Conductor Seiji Ozawa, former head of the Boston Symphony and the Vienna State Opera, winner of Grammy and Emmy awards, died on Tuesday, in Tokyo, at the age of 88, his agency, Veroza Japan, announced this Friday.
The information was released after the regent’s funeral, which was attended only by close family membersas “a peaceful farewell” was desired.
Seiji Ozawa’s career spans more than 60 years, 29 of which were as director of the Boston Symphony (1973-2002), the longest mission in the history of the orchestrasurpassing the 25 years of Serge Koussevitzky (1924-1949), who established it among the main orchestras in the United States.
The teaching and dissemination of music, with the creation of academies in Japan and Switzerland, were always among Ozawa’s priorities and dominated his last years.
Seiji Ozawa was born on September 1, 1935, in Shenyang, Manchuria province, China, then under Japanese administration. He studied piano since childhood and at the age of 16 he entered the Toho School of Music, where he studied orchestra conducting with Hideo Saito, the master of music in Japan, who he would pay homage to years later in his career.
In 1959, he won the International Orchestra Conducting Competition in Besançon, France, and was invited by the then chief conductor of the Boston Symphony, Charles Munch, to participate in the summer courses at Tanglewood, in Massachusetts, United States.
At the time, Ozawa had already directed the NHK Symphony Orchestra, in his home country, and the Japan Philharmonic. Arriving in the United States in 1960, he immediately won the Koussevitzky Prize for best conductor. From then on his journey didn’t stop.
He worked with Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan. He was assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, director of the Ravinia Festival, promoted by the Chicago Symphony, musical director of the Toronto Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony, before moving to Boston in 1973.
Seiji Ozawa “built the reputation” of the Boston Symphony “nationally and internationally”, reads the orchestra’s website, which recalls its first concerts in Europe and Japan, in the 1970s, its debut in China, in 1979, and the tours in the United States and Europe, in the early 1980s, when the movement of a symphony orchestra was still new in itself.
During his direction, the Boston Symphony became the orchestra with the largest budget in the world, managing to gather donations of around ten million dollars (around 10.77 million euros at current exchange rates) at the beginning of the 1990s. 1970, to more than 200 million (200.46 million euros) in 2002, as the Associated Press agency recalls today.
When Ozawa returned to Boston’s grand auditorium in 2006, four years after his departure, he was received with a six-minute ovation, one of the longest in that room, leaving behind less favorable reviews of his later days in the orchestra, and the exhaustion of his direction model, then pointed out by some musicians.
In the autumn of 2002, Ozawa took on the role of music director at the Vienna State Opera, which he held until the spring of 2010, when he stepped down following esophageal cancer. In the following years, his work focused mainly on Japan and he canceled performances on several occasions.
Throughout his career, Seiji Ozawa continued to work with the world’s largest orchestras, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the New Philharmonic and the French National Orchestra, among many others, without forgetting the Vienna Philharmonic, with which it entered the program of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Great World Orchestra cycle in 2001.
In addition to the Vienna State Opera, he worked with the main operatic theaters such as the Scala theater in Milan, the Florence Opera, the Metropolitan in New York and the Paris Opera, where he directed the premiere of “Saint Francis of Assisi”, by Olivier Messiaen, in 1983.
He has also worked with generations of great performers, such as pianists Rudolf Serkin, Nelson Freire, Krystian Zimerman, Mitsuko Ushida and Katia and Marielle Labèque, violinists Itzhak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and singers such as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Kiri te Kanawa and Anne Sophie von Otter.
Among other meetings, he had Maria João Pires, in 1994, in Boston, for the interpretation of the 9th Piano Concerto, “Jeunehomme”, by Mozart, in a performance that the orchestra still includes in its history today. Osawa is also a name in the career of Portuguese baritone Jorge Chaminé, in the United States.
For Ozawa, teaching was essential. “I love working with young musicians. I don’t have to pressure them. We just have to find the same breath,” he said when he founded the Seiji Ozawa International Academy in Switzerland.
In Japan, he formed the Saito Kinen Orchestra in 1984 to honor his mentor, Hideo Saito, who later gave rise to one of his most beloved projects, the Saito Kinen – Matsumoto Festival, of which he was artistic director. He also created the Okushiga Chamber Music Academy, which would later inspire the Swiss academy, as well as similar projects dedicated to opera and orchestra, most of them on a non-profit basis, with young values in mind.
His discography spans more than 60 years and more than 500 titles, many of them award-winning.
In 2016, he won the Grammy for Best Opera Recording for his performance of “L’enfant et les sortileges”, by Maurice Ravel, with the Saito Kinen Orchestra. There were close to a dozen and a half nominations behind him, which include some of his most celebrated albums by world critics: the recording of “Elektra”, by Richard Strauss, with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, the “Concerto in the Memory of a Angel”, by Alban Berg, with Itzhak Perlman, the recordings of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and the great symphonic works of Hector Berlioz, such as “Sinfonia Fantástica” and the “Damnation of Faust”, with the Boston Symphony, and “Turangalila”, by Messiaen, with the Toronto Symphony.
The television production of his “Dvorak Celebration”, in Prague, and the broadcast of his concert dedicated to the work of Charles Ives, in Central Park, in New York, both broadcast by the North American public network PBS, gave him, in 1994, and 1976, respectively, the Emmy awards for Best Cultural Program.
Among his many distinctions, Ozawa received honorary doctorates from the Sorbonne and Harvard, was an honorary member of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Opera and the Boston Symphony, and also received the Imperial Prize from the Japan Art Association and the Order of Culture, one of the highest honors in his country.
In 2017, he published Music, just musica set of six conversations between you and Japanese writer Haruki Murakmi (Casa das Letras, Portugal, 2021), which addresses, among other topics, the power of music and its impact, crossing borders and social barriers, listening and processes of discovery and interpretation.
One of Seiji Osawa’s last public performances took place in December 2022, in Japan, when he conducted the Saito Kinen Orchestra in Beethoven’s “Egmont” overture, for a broadcast shared with the International Space Station.
It was Seiji Ozawa’s conviction that “playing a wrong note is insignificant, but inexcusable to play without passion.”