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Seiji Ozawa, 1935-2024

Conductor Seiji Ozawa, in profile while conducting, with eyes closed
Akira Kinoshita
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Seiji Ozawa

The Music Director Laureate of the Boston Symphony Orchestra has died.

Ozawa’s tenure as the leader of the BSO began in 1973 and continued until 2002, when he left to take the position of principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera. His 29 years in Boston - the longest tenure of any Music Director in the orchestra’s history - were defined as a period of dynamic growth for the organization in Boston and around the world, a robust legacy of recordings, a reinvigoration of the BSO’s storied engagement with new music, and, as is the case with the leader of any major orchestra, an imprint on the sound of the ensemble through the selection of its incoming musicians.

Mark Volpe, President and CEO of the BSO, talked about Ozawa’s impact on the history of the BSO in this 2016 conversation, recorded at Tanglewood. You can hear this conversation using the audio player above, and the transcript is below.

Ozawa’s relationship with the Boston Symphony began well before 1973. In 1959, Charles Munch, Music Director of the BSO from 1949 to 1962, took notice of the 24-year-old Ozawa after the younger conductor won first prize at the International Competition for Young Conductors in Besançon, France. Munch invited him to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, for further training.

That experience, in 1960, brought Ozawa to the United States for the first time. In 1990, he told the Boston Globe’s Richard Dyer that, "My roommate was the Uruguayan conductor José Serebrier. We had bunk beds; I slept up and he slept down. He had a tape recorder, and he owned scores of Mahler and Bruckner symphonies and Verdi’s Falstaff, and that was wonderful. . . . Charles Munch came only once to teach me, in the finale to Debussy’s La Mer. Aaron Copland gave me to conduct a short piece by one of the student composers, and in the final concert each of the student conductors led one movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. I conducted the finale."

Ozawa won the Koussevitzky Prize that summer, and shortly thereafter, Leonard Bernstein invited him to take the post of Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. His career now launched, he went on to the music directorships of the Ravinia Festival, just north of Chicago, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony.

Ozawa’s arrival in Boston came at a pivotal time for the BSO. His immediate predecessors, William Steinberg and Erich Leinsdorf, were old-school European conductors, fulfilling their leadership roles in the traditional ways one would have expected at the time. While the 37-year-old Ozawa was not only acknowledged as one of the most exciting and gifted conductors on the scene, his age and cultural background brought a vitality and energy of an entirely different character.

Along with that energy came a more internationalist profile, extending the BSO’s audience beyond the US and Europe to Asia. In one of the most significant episodes of Ozawa’s tenure, the BSO was the first American orchestra to tour mainland China following the normalization of relations with that country. Beyond its immediate diplomatic success, the tour played a role in sparking an interest among Chinese audiences in Western orchestral music, a phenomenon that has grown exponentially over the subsequent decades to make China a critical part of the classical music ecology.

Ozawa’s recordings with the BSO number in the dozens. He recorded more individual works with the orchestra than any other Music Director in its history, including all of Mahler’s symphonies, Beethoven’s five piano concertos (with soloist Rudolf Serkin), orchestral works by Respighi, and a series of complete ballets, including Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Also recorded were several works by signature composers of the BSO, including Ravel, Berlioz, and Bartók, as well as Richard Strauss’s operas Elektra and Salome.

Ozawa’s hundreds of performances with the BSO demonstrated rare technical abilities. Known for an elegance and precision of motion on the podium, Ozawa conducted frequently from memory, even when leading the most complex music.

Outside of his work with the BSO, Ozawa was a regular guest conductor with many of the most prominent orchestras around the world. In 1984, in honor of his teacher, Hideo Saito, he founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which later became the basis of the Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto, now known as the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival. Upon his departure from the BSO in 2002, Seiji Ozawa became the Music Director of the Vienna State Opera. In 2013 he was named an Honorary Member of the Berlin Philharmonic.

