Seiji Ozawa has died at the age of 88. The conductor and former Boston Symphony Orchestra music director died from heart failure at his home in Tokyo earlier this week.
He was a captivating and entirely unpretentious presence on the podium and remains the only conductor to have studied under both Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein.
Seiji Ozawa: rise to fame
Ozawa first captured the attention of the Boston Symphony Orchestra after he won the International Besançon Competition of Orchestra Conductors in 1959. He was invited to Tanglewood Music Center by Charles Münch, who was then the music director of the BSO. He studied at Tanglewood with Pierre Monteux and quickly became a notable presence and ‘one to watch’. Having received a scholarship to study with Herbert von Karajan, he then caught the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who appointed him as his assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. It was during this time that he also made his concert debut with the San Francisco Symphony in 1962.
From 1946, Ozawa began his tenure as the first music director – and later principal conductor – of the Ravinia Festival, the summer music festival that is home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He went on to hold the role of music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and worked with the San Francisco Symphony as a guest conductor on tours and in recordings of music inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
His tenure at the Boston Symphony Orchestra was his most notable, a position held for 29 years. In 1994, the orchestra dedicated its new concert hall at Tanglewood to Ozawa.
Putting Japanese musicians on the international stage
One of Seiji Ozawa’s major efforts was to bring Japanese orchestras to the fore of the classical music world and give them a platform on the major stage. In 1992, Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra with the aim of giving Japanese musicians an opportunity to play in all-Japanese orchestras on the international stage.
He continued to work with the world’s top orchestras, making his debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1992 and leading the opening ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In 2002, he conducted the prestigious Vienna New Year’s Day Concert.
A legacy beyond the podium
In 2010, Ozawa announced that was to undergo treatment for esophageal cancer. It was during this time that he worked with the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami on conversations for Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. The pair sat down together to discuss music and analyse some of their favourite recordings.
In EuroJournal Music Magazine‘s poll of the greatest conductors of all time, we spoke to 100 of the best conductors about who they believed to be the best maestros in history. Seiji Ozawa was voted for by Jun Märkl, Robert Spano and Harry Christophers as a major influence.
His recording of Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of the best ever made.