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BSO Music Director Laureate Seiji Ozawa Remembered for his Musical Legacy in Boston and Beyond

Seiji Ozawa conducting.
Seiji Ozawa conducting. By Akira Kinoshita, Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
By Lara R. Tan, Contributing Writer

The date was July 7, 1963. On “What’s My Line?” — a popular game show where four panelists guess their guest’s occupation or name if the guest is well-known — a young Seiji Ozawa stepped up to the blackboard. Typically, the panelists are blindfolded while guessing the name of famous guests. Yet Ozawa’s panelists remained unblindfolded — at that point, he was still considered relatively unknown.

This lack of recognition came despite having already conducted on some of America’s most prominent stages and studied under giants like Karajan and Bernstein. At the young age of 25, he had won the Koussevitzky Prize for outstanding student conductor at the now Tanglewood Music Center, and made his American conducting debut at Carnegie Hall a year later in 1961.

But what brought him halfway across the globe from his native Japan? While he had traveled to Europe in part to further his studies and had found success there, one could argue that Japan’s NHK Symphony Orchestra, who had turned him down in 1962, contributed to his meteoric rise. The firebrand of a conductor was perhaps too big for the Japanese stage at the time, and soon he found himself, giving him an opportunity to become firmly entrenched in the American music scene in Boston.

Ozawa became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1973 and remained in that position for 29 years, surpassing Serge Koussevitzky — whose eponymous conducting competition he had won just 13 years earlier. Orchestra musicians during his tenure often spoke warmly of him, crediting him for revamping the BSO with his appointment of more women and people of color. He is also said to have invigorated the orchestra with the bounce in his step compared to the more conservative, straight-laced conductors of yore. Combined with his photographic musical memory and laser-like focus, Ozawa was a professional tour de force at the BSO.

Hearing the maestro himself speak reveals his astounding humility: When asked what he thought his gift to the BSO was in a 2002 TV interview with Chronicle, he diffidently reframed the question and likened the BSO to a “beautiful park” which he was determined to make a symbol of a beautiful life in Boston.

And Ozawa’s affinity for Boston hardly stopped at music — the conductor was also an avid sports fan and embraced all of Boston’s home teams. He even brought the BSO to Fenway Park in 1999 to play the national anthem, something he had always dreamed of. It was indeed a full circle moment; perhaps he pursued his fanaticism for sport with such a vengeance precisely because he had broken two fingers in a rugby match in his youth, prompting him to switch from playing the piano to conducting.

Nevertheless, Ozawa did not forget his roots. As much as he was the embodiment of the American dream, this success was in no way due to a lack of recognition or appreciation at home. He taught at his alma mater, the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, and founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra in 1984 — named in homage to his teacher — which combined Japanese and non-Japanese musical talent. At the opening ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics, he led an orchestra and singers from the host venue, Nagano, in addition to choruses from Beijing, Berlin, Cape Town, New York City, and Sydney in a performance of the fourth movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In 2011, he collaborated with Haruki Murakami on the book “Absolutely on Music,” featuring six illuminating conversations on music rendered with Murakami’s stylish prose and Ozawa’s expert knowledge.

Not only did his career take him across the globe, he also actively sought to expand his repertoire beyond the accepted canon. Conducting world premieres by 20th-century composers such as György Ligeti, Tōru Takemitsu, and Henri Dutilleux, Ozawa — often in his unconventional concert attire of a white turtleneck, waistcoat, and a beaded necklace, — was equally at home as a champion of contemporary music and a master of the likes of Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. His last major tenure was with the renowned Vienna State Opera from 2002 to 2010, from which he stepped down to undergo treatment for cancer. He ultimately died of heart failure at his home in Tokyo on Feb. 6 at the age of 88.

Seiji Ozawa’s endless appetite for a more beautiful existence through music can hardly be better summed up than in his final concert appearance: A performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture with the Saito Kinen Orchestra, broadcast to Koichi Wakata, a Japanese astronaut onboard the International Space Station. Conducting from a wheelchair, he ended the performance with tears in his eyes. Through the very end of his life, Ozawa believed in the power of music to transcend time, space, nationality, class, and even itself, focusing on the common humanity to be found through music.

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Seiji Ozawa 1963