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Sony chief is no semi-conductor

A professionally trained musician, tonight he leads the PSO

Friday, February 18, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod and Rona Kobell, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Norio Ohga may be the only musician around who can take credit not only for the songs on the CD, but also for the CD itself.

  Norio Ohga -- "He has a unique ability to switch on, switch off" (ICM Artist)

Ohga is not only a maestro conductor. He's chairman of Sony Corp., the $56 billion entertainment company where he works when he's not, for instance, conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

That will be his particular challenge tonight and Sunday: to stride from the wings onto center stage of Heinz Hall, produce a baton and direct one of the premier symphony orchestras in the country.

The selections will include Beethoven's Third Symphony.

It is the business hat Ohga wears that's drawing hundreds to his concerts this weekend. Sony also has an important Greater Pittsburgh presence, from its investment in the regional chip-design industry through the Digital Greenhouse project to its 650-acre TV picture tube manufacturing company in Mount Pleasant.

Sony Electronics Inc. built that plant in 1990, hiring 200 local workers. Then, seven years later, it built a glass manufacturing facility for television picture tubes, its largest in the world. Ohga came to the Mount Pleasant plant in 1997 to light the first furnace. Today the combined operation employs 3,400 people, and close to 400 employees will attend Ohga's concert."There's a sense of pride associated with [the concert]," said Sony's local spokesman, Michael Koff. "It's a great honor. Even people who are not familiar with the symphony think it's really neat."

Ohga, 68, has been on the Heinz Hall stage before. Thanks to a meeting with former PSO conductor Lorin Maazel, he conducted the orchestra in a 1994 benefit concert.

"When I was 60 years old I started conducting. I was invited to the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival," recalls Ohga. "Our recording group recorded all my concerts [and] they decided to release a CD. Lorin Maazel heard this CD and immediately he wrote me a letter [saying], 'You are such a wonderful musician, and I wish to invite you to the Pittsburgh Symphony.' "

The second invitation came in 1998, when he saw Mariss Jansons in Japan. It took two years to bring Ohga to Pittsburgh because of his and Jansons' packed schedules.

After Pittsburgh, Ohga has conducting engagements in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Berlin. Montreal's orchestra is also trying to book him, said Koff.

Ohga has spent his career balancing his music scales with the corporate ladder.

He graduated from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1953 as a baritone, studied at Munich's Hochschule fur Musik and then joined an opera company. Sony began recruiting him early.

According to John Nathan, author of "Sony: the Private Life," Sony co-founder Akio Morita tried at every opportunity to persuade Ohga to join: "Morita in particular had detected in Ohga what he judged to be the gifts Sony would need to grow, and he was determined not to lose him."

Ohga came on board, but at first was unwilling to give up his music. "For the first few years I had two hats. Sometimes I was singing, [sometimes] I was in the laboratory making new inventions. Always I had two hats, and such a life I enjoyed."

In 1968, Ohga became senior managing director of CBS/Sony Records. That gave him contact with many artists, including Maazel. As he climbed to higher positions in the company, he finally had to let go of his music career.

In 1982, along with audio-video giant Philips, Ohga helped establish the format of the compact disc. Though his engineers wanted to limit a single CD to 60 minutes, Ohga insisted the disk be able to hold Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

"We decided on 75 minutes," he says. And that's what it is still.

Ohga vowed that upon his 60th birthday he would return to music. And in 1990, he resumed conducting, performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra and the PSO.

But Sony's relentless pace doesn't free him up for much of it. And Ohga, who dedicated himself to the launch of the MiniDisc format in 1992, seems to have a hard time leaving the business world behind him.

And that's fine with Pittsburgh business leaders, many of whom joined Pittsburgh Regional Alliance chairman David Shapira at a reception in Ohga's honor Wednesday night.

"The chairman of Sony -- that position has a worldwide presence," said Mark Kurtzrock, an executive vice president with the Alliance.

Kurtzrock was involved in forming the Digital Greenhouse, a project focused on building a chip-design industry for digital video and networking. Sony was one of Digital Greenhouse's original investors, contributing $100,000 during the first funding round. Other investors include Cisco Systems, Oki Electric Industry Co., Cadence Design Systems and Casio Computer Corp. But Sony has a representative on the project's board.

"It's not just a question of dollars," Kurtzrock said. "They've been enthusiastic supporters from the very beginning."

Sony also supports local nonprofits in Westmoreland, Fayette and Allegheny counties. Koff said the Mount Pleasant plant donates $400,000 in electronic equipment annually to area arts groups and charities.The balance between running one of the world's most successful corporations and stepping onto stage in front of an orchestra is a difficult one to strike.

"He has a unique ability to switch on, switch off," said Sony's Koff. "And when he's on music, that's pretty much it."

Added Tom Todd, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Society, the nonprofit that runs the PSO: "This is not a hobby. To be a conductor at this level is a vocation."

Some have wondered whether Ohga's business connections have opened the music halls' doors to him. As author Nathan puts it, "Perhaps his position as chief of the world's largest sound and music company has gained him access."

But all the business connections in the world won't help Ohga wield that baton. "He was selected to be guest conductor here the same way we choose other conductors," says Todd.

Ohga is content to leave the matter to those listening:

"The most simple thing is the skill for the music. Who can decide if this particular man is a professional conductor or not? It's best left to the audience. If the audience thinks that someone there is a great conductor, then from that point on, that person is a professional."

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