Famed Boston Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa has died at the age of 88

Seiji Ozawa, the Japanese conductor who dazzled audiences with his graceful physical displays during three decades at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has died, his management office announced Friday. He was 88 years old.

The world-famous conductor, with his salt-and-pepper hair, led the BSO from 1973 to 2002, longer than any other conductor in the orchestra’s history. From 2002 to 2010, he was music director of the Vienna State Opera.

He died of heart failure on Tuesday at his home in Tokyo, according to his office, Firoza Japan.

He remained active in his later years, especially in his native country, even as his health declined. He was treated for esophageal cancer in 2010, and in 2015 and 2016 he canceled shows due to various health problems.

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 a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording in 2016 for Ravel. Child and magic (Child and magic).

The previous year, he was among the class of honorees at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

Several people are shown posing with multi-colored ribbons around their necks at a party.
From left to right, actress Cicely Tyson, conductor Seiji Ozawa, actress Rita Moreno, director George Lucas and singer-songwriter Carole King appear at the White House on December 6, 2015, for the reception for that year’s honorees at the Kennedy Center. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Getty Images)

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

“I’m the complete opposite of a genius, and I’ve always had to make an effort,” he said at a 2014 press conference in Tokyo.

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

The crucial years in Toronto

In 1965, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra pulled off a coup when it chose Ozawa to succeed Walter Susskind as the fourth music director in its history. Ozawa had a fresh second term as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under his lifelong mentor Leonard Bernstein.

“I came after the CBC Symphony and Toronto Symphony merged,” Ozawa told the Globe and Mail in the 1990s, referring to the CBC group that existed between 1952 and 1964. “Everything was new for me and the players.” It was composed of several TSO musicians.

In addition to performances at its home at the time, Massey Hall, Ozawa’s TSO would play City Hall’s grand opening gala in 1967.

“A better orchestra is important, not only for musical reasons but for social reasons,” he told the Globe in 1967. “Toronto residents feel the orchestra is important, like the hockey or baseball team.”

A clean-shaven man with dark hair in a suit and tie is shown leading an unseen group of musicians in an image that appears to be from the distant past.
Seiji Ozawa was performed on March 9, 1967, in Toronto, in a show that was later broadcast on CBC Television. (Still Image Collection by Michael Richman/CBC)

Ozawa and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra also represented Canada at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in Glasgow and two years later were part of the cultural program at Expo 67 in Montreal.

At the time, there were few non-white musicians on the international scene. In his 1967 book Great connectorsCritic Harold C. Schoenberg noted the shifting ranks of younger conductors, writing that Ozawa and the Indian-born Zubin Mehta were the first two Asian conductors to “impress one another as absolutely major talents.”

“Every piece of music I performed in Toronto, I performed for the first time in my life — Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mahler, everything,” Ozawa told the Globe in 1996. “They were a wonderful, patient, very supportive audience.”

He left for a similar position with the San Francisco Symphony beginning in 1970, before making his biggest mark in Boston.

Boston’s boom years

Ozawa exerted tremendous influence on the BSO during his tenure. He hired 74 of its 104 musicians, and his fame attracted famous artists, including Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. He also helped the symphony become the largest big-budget orchestra in the world, with the endowment growing from less than $10 million in the early 1970s to more than $200 million in 2002.

Ozawa has won two Emmy Awards for television work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra – the first in 1976 for the BSO’s PBS series. Evening at the symphony The second was in 1994 AD in individual achievement in cultural programming Dvořák in Prague: a celebration.

Despite rave reviews of his performances in Europe and Japan, American critics were sometimes disappointed in the final years of Ozawa’s tenure with the BSO. In 2002, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote that Ozawa had, after a bold beginning, become “the embodiment of the established music director who had lost touch.”

But when he returned to conduct the Boston Orchestra for a 2006 show — four years after he left — he received a hero’s welcome with nearly six minutes of applause.

Rugby’s injury prompted action

Ozawa was born on September 1, 1935, to Japanese parents in Manchuria, China, while it was under Japanese occupation.

His mother, a Christian, took him to church to sing hymns, and the family would sing at home, with one of his brothers sometimes accompanying him on the accordion.

A bearded man closes his eyes and appears to be singing on stage while a clean-shaven man nearby gestures as a bandleader.  Musicians appear in the background.
Seiji Ozawa appears with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli in a May 5, 2000 performance at the Champs de Mars in Paris. (Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images)

After his family returned to Japan in 1944, he sprained his fingers while playing rugby and was unable to continue, so he turned to surgery. He studied music under Hideo Saito, the cellist and bandleader credited with popularizing Western music in Japan.

Ozawa devoted his time to teaching—in Boston, he held weekly classes for children, who all called him “Seiji”—and to fostering classical music in Japan, holding a summer music festival in the city of Matsumoto.

In 1998, at the Nagano Olympics, he performed simultaneously via satellite with musicians gathered in Beijing, Berlin, Cape Town and Sydney.

“I will continue to do everything I have always done, teaching and conducting the orchestra, until I die,” Ozawa told Reuters in a December 2013 interview.

Ozawa’s administration office said his funeral was only attended by his close relatives as his family wished for a quiet farewell.

Ozawa’s survivors include two adult children. His daughter, Sera, is an author and his son, Yukiyoshi, is an actor.

(tags for translation) Grammy

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