Seiji Ozawa, who has died aged 88, was one of the leading conductors of his generation. Though his place in the pantheon of truly great conductors was questionable, Ozawa was for several decades a major player on the international scene and a figure of some historical significance on several counts.
He was, to begin with, the first conductor from Japan to achieve recognition in the west, the only one to date to attain superstar status, the longest serving music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1973-2002) and one of the longest serving of any American orchestra. He had a prodigious memory and habitually conducted with the score unopened in front of him.
With his shock of black (latterly grey) hair, modish dress sense (particularly in his younger days, when he favoured flowery shirts and cowboy boots and, on the stage, a roll-necked sweater rather than a dress-shirt) and balletic podium movements, he attracted attention from his first engagements in America in the 1960s. But many critics felt that his music-making was similarly characterised by glossiness and superficiality, notwithstanding some notable landmarks in his career and a commitment to the training of artists of the future.
If the performances of his early years were characterised by high-octane energy, those of the later period, perhaps seeking the elusive soul of the music, too often adopted vitality-sapping slow tempi and flaccid rhythms.
Ozawa was born in Shenyang, China. His parents were Japanese, and having begun music lessons at the age of seven, he entered the Toho School of Music in Tokyo when he was 16. Though initially studying piano, he broke both index fingers while playing rugby and turned instead to conducting and composition. He gained valuable experience with professional ensembles such as the NHK Symphony Orchestra and Japan Philharmonic while still a student and won first prizes in both disciplines.
Graduating in 1959, he emigrated to Europe to pursue further studies, supporting himself meanwhile as a travelling salesman of Japanese motor scooters. He won first prize in the international conductors’ competition at Besançon, eastern France (1959) and so impressed Charles Munch, one of the judges, that he invited him to the US, to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, the following year, where he was able to study with both Munch and Monteux.
Having then taken the prestigious Koussevitzky award (1960), Ozawa won a scholarship to study with Herbert von Karajan in Berlin. It was there that he was spotted by Leonard Bernstein, who offered him a post as an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic (1961-65).
Ozawa’s career took off at this point, with a Carnegie Hall début in 1961, an invitation to conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1962, and engagements with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, culminating in the artistic directorship of the Ravinia festival (1964-68) and the music directorship of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1965-69). During this period he made an impression 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 current of energy that seemed to begin in the small of the back and flow up the spine and across the shoulders, along the arms, through the hands all the way to the point of the stick, and into the air beyond. It was a beautiful thing to watch.”
In 1970 Ozawa was appointed music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1976. A commitment to new music was evident in these years, not least in the commissioning of works such as György Ligeti’s San Francisco Polyphony (1975). Also in 1970 he became co-artistic director, with Gunther Schuller, of the Berkshire music festival, taking sole control in 1973, the year in which he also became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The three-decade-long 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 sound colour, suitable for the mainstream repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler, as opposed to the French-flavoured tone developed over previous decades. His detractors criticised his frequent absences abroad and, more seriously, questioned his credentials as a top-flight conductor.
In the mid-90s a newsletter, Counterpoint, produced by a dissident group of BSO musicians, commented that Ozawa gave no “specific leadership in matters of tempo and rhythm”, offered no “expression of care about sound quality” and even failed to share any “distinctly conveyed conception of the character of each piece the BSO plays”. Orchestral musicians are notorious for bad-mouthing their conductors, but the Counterpoint contributors included both the concertmaster and principal cellist. Moreover, they reflected reservations expressed in the international press – and occasionally by the public.
A performance of Idomeneo at Salzburg in 1990, for example, was roundly booed, while few recordings of this period achieved anything like benchmark status. Some recordings, however, 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 distinctive qualities of the score, while a staged version, released on video, of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex won multiple awards. Ozawa’s recording of Messiaen’s opera St François d’Assise (1983) – a work he premiered – was regarded as a huge achievement and magnificently atmospheric.
In 1984 Ozawa was instrumental in the founding of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, an ensemble of distinguished Japanese musicians, gathered in tribute to the educationist Hideo Saito (Ozawa was one of his many pupils).
A number of high-quality performances and recordings emanated from their periodic reunions and eventually, in 1992, the Saito Kinen festival was established in Matsumoto (now known as the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto festival). The festival is oversubscribed by many times each year and is regarded as a prestige event. Ozawa’s experience as a mentor, as well as his interest in opera, were also exploited at the Tanglewood summer festival, where he resurrected an operatic component.
That predilection 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. A number of performances had to be cancelled in Vienna and Paris in 2006 on health grounds. In 2010 he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. He attempted a comeback in April 2016, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the capital’s Philharmonie and the orchestra of the Seiji Ozawa International Academy, Switzerland (founded by him in 2004), in Paris, but was forced to pull out of an engagement with the Boston Symphony that July, lacking the strength to conduct.
In November 2022 he returned to the stage, looking very frail in a wheelchair, to conduct the Saito Kinen Orchestra in a live broadcast to outer space. In collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture was sent to the astronaut Koichi Wakata on the International Space Station.
In 2016 he published a book of conversations with the novelist Haruki Murakami under the title Absolutely on Music.
His first marriage, to the pianist Kyoko Edo, ended in divorce. With his second wife, Vera Ilyan, he had two children, Seira and Yukiyoshi, who survive him.
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