Miami Herald (Sunday)

Seiji Ozawa, 88, groundbrea­king Asian conductor


Seiji Ozawa, the shaggyhair­ed, high-voltage Japanese maestro who served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for almost 30 years and was widely considered the first Asian conductor to win world renown leading a classical orchestra, died Feb. 6 at his home in Tokyo. He was 88.

The Seiji Ozawa Internatio­nal Academy Switzerlan­d announced the death on its webpage but did not provide a cause.

Ozawa, who underwent treatment for esophageal cancer in 2010, had been in fragile health for years. He was expected to conduct the Boston Symphony in July 2016 but pulled out that May because of what was described as a “lack of physical strength.”

It was a melancholy coda for a man who had arrived in Boston in the early 1970s as a longhaired and fashionabl­y clad maestro who exuded youthful energy. He seemed a sharp contrast to the middle-aged, tuxedoed Northern Europeans who had long dominated the podium in classical music.

It was the autumn of the countercul­ture, Boston was booming, and Ozawa seemed at home in that most collegiate of college towns, newly awakened from a long period of being considered staid and hidebound. His studiously hip, turtle-necked, love-beaded image (adroitly advanced by the BSO’s public relations department) made him seem a new sort of music director for a new age.

Suddenly, Ozawa was everywhere: conducting the BSO as well as the Muppets’ all-animal orchestra on public television, gracing magazine covers, making appearance­s at Red Sox games as a high-profile ticket-holder. He won two Emmy Awards for his televised conducting and was the subject of a documentar­y co-directed by the Maysles Brothers.

Ozawa joined a tiny group of classical musicians, among them Beverly Sills, Leonard Bernstein and Luciano Pavarotti, who were known not only to concert audiences but also to a vast general public.

Despite the onslaught of publicity, it was obvious from the beginning that Ozawa was a serious, thoughtful and prodigious­ly gifted musician. He dazzled orchestras and audiences with what the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Leon Kirchner once called “the scent, the sense, the sensuality of an extraordin­ary person.” He attracted world-class mentors such as Bernstein of the New York Philharmon­ic and Herbert von Karajan of the Berlin Philharmon­ic.

Richard Dyer, a longtime Boston Globe music critic, wrote in 2002 that Ozawa “displayed the greatest physical gift for conducting of anyone in his generation, and a range and accuracy of musical memory that struck awe and envy into the hearts of most musicians who encountere­d it.”

He remained in later years, Dyer added, “beautiful to watch, and unique in the amount of focused informatio­n and emotion that he can communicat­e through glance, attitude, and gesture. Ozawa is calligraph­y in motion, precise and evocative.”

Ozawa had a nearly unparallel­ed gift for uniting huge orchestras and choruses in long, complex and densely populated works, such as Hector Berlioz’s “Damnation de Faust,” Arnold Schoenberg’s “Gurre-Lieder,”

Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and Richard Strauss’s opera “Elektra,” which he presented in concert form with the


He led the world premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s 4½-hour opera “Saint François d’Assise” (1983) at the Paris Opera; the score called for an orchestra of 150 and included 41 parts for percussion alone.

He recorded all of these works, as well as the complete symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Pyotr

Ilyich Tchaikovsk­y and Sergei Prokofiev and hundreds of other pieces. Most of his discs were made with the BSO, but he also recorded with leading orchestras including Vienna and Tokyo.

But it is likely that his tenure in Boston – at 29 years, the longest music directorsh­ip in the orchestra’s history – will be his principal legacy. It was a legacy that became hotly debated as the years wore on. As his obligation­s mounted, many critics expressed dismay that Ozawa, once so exhilarati­ng, seemed increasing­ly to coast on perfunctor­y and often artistical­ly unreflecte­d performanc­es. Morale plunged among the musicians.

He retained devoted fans and protectors who continued to bestow laurels on him, and he received the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, which cited him as “one of the great figures of the classical music world today.” But there was relief when James Levine, the longtime music director of the Metropolit­an Opera, took over Ozawa’s duties at the BSO.

At first, it seemed as though Levine had begun to re-energize the BSO before his health setbacks interfered with his demanding schedule and he began to cancel many of his appearance­s. Levine left in 2011 in what was presented as a “mutual decision.”


Seiji Ozawa, the third of four siblings of a Buddhist father and Christian mother, was born on Sept. 1, 1935, in Mukden (now Shenyang), Manchuria, during the Japanese occupation of that region of China.

His father was there as a railroad company dentist, but his growing sympathy for the plight of the Chinese and his involvemen­t with a pacifist organizati­on led to conflicts. The Ozawas were soon deported back to the Japanese mainland.

His family settled in Tachikawa, the site of a military air base outside Tokyo. His father was denied a license to practice and scraped by as a rice farmer. Ozawa vividly recalled being drawn to music by the church hymns his mother sang around the home.

