In 2002, Seiji Ozawa directed the traditional New Year’s concert of the Vienna Philharmonic in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna.Photo: Ali Schafler/AP
Seiji Ozawa, who has died aged 88, was one of the most important conductors of his generation. Although his place in the pantheon of truly great conductors was questionable, Ozawa was for decades a major player on the international stage and in several respects a figure of some historical significance.
For starters, he was the first conductor from Japan to gain recognition in the West, the only one to date to achieve superstar status, the longest-serving music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1973-2002), and one of the longest-serving conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1973-2002). of any American orchestra. He had a prodigious memory and usually conducted with the score unopened in front of him.
With his mop of black (lately gray) hair, fashionable dress sense (especially in his younger days, when he preferred flowery shirts and cowboy boots and, on stage, a turtleneck instead of a shirt) and ballet stage moves he attracted attention from his first engagements in America in the 1960s. But many critics felt that his music-making was similarly characterized by gloss and superficiality, despite some notable career milestones and his dedication to training artists of the future.
While the performances of his early years were characterized by high-octane energy, those of the later period, perhaps searching for the elusive soul of the music, too often adopted the vitality-sapping, slow tempos and limp rhythms .
Ozawa was born in Shenyang, China. His parents were Japanese, and after starting music lessons at the age of seven, he entered the Toho School of Music in Tokyo at the age of 16. Although he initially studied piano, he broke both index fingers while playing rugby and turned to conducting and composing instead. . During his studies he gained valuable experience with professional ensembles such as the NHK Symphony Orchestra and Japan Philharmonic, winning first prizes in both disciplines.
After graduating in 1959, he emigrated to Europe to pursue further studies while supporting himself as a traveling salesman of Japanese scooters. He won first prize in the international conducting competition in Besançon, eastern France (1959) and so impressed Charles Munch, one of the jury members, that he invited him to the US the following year, to the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. , where he could study with both Munch and Monteux.
After subsequently winning the prestigious Koussevitzky Prize (1960), Ozawa won a scholarship to study with Herbert von Karajan in Berlin. There he was noticed by Leonard Bernstein, who offered him a post as assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic (1961-65).
Ozawa’s career began at this point, with a Carnegie Hall debut in 1961, an invitation to conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1962, and engagements with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, culminating in artistic direction of the Ravinia Festival (1964- 68). and music directorship of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1965-69). During this period he impressed with the brilliance of his interpretations, with his supreme command of the most intimidatingly complex scores and as a graceful, even glamorous stage performer.
Describing the first time he saw Ozawa conduct the Boston Symphony in 1965, the critic Michael Steinberg noted: “an incredible rush of energy that seemed to begin in the lower back and flow up the spine and over the shoulders, along the arms, through the hands all the way to the tip of the stick, and into the air beyond. It was beautiful to watch.”
In 1970, Ozawa was appointed music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1976. In these years his commitment to new music was evident, not least through the commissioning of works such as György Ligeti’s San Francisco Polyphony ( 1975). Also in 1970, he became co-artistic director of the Berkshire Music Festival with Gunther Schuller, and took full control in 1973, the year in which he also became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The three-decade tenure in Boston was riven with controversy. His admirers point to the sense of confidence he built in the musicians: a delight in their own virtuosity. He is also credited with creating a darker, more Germanic timbre, suitable for the mainstream repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler, in contrast to the French-language tone developed in recent decades. His opponents criticized his frequent absences abroad and, more seriously, questioned his credentials as a top conductor.
In the mid-1990s, a newsletter, Counterpoint, produced by a dissident group of BSO musicians, noted that Ozawa failed to provide “specific leadership on tempo and rhythm,” failed to “express concern about sound quality,” and even failed to to share every “clearly conveyed understanding of the character of every piece the BSO plays.” Orchestral musicians are known for badmouthing their conductors, but Counterpoint contributors included both the concertmaster and the solo cellist. Moreover, they reflected the concerns expressed in the international press – and sometimes also by the public.
For example, an Idomeneo performance in Salzburg in 1990 was roundly booed, while few recordings from this period even remotely achieved reference status. However, some recordings were better received. That of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (1991) was praised for its rhythmic vitality and for its delineation of the score’s distinctive qualities, while a staged version, released on video, of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex won several prizes. Ozawa’s recording of Messiaen’s opera St François d’Assise (1983) – a work he premiered – was considered a huge achievement and beautifully atmospheric.
In 1984, Ozawa was instrumental in founding the Saito Kinen Orchestra, an ensemble of leading Japanese musicians gathered in tribute to the pedagogue Hideo Saito (Ozawa was one of his many students).
A number of high-quality performances and recordings emerged from their periodic reunions and eventually, in 1992, the Saito Kinen Festival was founded in Matsumoto (now known as the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival). The festival is oversubscribed many times over every year and is considered a prestige event. Ozawa’s experience as a mentor, as well as his interest in opera, was also utilized at the Tanglewood summer festival, where he revived an operatic component.
This preference for opera was reinforced in 2002 by his appointment as music director of the Vienna State Opera and in 2005 by his simultaneous artistic directorship of the new Tokyo Opera Nomori. In 2006, a number of performances in Vienna and Paris had to be canceled for health reasons. In 2010 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. In April 2016, he attempted to make a comeback by conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in the capital’s Philharmonie and the orchestra of the Seiji Ozawa International Academy, Switzerland (founded by him in 2004), in Paris, but he was forced to relinquish his engagement with to cancel the Boston. July Symphony, without the power to conduct.
In November 2022, he returned to the stage, looking very weak in a wheelchair, to conduct the Saito Kinen Orchestra in a live broadcast to space. In collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture was sent to astronaut Koichi Wakata on the International Space Station.
In 2016 he published a book of conversations with novelist Haruki Murakami under the title Absolutely on Music.
His first marriage, to pianist Kyoko Edo, ended in divorce. With his second wife, Vera Ilyan, he had two children, Seira and Yukiyoshi, who survive him.
• Seiji Ozawa, conductor, born September 1, 1935; died February 6, 2024