But among all of the honors and accolades Seiji Ozawa collected throughout his life and around the world, his name will be indelibly linked to the Boston Symphony forever. Indeed, at Tanglewood, his name will continue to be a part of the landscape, literally. In 1994, Ozawa led the opening performance at a brand new concert hall there. It was funded by the head of the Sony Corporation, Norio Ohga, who, rather than accept the naming rights of the new space for himself, stipulated that it would be a tribute to his friend, and therefore known as Seiji Ozawa Hall.

To learn more about Seiji Ozawa, visit the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Hear CRB's Brian McCreath talk with Carolyn Beeler about Seiji Ozawa on The World, from PRX and GBH.


Brian McCreath I have wondered about that incredible tenure of Seiji, 29 years here at the BSO. And there's a little bit of a chance for historical perspective now. It's been a little while since he was around. And I'm curious to know from you what it was that, looking back, you can see now as Seiji's greatest strengths and how that era of the BSO was defined by him.

Mark Volpe Seiji, you know, was music director for 29 years, but he started his Tanglewood relationship in 1960. So I think what Seiji did—and I wasn't here, but my wife was his assistant in the '80s. There was a period in the Commonwealth history where Boston was not depressed, but in a pretty static state. And, you know, Seiji was a big thinker with big plans and big aspirations, was able to excite the board, was able to generate support from Japanese corporations, you know, Sony, TDK, NSC, Nippon Electric and mega companies, if you will, and so the orchestra had, under Seiji, a very significant international touring presence as well as media presence through a whole myriad of recordings.

Brian McCreath Yeah. And when I think of Seiji, the times that I watched him conduct, I guess what comes to mind is that, as a conductor, he was technically capable of things that very, very few conductors could pull off. I think I remember him doing "Central Park in the Dark," the piece by Ives, where you have two separate things going on, completely separate, different things, and he could conduct both, one in one hand and the other in the other hand, in a way that other conductors simply can't pull off.

Mark Volpe Seiji had this beautiful technique and he also had this ability, and I don't quite—you know, everyone's brain wiring is different. I'm not a neurologist, [McCreath laughs] but he could memorize stuff that was impossible to memorize. I mean, you know, okay fine, Mozart, you know, eight bar, four bar patterns. I mean, there is stuff he was memorizing that there were no patterns: no rhythmic patterns, no harmonic patterns. Masterclasses on conducting were fascinating. I mean, he actually—one of his things is, you begin Beethoven['s Symphony No.] 5, you begin Rite of Spring, you know, pretty well-known pieces and you can't use your arms. He would like, hold their arms down. So you have to conduct it either with your head or your stomach. But it was fascinating!

Brian McCreath Yeah.

Mark Volpe It was fascinating, you know, and—or just with your eyes. How do you conduct the beginning of Beethoven—you know, not the symphony, of course—but how do you conduct the beginning of Beethoven['s Symphony No.] 5 with your eyes? You know, and there'd be a little mini orchestra assembled and it was fascinating because he could do it! The students, you know, hit or miss. But but he—it was pretty amazing.

Brian McCreath And one of his recordings is still like one of the best, which is a piece the BSO premiered, the Turangalîla-Symphonie [by Olivier Messiaen], which is massively complex. It wasn't a BSO recording, but I mean, he had that ability with those kinds of incredibly complex pieces to dissect them and analyze and bring them across to the orchestra in that clear way.

Mark Volpe Well, and Turangalîla is a BSO piece. Bernstein conducted the premiere. But it's not just that. He, I mean, when I would go see him in Vienna, there'd be four hour operas and he would know every part. But I think, you know, it's kind of interesting because I think he also had a delete button, because I remember, you know, three weeks, four weeks after something, you know, asking him in the midst of it you just said second oboe part, you know, the second movement, you know, the exposition, he could tell you exactly what was going on. Four weeks later, he couldn't tell you that he conducted the piece. So somehow he knew what his capacity was. And when he had to hit the delete button, he hit the delete button. And I would watch him in his room and he'd be flipping through pages like, you know, 50 pages of a score in a minute and a half. And you go, what's that? And there was no cameras around. I was, you know, it wasn't like blatantly showing off or anything. I was just watching him. And again, who can explain brain chemistry? But he had, you know, God knows the ability to memorize like no other conductor I've ever experienced.