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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

May 31, 1992|NORMAN LEBRECHT | Norman Lebrecht, a free-lance writer based in London, traveled to Tokyo for this story

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
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.

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