Conductor Seiji Ozawa remembered as a kind and thoughtful humanitarian

by The Christian Science Monitor from Tokyo

Seiji Ozawa, who died Feb. 6 in his native Japan, was a world-renowned conductor with a 29-year career with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The BSO described Mr. Ozawa as “a musical genius” with “a balletic grace at the podium.” 

154924Steven Senne/AP/FileSeiji Ozawa conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” in Boston, on Nov. 26, 2008.

| TOKYO - Japan’s Seiji Ozawa, who died Feb. 6, was one of the best-known orchestra conductors of his generation.

Mr. Ozawa, who was born in China, spent decades in the rarefied atmosphere of top orchestras around the world but wore baseball-themed ties to interviews and preferred to be called by his first name, not “maestro.”

His bushy hair and smile charmed audiences, especially in the United States, where his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra spanned nearly three decades.

Mr. Ozawa exerted enormous influence over the BSO during his tenure. He appointed 74 of its 104 musicians and his celebrity attracted famous performers including Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. He also helped the symphony become the biggest-budget orchestra in the world, with an endowment that grew from less than $10 million in the early 1970s to more than $200 million in 2002, The Associated Press reported.

In 2020, Boston proclaimed his birthday, Sept. 1, “Seiji Ozawa Day,” prompting a pleased Mr. Ozawa to remark that Boston was his second home.

“That was a really important time in my life,” he was quoted as saying. “No matter where I go, Boston is a part of my heart.”

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, in a statement, described Mr. Ozawa as a “kind and thoughtful humanitarian; a musical genius who combined a balletic grace at the podium with a prodigious memory (he conducted the 1983 world premiere of Messiaen’s massive opera St. Francis of Assisi without a score).”

Years later, back in Tokyo, the unpretentious Mr. Ozawa was sometimes spotted on subway platforms dressed in a jacket and cap of his beloved Boston Red Sox baseball team and would stop to chat with admirers.

“I’m the complete opposite of a genius, I have always had to make an effort,” he told a 2014 news conference.

“I don’t really like studying, but I had to do it if I wanted to make music. Anybody with genius can easily do better than me.” 

From 2002 to 2010, he was music director of the Vienna State Opera. 

Time for reflection

As he stepped away from conducting to deal with health challenges, the downtime provided him more opportunity to study music, talk with friends, such as best-selling Japanese author Haruki Murakami, and to think, Mr. Ozawa said.

“I had always been looking ahead, since if you don’t forget the piece you conducted at one day’s concert you can’t prepare for the next,” he wrote in a 2014 essay for the Nikkei newspaper.

“I had never reflected on the past. There had simply never been enough time.”

He remained active in his later years, particularly in his native land. He was the artistic director and founder of the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival, a music and opera festival in Japan. He and the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1984, won the Grammy for best opera recording in 2016 for Ravel’s “L’Enfant et Les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells.),” The AP reported.

In 2022, he conducted his Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival for the first time in three years to mark its 30th anniversary. That turned out to be his last public performance, according to the AP.

The third in a family of four boys, Mr. Ozawa was born in Shenyang, China, in 1935 where his father, a dentist, had settled. They later moved to Beijing.

His mother, a Christian, took him to church to sing hymns, and the family sang at home, sometimes accompanied by one of his brothers on an accordion.

“That was how I met music,” he wrote later.

The family returned to Japan in 1941, taking only some clothes, an album of pictures, and the accordion, and Mr. Ozawa began learning piano. When he sprained his finger playing rugby and could not continue, he switched to conducting.

In 1959, Mr. Ozawa set out for Europe on a cargo ship, taking two months to reach France, where he was determined to test his skills at a young conductors’ competition in Besancon.

He won, opening doors around the world and allowing him to work with greats such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein.

Stints in Toronto, San Francisco, and Singapore followed. In 1973 he became director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, starting a 29-year relationship.

A rabid sports fan, Mr. Ozawa’s heart was in Boston with the Red Sox, the New England Patriots football team, and basketball’s Celtics.

Though Mr. Ozawa devoted time to teaching – in Boston, he held weekly classes for children, who all called him “Seiji” – his passion was for nurturing classical music in Japan, where he set up a summer music festival in the city of Matsumoto named for Hideo Saito, his first mentor.

The festival became such a success that music fans flocked to the city in the mountains and even taxi drivers became well-versed in classical music.

Mr. Ozawa has two grown children. His daughter, Seira, is an author, and his son, Yukiyoshi, is an actor.

This story was reported by Reuters. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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