Seiji Ozawa

The Japanese musician, Seiji Ozawa (born 1935), was one of the very few non-Westerners able to achieve international renown as a conductor of Western music. His natural musicality, energy, and warmth endeared him to orchestras and public alike.

Seiji Ozawa was born on September 1, 1935, in Fenytien (now Shenjang), in the Manchurian province of Liaoning, China, during the Japanese occupation of that region. When war broke out, his Buddhist father and Presbyterian mother moved the family to Tokyo.

His mother's decision to raise her children as Christians brought Ozawa into early contact with Western church music. This contact was reinforced by his older brother, who became a church organist. From the start Ozawa gravitated toward Western music and only developed an interest in the traditional music of his homeland through association with cross-over composers such as Takemitsu, after his career was well established.


Early Training

Ozawa began piano study at the age of seven and numbered among his teachers Toyomasu, a Bach specialist with whom he studied for ten years. He entered the Toho School in Tokyo at the age of 16 with hopes of becoming a concert pianist. When he broke both index fingers in sports activity Toyomasu suggested he also take up conducting, recommending him to Hideo Saito. Ozawa was awarded first prizes in conducting and composition upon graduation from the Toho School.

Ozawa worked with Saito from 1951 to 1958 and served as his assistant and factotum in order to help pay for lessons. His duties were said to have included everything from orchestrating music to mowing the lawn. Ozawa later considered Saito to be one of the three most important influences in his musical development, the others being Charles Munch and Herbert von Karajan.

His rapid rise through the ranks of conductors may be seen as a chain of increasingly important introductions and fortuitous meetings. This same rapid rise, though, did not allow him time for learning the immense repertoire required to be at the top of his craft. He would spend years catching up.

In 1959 Ozawa left Japan, hoping to further his career in Europe. In Paris he saw an ad for the Bensanáon International Conductor's Competition, which he entered and won. The judges at Bensanáon included Charles Munch, who invited him to enter another competition at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, a music camp and summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There he won the Koussevitsky Prize in 1960.

The same year, while in studying in Berlin with Karajan, he met Leonard Bernstein. Ozawa was invited to accompany Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on a tour of Japan in early 1961 and to be one of three assistant conductors with the same orchestra for the 1961-1962 season. In the 1964-1965 season he held this position alone. He made his debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as one of three conductors needed for Charles Ives' "Central Park in the Dark." Ozawa credits Bernstein's children's concerts as the inspiration for a series he later did for Japanese television, though Ozawa's concerts were aimed at an adult audience.

An enthusiastic recommendation by Bernstein to Ronald Wilford of Columbia Artists' Management led to Ozawa's debut with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1962. It also secured for him the music directorship (1964-1968) of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1964 he guest conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and became its musical director the following year. This lasted until 1970, when he was appointed to the same position with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Critics commented on his rather lopsided repertoire, which featured very little German or Austrian music from Haydn to Schumann, but much music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Brahms, Schoenberg, Bartok, Ravel, and Debussy.


Long Tenure in Boston

In 1972 he became musical adviser for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the following year its musical director, still holding his San Francisco appointment. This dual directorship continued until 1976. When this burden became too taxing, he was compelled to give up the West Coast orchestra. His duties with the Boston Symphony Orchestra included directorship of the Tanglewood Festival, a position he had held since 1970, though jointly with Gunther Schuller the first year.

Ozawa retained ties with both Japan and China during his career, serving as musical adviser to the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra from 1968 and making many guest appearances with orchestras in Osaka and Saporo. When the Peoples Republic of China reestablished cultural ties with the West in 1977, he accepted an invitation to conduct the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra, and the following year led the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a tour of China. Ozawa also retained ties with Japan in his personal life, preferring to settle his wife Vera and their two children in Tokyo and hopping continents to conduct.

While performances in the earlier part of his career were marred by a roughness of sound and did not bear the stamp of a strong musical personality, Ozawa later developed a full, well-rounded tone and distinctive style that were particularly suited to big, coloristic pieces from the late 19th through the 20th centuries, including works by Mahler, R. Strauss, Sibelius, and Messiaen. He also had surprising success with Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg, whose "Gurrelieder" ranked among his best recordings. He was criticized on occasion for failing to probe beneath the surface beauty, even in works such as Verdi's "Requiem" which might seem to have been ideally suited to him.

Opera presented further challenges to Ozawa, both in the immense amount of time needed to learn a score and in his additional difficulties with the Italian, German, French, and Russian languages. His opera debut came with Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" at Salzburg in 1969; others in his repertoire included Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," Mussorgsky's "Boris Gudonov," and Messiaen's "Saint François d'Assise," of which he conducted the first performance at the Paris Opéra in November 1983. Ozawa's Metropolitan Opera debut came in 1992.

By the late 1990s, Ozawa's extended stay with the Boston Symphony gave him seniority among directors of American orchestras. He made regular guest appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, the New Japan Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Orchestre National de France, the Philharmonia of London, and the Vienna Philharmonic and released recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the Orchestre National, the Orchestre de Paris, the Philharmonia of London, the Saito Kinen Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Ozawa recorded over 130 works with the Boston Symphony, representing more than 50 composers. He received two Emmy awards, the first for his television series, "Evening at Symphony," and his second for Individual Achievement in Cultural Programming for the Boston Symphony's "Dvorák in Prague: A Celebration."

In 1992 Ozawa founded the Saito Kinen Festival in Natsumoto, Japan, repaying a debt to the memory of his old master. Honors flowed to Ozawa as well, with the opening of a new concert hall at Tanglewood bearing his name in 1994, and the conferring of honorary doctor of music degrees from the University of Massachusetts, the New England Conservatory of Music, and Wheaton College. In Japan, Ozawa became the first recipient of the Inouye Sho ("Inouye Award").

Ozawa did not forget to pay other debts to the muse: he commissioned several new works of music, including one series commemorating the Boston Symphony's centennial and another celebrating Tanglewood's fiftieth anniversary.


Further Reading on Seiji Ozawa

Because Ozawa conducted one of the major orchestras in the United States and continued to record, reviews of his concerts and recordings turn up frequently in all of the well-known music magazines. Articles in Hi-Fi/Musical America, Stereo Review, and American Record Guide are all indexed in The Music Index, as are those in non-music-specific publications such as Saturday Review, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Village Voice. Chapters devoted to Ozawa are found in Helena Matheopoulos' Maestro: Encounters with Conductors of Today (1982) and in Philip Hart's Conductors: A New Generation (1983). The latter also contains a comprehensive list of recordings. Andrew L. Pincus' Scenes from Tanglewood (1989) gives more information about the conductor than is suggested by the title.

General biographical information may also be found on the Internet at sites maintained by BMG Music and the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well as in Michael Walsh's article "What Makes Seiji Run" in Time (March 30, 1987).