Seiji Ozawa conducted the traditional New Year’s concert of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra in the golden hall of the Musikverein in Vienna in 2002.Photo: Ali Schafler/AP
Seiji Ozawa, who has died aged 88, was one of the leading conductors of his generation. Although his place in the pantheon of great conductors was questionable, Ozawa was a major player on the international scene for many years and a figure of historical importance for a number of reasons.
He was, firstly, the first conductor from Japan to achieve recognition in the west, the only conductor to date to achieve superstar status, the longest serving music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1973-2002 ) and one of the longest serving directors. any American orchestra. He had a remarkable memory and used to conduct with the score unopened in front of him.
With his shock of black hair (eventually gray), a modular sense of dress (especially in his youth, when he preferred floral shirts and cowboy boots and, on stage, a roll-neck sweater to a dress -shirt) and ballet podium. movements, he attracted attention from his first engagements in America in the 1960s. But many critics felt that his music-making was similarly characterized by gloss and superficiality, despite some notable landmarks in his career and commitment to the training of future artists.
If the performances of his early years were characterized by high-octane energy, those of the later period, perhaps wanting the obscure soul of the music, too often took the vitality of slow tempi and flaccid rhythms.
Ozawa was born in Shenyang, China. His parents were Japanese, and after starting music lessons at the age of seven, he entered the Toho School of Music in Tokyo when he was 16. Although he initially studied piano , he broke both index fingers playing rugby and instead turned to directing and composing. . He gained valuable experience with professional ensembles such as the NHK Symphony Orchestra and the Japan Philharmonic while still a student and won first prizes in both disciplines.
After graduating in 1959, he emigrated to Europe for further studies, supporting himself as a traveling salesman for Japanese scooters. He won first prize in the international conductors’ competition at Besançon, eastern France (1959) and was so impressed by Charles Munch, one of the judges, that he invited him to the USA, to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachuesetts, the following year. , where he was able to study with both Munch and Monteux.
After winning the prestigious Koussevitzky award (1960) there, Ozawa won a scholarship to study with Herbert von Karajan in Berlin. It was there that Leonard Bernstein saw him, who offered him a position as assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic (1961-65).
Ozawa’s career began at this point, with a Carnegie Hall debut in 1961, an invitation to conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1962, and engagements with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, culminating in artistic directorship of the Ravinia festival (1964-68). and music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1965-69). During this period he brought brilliance to his interpretations, with his command of the most complex and intimidating scores and as an elegant even glamorous stage performer.
Describing the first time he saw Ozawa conduct the Boston Symphony in 1965, critic Michael Steinberg noted “an incredible stream of energy that seemed to start in the small of the back and flow up the spine and across the shoulders, along of arms, through. the hands all the way to the point of the stick, and into the air beyond. It was great to watch.”
In 1970 Ozawa was appointed music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1976. A commitment to new music was evident in these years, especially in the commissioning of works such as San Francisco Polyphony (1975) by György Ligeti. In 1970 he also became co-artistic director, with Gunther Schuller, of the Berkshire music festival, leading only in 1973, the year he was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
His three-decade tenure in Boston was full of controversy. His admirers show the confidence he built in the musicians: to enjoy their own desires. He is also credited with creating a darker, more German sound color, suitable for the mainstream repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler, as opposed to the French-flavored tone developed in recent years. His frequent absences abroad were criticized by his managers and, more seriously, questioned his credentials as a top flight attendant.
In the mid-90s a newsletter, Counterpoint, put together by a dissident group of BSO musicians, said that Ozawa did not provide “specific leadership in matters of tempo and rhythm”, offered no “show of concern for sound quality” and even failed to share. any “distinct conception of the character of each piece played by the BSO”. Orchestral musicians are notorious for bad-mouthing their conductors, but Counterpoint contributors included the concertmaster and the principal musician. In addition, they reflected the reservations expressed by the international media – and sometimes by the public.
For example, Idomeneo’s performance at Salzburg in 1990 was met with great acclaim, and few recordings of this period have achieved anything like benchmark status. Some recordings, however, were better received. Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (1991) was praised for its rhythmic vitality and expression of the distinctive qualities of the score, while a stage version, released on video, of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex won multiple awards. Ozawa’s recording of Messiaen’s opera St François d’Assise (1983) – a work he performed for the first time – was regarded as a monumental and wonderfully atmospheric achievement.
In 1984 Ozawa was instrumental in founding the Saito Kinen Orchestra, an ensemble of distinguished Japanese musicians, gathered in honor of the educator Hideo Saito (Ozawa was one of his many students).
Several quality performances and recordings resulted from their periodic reunions and eventually, in 1992, the Saito Kinen festival was established in Matsumoto (now known as the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto festival). The festival is often oversubscribed every year and is seen as a prestigious event. Ozawa’s experience as a mentor, as well as his interest in opera, was leveraged at the Tanglewood summer festival, where he stepped out of the opera component.
That passion for operas was reinforced in 2002 when he was appointed music director of the Vienna State Opera and in 2005 by his simultaneous artistic directorship of the new Tokyo Opera Nomori. Several performances in Vienna and Paris in 2006 had to be canceled for health reasons. In 2010 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He attempted a comeback in April 2016, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the capital’s Philharmonie and the orchestra of the Seiji Ozawa International Academy, Switzerland (which he founded in 2004), in Paris, but had to withdraw from a relationship with Boston. Symphony to July, lacking the strength to send.
In November 2022 he returned to the stage, looking very frail in a wheelchair, to conduct the Saito Kinen Orchestra in a live broadcast to outer space. In collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture was sent to astronaut Koichi Wakata on the International Space Station.
In 2016 he published a book of conversations with the novelist Haruki Murakami under the title Absolutely on Music.
His first marriage, to pianist Kyoko Edo, ended in divorce. With his second wife, Vera Ilyan, he had two children, Seira and Yukiyoshi, who survive him.
• Seiji Ozawa, conductor, born 1 September 1935; died 6 February 2024