Seiji Ozawa, the Japanese conductor who wowed audiences with the lithe physicality of his performances during three decades leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has died, his management office said Friday. He was 88 years old.
The internationally acclaimed maestro, with his trademark shock of gray 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, Veroza Japan.
He remained active in his later years, particularly in his homeland, even as his health deteriorated. He was treated for esophageal cancer in 2010, and in 2015 and 2016 he canceled performances due to various health problems.
He was 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 the Grammy for best opera recording in 2016 for Ravel’s The child and the spells (The child and the spells).
The year before, he was among the class of honorees at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
In 2022, he conducted his Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival for the first time in three years, to commemorate his 30th anniversary, in what turned out to be his last public performance.
“I’m the complete opposite of a genius, 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 genius can do it better than me.”
Seminal years in Toronto
In 1965, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra made a splash when it chose Ozawa to succeed Walter Susskind as the fourth music director in its history. Ozawa had just emerged from a second stint as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, his lifelong mentor.
“I came in right after the CBC Symphony and the Toronto Symphony merged. Everything was new, for me and for the musicians,” Ozawa told the Globe and Mail in the 1990s, referring to the CBC group that existed between 1952 and 1964, and It was composed of several TSO musicians.
In addition to performances at his home at the time, Massey Hall, Ozawa’s TSO would play at the grand opening of City Hall in 1967.
“A better orchestra is important, not only for musical reasons but also for social reasons,” he told the Globe in 1967. “People in Toronto feel that the orchestra is important, like a hockey team or a baseball team.”
Ozawa and the Toronto Symphony 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 that time, there were few non-white musicians on the international scene. In his 1967 book The great conductorsCritic Harold C. Schonberg noted the changes in the ranks of younger directors and wrote that Ozawa and the Indian-born Zubin Mehta were the first Asian directors “to impress one as completely major talents.”
“Every repertoire I conducted in Toronto, I did for the first time in my life: Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mahler, everything,” Ozawa told the Globe in 1996. “They were a wonderful, patient audience, very supportive.”
He would leave his position to take a similar position with the San Francisco Symphony beginning in 1970, before leaving his greatest mark in Boston.
Boom years in Boston
Ozawa exerted enormous influence on the BSO during his tenure. He named 74 of his 104 musicians and his fame attracted famous artists, including Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. He also helped the symphony become the world’s highest-budget orchestra, with an endowment that grew from less than $10 million in the early 1970s to more than $200 million in 2002.
Ozawa won two Emmy Awards for his television work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the first in 1976 for the OST’s PBS series. Night at the Symphony and the second in 1994, for individual achievements in cultural programming, for Dvorak in Prague: a celebration.
Despite excellent reviews for his performances in Europe and Japan, American critics were sometimes disappointed by the final years of Ozawa’s tenure at the BSO. In 2002, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote that Ozawa had become, after an audacious start, “the embodiment of the entrenched music director who has lost touch.”
But when he returned to conduct the Boston orchestra in a performance in 2006, four years after his departure, he received a hero’s welcome with a nearly six-minute ovation.
A rugby injury led him to perform
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 sang at home, sometimes accompanied by one of his brothers who played the accordion.
After his family returned to Japan in 1944, he sprained his fingers playing rugby and could not continue, so he moved into coaching. He studied music with Hideo Saito, a cellist and conductor credited with popularizing Western music in Japan.
Ozawa devoted time to teaching (in Boston he taught weekly classes for children, whom everyone called “Seiji”) and pursued classical music in Japan, where he organized a summer music festival in the city of Matsumoto.
In 1998, at the Nagano Olympic Games, he led a synchronized performance 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, until I die,” Ozawa told Reuters in an interview in December 2013.
Ozawa’s administrative office said his funeral was attended only by close relatives as his family wanted to have a quiet farewell.
Ozawa’s survivors include two adult children. His daughter, Seira, is an author and his son, Yukiyoshi, is an actor.