?
A: When they first started coming out, I was kind of into a couple of them. Actually, MTV’s Real World was fun, when it started. But TV tends to wind up in some kind of scripted situation, and now reality TV has become so common that people in it have begun acting. They know how to do it, to get people to watch, and it can’t be described as reality anymore.

Q: Cut flowers?
A: I like flowers in their natural state, in the ground, but then again, often I receive flowers onstage, which are quite beautiful. I don’t have an opinion on this. I guess if you can maintain them in the ground, let them be.

Q: Tap water – drinkable?
A: In the United States, I drink tap water – it’s just as good as bottled. In Europe, no. I don’t trust any Asian tap water except in Japan. But I think the best tap water is from New York City.

Q: Holidays?
A: Our occupation sets us up to work holidays – Christmas, New Year’s, Halloween, Easter, 4th of July, etc. So to me, holidays are work. Every holiday has a concert, and because I’m a conductor, I’ve done them all!

I don’t really go on vacations; I tend to stay longer wherever I am, extending my stay if I have days off. I travel so much that, when I have free time, I don’t want to spend it traveling. When I have longer chunks of time, I go to my apartment in Minneapolis, but I’m looking for a new place now, probably in New York City.

Q: Anonymity vs. fame?
A: It’s good to be recognized – that’s part of my job. The difference between us as classical musicians and famous people in Hollywood is that they have a sporadic schedule, making movies and then taking maybe a year or a few months off at one time – and they’re recognized and pestered during their sabbaticals. That could be uncomfortable. However, we perform every week and it’s fine to be recognized after a concert, or during a performance week. It’s all part of it. I think great musicians should be able to sustain themselves without outside encouragement, but on the other hand, I think classical music has survived because there have always been stars of one sort or another: Paganini, Liszt, Sarasate, Horowitz, Ysaÿe, Heifetz. Those huge stars sustain interest in classical music. It used to be the same for conductors, but today there aren’t as many conducting stars. Due to the lack of orchestral recording these days, it’s become very difficult to make a name for oneself, because it’s impossible to become a conducting recording star if you don’t have recordings.

It’s interesting that, initially, Fritz Kreisler was afraid that if he made recordings, people would steal his secret, his playing would become part of everyday life, and listeners wouldn’t want to go to his concerts because they could hear him whenever they wanted at home. He was proven wrong: he became a big star once his recordings began being released.

I think recording is good, and I hope the industry will come back to promote its artists again.

Q: What’s important at a musical event?
A: The audience should just sit and have a great time, let time pass them by. They shouldn’t look at their watches, they shouldn’t be anxious; they should let themselves be mesmerized by the magic of music. There’s nothing to worry about when you’re listening; you should just have a good time.

Q: A very compelling aspect of your profession?
A: The excitement. Every performance is different; you discover something new in the music every time. Since I was a kid, I’ve liked the fact that in classical music, you can be with someone better than you – Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Mahler, Wagner – and play their music every day. I could never reach their talent or attain their level, but it’s almost like reading a great book from Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy. I am reading this great music every day and I get to work with these gifted people every day. It’s a phenomenal job.

Q: What drew you to music in the first place?
Mozart. The first time I heard Mozart, I was 4 years old. I heard someone playing a very simple piano sonata, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”

Q: What benefits did you gain from studying classical music?
It made me a better person. It keeps making me a better person. I make a lot of mistakes, but I keep learning every day.

Q: What would you have done if you hadn’t pursued music?
That’s a question I could never answer, because I haven’t known anything else besides music, since I was 4 years old.

Q: What do you love or hate about hotel life?
Hotels are never yours. Even if you’re staying in the same place for 2 months, it’s somebody else’s. Convenient, yes. Your own, no.

Q: Have you ever felt misunderstood in your work?
All the time! That’s where learning comes from. For example: I’ll give a downbeat in rehearsal, with a gesture I think indicates to play softly, but then the orchestra plays loud instead, and that’s my fault. So I’m learning, all the time.

Q: How private are you when you’re working? Relaxing?
When I’m studying, I’m absolutely private. I don’t like to be interrupted at all when I’m studying scores. If my family’s there, or my best friend from home, I kick them out. I have to be alone when I’m studying.

I love to spend time with people, though. When I’m relaxing, I’m very social.

Of course, rehearsal situations are very interactive. I do enjoy when people sit in on rehearsals, as long as they don’t interrupt the flow of the work. I think it’s good for people to see the rehearsal process.

Q: Off the top of your head, if you could put together a festival, what would it be like?
First and foremost, it would be chamber music. I’d love to assemble 10 quartets of people to play chamber music, then at the end, put them together into an orchestra. The audience could sit wherever they wanted, first come first served.