May 13, 2015
Seiji Ozawa was born to Japanese parents (a Christian mother and a Buddhist father) on 1 September 1935 at Hoten in Manchukuo, a province in the Manchuria region that was then under Japanese occupation. He began his musical education on piano, but an accident prompted him to look to conducting as an alternative career option. He studied conducting with the great cellist and pedagogue Hideo Saito, whose Toho Gakuen music school introduced modern methods of teaching classical music to Japan.
After a stint spent studying with Eugène Bigot in Paris, Ozawa won first prize at the Besançon international conducting competition in 1959. Charles Munch, who was a member of the jury, then invited Ozawa to study with him in Boston. At the same time, the great Herbert von Karajan summoned him to Berlin. Ozawa has emphasised the vital importance of the training he received in Tanglewood from 1960: "I discovered my own musical personality there, I was able to dream and take risks, surrounded by Munch, Copland and Bernstein." The flamboyant Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, offered Ozawa a job as his assistant - an offer sealed with obligatory beers and whiskies in Berlin.
Ozawa went on to have other significant encounters. But the profound impact made by these three great figures was to define - at least partly - the boundaries of his musical world: French music, the symphonies of Mahler and Tchaikovsky, the great German repertoire. Ozawa's auspicious beginnings meant that he quickly became established as a conductor and was offered one prestigious job after another. After being appointed director of the Ravinia Festival (1964-68), he went on to become the Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1965-69), the San Francisco Symphony (1970-76), and has enjoyed a long association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra - as Music Adviser (1972-73), Music Director (1973-2002) and Music Director Laureate (2002-the present). In fact, his partnership with the Boston Symphony has lasted longer than any other conductor's. He is also the first and only Japanese conductor to have been Music Director of the Vienna State Opera (2002-10).
In addition to these positions, he founded the New Japan Philharmonic in 1972 and the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Saito Memorial Orchestra) in 1984; the latter project was undertaken as an act of homage to his former teacher. In 1992, he launched the Matsumoto Festival, which quickly became a highlight of Japanese musical life, and then, in 2003, the opera company Tokyo Opera Nomori. The Swiss-based International Music Academy, which gives young musicians training in the performance of chamber and orchestral music, followed in 2004. This desire to pass on the knowledge he has acquired over the years makes Ozawa the direct successor to his own teacher Hideo Saito. Though cancer of the oesophagus forced him to cut down his activities from 2010, he made a partial return to public life in 2013, remarking then that he intended to do his utmost to avoid dying.
But Ozawa has always been overflowing with energy and projects - from the exuberant recordings made in Chicago in the spring of 1969 (Rimsky-Korsakov, Kodály, Janácěk, Lutosławski) to Henri Dutilleux's The Shadow of Time (of which he conducted the world premiere in Boston in 1997 and then went on to give the German and French premieres, in Berlin and Paris respectively). Ozawa has also often conducted Japanese music while on tour - both works scored for the conventional orchestra as well as some featuring traditional Japanese instruments such as the gagaku, which is used by Ishii in his Sō-Gũ II.