Tributes are flowing from musicians and orchestral organisations worldwide for conductor Seiji Ozawa, who died in Tokyo on 6 February, aged 88.
“For Seiji, music started with silence, a blank canvas,” wrote the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “He would then paint and illustrate a whole universe in a way that the world had not seen before and rarely since. It is difficult to be a pioneer, and he did so with grace – serving as a source of hope and inspiration for me, especially as an Asian-American artist. To collaborate with him was to exchange intuition and emotion at the deepest level, but most of all I remember Seiji as a joyful, kind, caring human being.”
Ozawa’s leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he served as Music Director from 1973 until 2002 – a 29-year tenure that was the longest in the history of the orchestra – was saluted by his BSO successor Andris Nelsons.
“Seiji Ozawa was one of the warmest, kindest, and most generous people I have ever had the privilege of meeting. He was a great friend, a brilliant role model, and an exemplary musician and leader. He has been an inspiration to me all my life and I will miss him dearly.”
Deutsche Grammophon, Ozawa’s recording home for decades, wrote in a statement that Seiji Ozawa was “one of the greatest musical minds of our time and ultimate master of sensuous sound.”
“His rich and lasting recording legacy on Deutsche Grammophon has spanned over half a century, featured leading orchestras across three continents and encompassed musical traditions as varied as the American, Austro-German, French and Russian schools. He will be greatly missed. Farewell Maestro.”
The Vienna Philharmonic, with whom he first collaborated in 1966 at the Salzburg Festival wrote: “The Vienna Philharmonic mourns the loss of our honorary member Seiji Ozawa, one of the great conductors of our time. We look back with gratitude and love on many concerts and opera performances together, especially on our tours through Japan.”
The making of a Maestro
Born in Shenyang, China in 1935, Ozawa studied piano and later conducting (under Hideo Saito) in Japan. He came to international prominence in 1959, winning First Prize at the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors held in Besançon, France, and was invited the next summer to Tanglewood by then BSO Music Director Charles Munch, who was a judge at the competition.
Later mentorships with Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan quickly propelled Ozawa to directorships of the Toronto Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, Ravinia Festival, and finally the Boston Symphony where he succeeded William Steinberg.
Under Ozawa, the BSO became a global brand, thanks to a prolific recording schedule, high-profile TV appearances and international tours, including a ground-breaking 1979 visit to China.
Ozawa championed the works of many late 20th century composers including Henri Dutilleux, Peter Lieberson, Olivier Messiaen and Toru Takemitsu. Award-winning recordings of more than 140 works were also among his extraordinary output, featuring artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Jessye Norman, Itzhak Perlman, and Peter Serkin. He took the podium at Carnegie Hall more than 190 times.
“As a recording artist … Ozawa was never extravagantly lauded, but neither was his work as divisive as some,” wrote Limelight‘s Phil Scott in 2015.
“Perhaps this is because his sound is not particularly identifiable (like Karajan) or single-minded (like Boulez). Despite this he produced some of the top recommended recordings, such as a full-blooded Orff Carmina Burana (with Gruberová and the Berlin PO) and a compelling Schoenberg Gurrelieder (with Norman and Troyanos).”
After his departure from the Boston Symphony in 2002, he was appointed Vienna State Opera music director, a position he held until 2010, when Ozawa announced that he was cancelling all engagements for six months in order to undergo treatments for oesophageal cancer.
Following his cancer diagnosis, Ozawa and the novelist Haruki Murakami embarked on a series of six conversations about classical music that form the basis for the book Absolutely on Music.
Ozawa’s last concert took place on November 22, 2022, with the Saito Kinen Orchestra where he conducted Beethoven’s Egmont Overture which was broadcast live to Koichi Wakata, an astronaut onboard the International Space Station.
Ozawa died of heart failure at his home in Tokyo.
“My heartfelt condolences to Maestro Seiji Ozawa’s family,” wrote Marin Alsop on X (formerly Twitter). “He was a great mentor to me at Tanglewood and I will be forever grateful.”
On the same platform, Plácido Domingo wrote: “Rest in peace great maestro Seiji Ozawa. I cherished our works together and times of jogging together on the Paris streets.”