He soon began keyboard studies, immersing himself in Brahms, Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach with the intention of becoming a concert pianist, an ambition he abandoned in his teens after breaking both index fingers in a rugby game.

After his piano teacher told him to consider conducting, he went for the first time to hear a live symphony. Ozawa, then 14, said he found the performanc­e a revelation: not the tinny and scratchy noise emanating from the radio or an old record player but a swirl of movement and power that provoked shivers in his body.

As Ozawa remembered it, his mother then wrote a letter to a distant relative of hers, the cellist, conductor and teacher Hideo Saito, who had been influentia­l in the introducti­on of Western classical music to Japan and particular­ly to Japanese


Ozawa paid for his lessons at Saito’s Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo by helping with orchestrat­ion and mowing the lawn. Emerging as the star pupil, he set off in 1959 to compete in an internatio­nal competitio­n for young conductors in Besançon, France, making the two-month voyage to Europe by cargo ship.

He won first place at Besançon and particular­ly impressed one of the jurors, Charles Munch, the music director of the Boston Symphony. Munch invited him to attend the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, the BSO’s summer home in western Massachuse­tts, which had been founded in 1940 to foster young players and composers.

Ozawa took Tanglewood’s highest conducting honor in that summer of 1960, and Bernstein named him an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmon­ic beginning in the 1961-1962 season.

Bernstein’s influence on Ozawa was significan­t, not only in the physicalit­y of their technique from the podium but also in their preference for modish dress and their similarly untamed hair, which they liked to sweep back with a hand amid a particular­ly vigorous performanc­e.

Such habits did little to endear Ozawa to his countrymen when he returned to Japan in 1962 to conduct the country’s leading ensemble, the NHK Symphony Orchestra. Some older

musicians refused to play for him, finding his manner too cocky and Westernize­d.

“To the Japanese, my talent had hatched too quickly,” he told the Globe years later. “I popped into prominence the way kernels become popcorn, fast. The orchestra members boycotted me. They said I had bad manners. It was true. They said I pushed them too hard. It was true. They said I was a bully. It was true. I thought it was just a matter of working hard. But management was on the side of the musicians.”

However, Ozawa continued to return to Japan for engagement­s while rapidly making his name in North America.

At 28, he became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s summer seasons at the Ravinia Festival. In addition, he was named permanent conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1965 and of the San Francisco Symphony in 1970. Then Boston beckoned, with the chance to

take the helm of one of the oldest and most prestigiou­s orchestras in the United States.

He became the BSO musical adviser in 1972 and musical director the next year. By the end of the decade, as communist China began to reestablis­h cultural ties with the West, he accepted an invitation to conduct Beijing’s Central Philharmon­ic Orchestra in China. He also took the BSO on a tour of China, the first Western orchestra to undertake such an adventure.

In a wrenching decision in the late 1970s, Ozawa decided with his second wife, Vera, whose heritage was Russian and Japanese, that she would return to Tokyo and raise their two children there, immersing them in the Japanese language and cultural values.

Yet he kept adding to his duties. In 1992, he establishe­d the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan, naming what immediatel­y became one of the world’s leading youth orchestras in honor of his teacher. As was customary with BSO music directors, he also served as director of the Tanglewood Music Festival, and, in 1994, Seiji Ozawa Hall opened on its western grounds. Much of the funding came from the company Sony: Ozawa was by now a national hero in Japan.

In 1997, Ozawa became a controvers­ial figure at Tanglewood when he pushed out a popular administra­tor, Richard Ortner, over conflicts involving programmin­g and training for the students. Many celebrated faculty members – among them pianists

Leon Fleisher and Gilbert Kalish and bassist Julius Levine – left in protest.

Moreover, relations with the BSO were souring over his peripateti­c workload, and what had once seemed a magical associatio­n with the orchestra appeared increasing­ly stale. The critical consensus was that he had stayed too long.

“He still dances on the podium with his trademark pixie charm,” composer and critic Greg Sandow observed in the Wall Street Journal, “but he looks far better than his orchestra sounds.”

Ozawa resigned from the BSO in 2002 to become the music director of the Vienna State Opera, a position he held for eight years.

His first marriage, to pianist Kyoko Edo, ended in divorce. He and Vera had two children, Seira and Yukiyoshi. A complete list of survivors was not immediatel­y available.

Ozawa held dual Japanese-American citizenshi­p and described his life and career as a successful, if not always perfectly smooth, melding of Eastern and Western culture and pride. “Western music is like the sun,” he told Time magazine in 1987. “All over the world, the sunset is different, but the beauty is the same.”

 ?? KYODO NEWS USA TODAY NETWORK ?? Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa receives a bouquet of flowers after his last performanc­e with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston in April 2002.
KYODO NEWS USA TODAY NETWORK Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa receives a bouquet of flowers after his last performanc­e with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston in April 2002.

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