Breaking: The black box man has gone
Norio Ohga, the Sony co-founder who turned all its gadgets black and was driven by his classical obsession to own and music and film industry, has died aged 81.
I met him on several occasions and interviewed him once, at length, in his Tokyo office. Rigidly polite under close questioning, flicking between German and English, the only emotion he showed was when I got him to talk about the death of his friend, Herbert von Karajan.
Ohga had met Karajan, while a singing student in Berlin, through the Japanese wife of the grocery magnate, Julius Meinl. Maestro and young industrialist had three common interests – music, technology and aviation. Karajan, for Ohga, was something close to a god. Ohga, for Karajan, was a means to an end – a chance to be first with the latest audio inventions.
Karajan was the only artist whose advice the future Sony chief followed. He encouraged Ohga to take a stake in CBS Japan, eventually to buy the whole company. It was in a bid to sign Karajan to Sony Classical that Ohga happened to be with him at his death. I told the story in full here
It was in Karajan’s model that Ohga indulged his own desire to be a conductor, an ambition that enabled him to conduct the Boston Symphony and the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in exchange for million-dollar donations. Not, however, the Berlin Philharmonic.
Not in public, anyway. I am told by someone present that he conducted the orchestra in a private performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony on June 14, 2000. The soloists were Julia Varady, Uta Prieuw, Roland Wagenführer and Eike Wilm Schulte, with the Berlin Singakademie, augmented by a Sony Philharmonischer Chor. A disc was produced on the Sony Classical label but was never issued for sale.
A stickler for design detail, Ohga was responsible for turning Sony products black. He had been known to cancel a product launch because he did not like the shape of a button. His whim was greatly feared across the company.
Ohga, with two inventions