Conductor Seiji Ozawa has died at the age of 88. The longtime conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra died in Tokyo on February 6 of heart failure, as announced today by the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland.
Ozawa left his mark on the world of classical music, and came to be regarded as one of the preeminent conductors of the 20th century. He paved the way for many Asian artists who followed him. He also left his mark here in Toronto, one that continues to resonate to the present day.
Maestro Seiji Ozawa
Maestro Ozawa was born on September 1, 1935. He was born in Mukden, China to Japanese parents, the city being occupied by Japanese forces at the time. Seiji began to study piano at the age of nine.
His father was a dentist who fully supported his son’s musical ambitions. In fact, the legend goes that he dragged a piano in a wagon for 25 miles so young Seiji would have something to play. A rugby injury as a teenager, though, diverted his musical talent from performing to conducting.
After a prize win at the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors in Besançon, France in 1959, he was invited to study in the United States by the then music director of the BSO, Charles Munch. Ozawa subsequently studied in Berlin with von Karajan, where he first came to the notice of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein went on to appoint him as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
In Japan, his modern and very physical style of his conducting came under fire, and he went from the NHK Symphony Orchestra to the Japan Philharmonic in the 1960s due to controversy.
Seiji Ozawa: Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra:
Ozawa In Toronto
Ozawa became conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 1969, and one of his recordings made during that tenure links to the TSO today.
Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under then conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1946-48.
Ozawa, considered one of the foremost conductors of Messiaen’s work, highly regarded by the composer himself, recorded Turangalîla with the TSO in 1968. The recording won international acclaim, and was nominated for a GRAMMY® Award.
The work, as it happens, was also first on the list for current Music Director Gustavo Gimeno, whose own recording with the TSO was just released.
From Toronto, Ozawa made the move south to the San Francisco Philharmonic from 1970 to 1977.
He conducts Mahler with the BSO in 1976:
Maestro Ozawa & The BSO
In the middle of that tenure, Seiji arrived in Boston to lead the BSO in 1973 at the age of 38, a bold appointment for the orchestra at the time, and held the position for 29 years. At times controversial, he is acknowledged today as one of the organization’s iconic leaders.
With the BSO, he won Emmy awards in 1976 and 1994. He was also the first to break the Chinese ban on Western music with an epic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Peking Central Philharmonic.
He was active in developing orchestral music and institutions in Japan, and conducted Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at the opening ceremonies of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. He was recognized by the Japanese government with a designation as a Person of Cultural Merit in 2001. His recording of Ravel with the Saito Kinen Orchestra he helped found won a GRAMMY® in 2013.
After Boston, he was the music director of the Vienna State Opera from 2002 until 2010. Ozawa fell ill in 2010, and curtailed his performing activities in the later years of his life, although he was able to guest conduct on the world’s major stages.
In 2004, he created the Seiji Ozawa International Academy as an institution devoted to string quartets, an ensemble he saw as a building block towards becoming a complete musician as a string player. Ozawa was personally involved in the Academy and its teaching.
The Academy will be holding a concert in his tribute on July 9 in Geneva.
May the Maestro rest in peace.
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