Seiji Ozawa, whose artistry shaped the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s sound for 29 years — longer than any other conductor — has died at 88 at his home in Tokyo.
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.
"Seiji Ozawa was one of the greatest conductors and musicians of the last 60 years," said Anthony Rudel, general manager of GBH Music. "His tenure at the BSO was a time of growth and great development for the orchestra and we are fortunate to have some of that legacy available to us in his recordings."
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 his roommate was the Uruguayan conductor José Serebrier.
"We had bunk beds; I slept up and he slept down," he said. "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.
Anthony Fogg, the BSO’s vice president of artistic planning, said Ozawa “brought the music to life in a really most, brilliantly corporeal way.”
“To watch Seiji conduct was like watching a great dancer,” Fogg told GBH’s Morning Edition co-hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel Friday. “He had the most beautiful, poetic, fluid motions. He could show everything, and through his body. He was tiny. He was a tiny, birdlike creature with his great mop of hair. But, this fantastic control that he had, he had this prodigious memory, of course, even the most complicated modern works he conducted from memory because he studied so hard.”
Ozawa's ability to keep track of complex pieces and communicate them to his orchestra fascinated Mark Volpe, former president and CEO of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“He could memorize stuff that was impossible to memorize,” Volpe told CRB’s Brian McCreath in 2016. “I mean, you know, OK fine, Mozart, you know, eight-bar, four-bar patterns. There is stuff he was memorizing that there were no patterns: No rhythmic patterns, no harmonic patterns. Masterclasses on conducting were fascinating.”
Ozawa could memorize pieces at an astounding speed — then seemingly wipe them from his memory.
“When I would go see him in Vienna, there'd be four-hour operas and he would know every part,” Volpe said. “In the midst of it you just said second oboe part, the second movement, 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.”
“He was the kind of performer who always put himself fully — physically, mentally, emotionally — into every piece he did,” Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart told GBH's All Things Considered guest host Craig LeMoult on Friday.
“I tend toward the very physical side of conducting myself, so I really appreciated the way that he approached showing the music on his body,” Lockhart said. “It was never detached. It was never clinical. It was never academic. It was always kind of with both feet all the way in the pool.”
He also had passions for Boston sports teams, and for eclectic fashion.
“One moment he could be here conducting the most elevated, complicated, richest musical works,” Fogg said. “And then we'd head over to Fenway together, and he would be totally in his element.”
Ozawa came to Boston when the city was in somewhat of a period of artistic stagnancy, Volpe said.
“There was a period in the commonwealth history where Boston was not depressed, but in a pretty static state,” Volpe said. “And, you know, Seiji was a big thinker with big plans and big aspirations.”
Along with that energy came a more internationalist profile, extending the BSO’s audience beyond the U.S. 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.