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Famed former Boston Symphony, TSO conductor Seiji Ozawa dead at 88 | CBC News

Seiji Ozawa, the Japanese conductor who amazed audiences with the lithe physicality of his performances during three decades at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has died, his management office said Friday. He was 88.

The internationally acclaimed maestro, with his trademark mop of salt-and-pepper hair, led the BSO from 1973 to 2002, longer than any other conductor in the orchestra’s history. From 2002 to 2010, he was the music director of the Vienna State Opera.

He died of heart failure Tuesday at his home in Tokyo, according to his office, Veroza Japan. 

He remained active in his later years, particularly in his native land, even as his health deteriorated. He was treated for cancer of the esophagus in 2010, and in 2015 and 2016 he cancelled performances for various health problems.

He was the 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 L’Enfant et Les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells).

The previous year, he was among the class of honorees at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Several people are shown standing with multicoloured ribbons around their neck in a ceremony.
From left to right, actress Cicely Tyson, conductor Seiji Ozawa, actress Rita Moreno, filmmaker George Lucas and singer-songwriter Carole King are shown at the White House on Dec. 6, 2015, for a reception of that year’s honorees of the Kennedy Center. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Getty Images)

In 2022, he conducted his Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival for the first time in three years, to mark its 30th anniversary in what turned out to be his last public performance.

“I’m the complete opposite of a genius, I have always had to make an effort,” he told a 2014 news conference in Tokyo.

“I don’t really like studying, but I had to do it if I wanted to make music. Anybody with genius can easily do better than me.”

Seminal years in Toronto

In 1965, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra scored a coup when it tapped Ozawa to succeed Walter Susskind as the fourth music director in its history. Ozawa was fresh off a second stint as assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic under lifelong mentor Leonard Bernstein.

“I came in just after the CBC Symphony and the Toronto Symphony had merged. Everything was new, for me and the players,” Ozawa told the Globe and Mail in the 1990s, referring to the CBC group that existed between 1952 and 1964, and was comprised of several TSO musicians.

In addition to performances at its home at the time, Massey Hall, Ozawa’s TSO would play the grand opening of City Hall in 1967.  

“A better orchestra is important, not only for musical but for social reasons,” he told the Globe in 1967. “Toronto people feel [the] orchestra is important, like a hockey or baseball team.”

A clean-shaven, dark-haired man in a suit and tie is shown conducting an unseen group of musicians in a photo that appears to be from the distant past.
Seiji Ozawa is shown on March 9, 1967, conducting in Toronto, in a performance later broadcast on CBC Television. (Michael Reichmann/CBC Still Photo Collection)

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 the time, there were few non-white musicians on the international scene. In his 1967 book The Great Conductors, critic Harold C. Schonberg noted the changing ranks of younger conductors, writing that Ozawa and Indian-born Zubin Mehta were the first Asian conductors “to impress one as altogether major talents.”

“Every repertoire I ever conducted in Toronto, I did for the first time in my life — Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mahler, everything,” Ozawa told the Globe in 1996. “They were wonderful, patient audiences, very supportive.”

He would leave for a similar post with the San Francisco Symphony beginning in 1970, before making his biggest mark in Boston.

Boom years in Boston

Ozawa exerted enormous influence over the BSO during his tenure. He appointed 74 of its 104 musicians and his celebrity attracted famous performers, including Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. He also helped the symphony become the biggest-budget orchestra in the world, with an endowment that grew from less than $10 million US in the early 1970s to more than $200 million in 2002.

Ozawa won two Emmy awards for TV work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra — the first in 1976 for the BSO’s PBS series Evening at Symphony and the second in 1994, for individual achievement in cultural programming, for Dvorak in Prague: A Celebration

Despite glowing reviews for his performances in Europe and Japan, American critics were sometimes disappointed in the later years of Ozawa’s tenure with the BSO. In 2002, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote that Ozawa had become, after a bold start, “an embodiment of the entrenched music director who has lost touch.”

But when he returned to conduct the Boston orchestra in a 2006 performance — four years after he had left — he received a hero’s welcome with a nearly six-minute ovation.

Rugby injury led to conducting

Ozawa was born Sept. 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 on an accordion.

A bearded man closes his eyes and appears to be singing on a stage as a clean-shaven man nearby gestures as a conductor. Musicians are shown in the background.
Seiji Ozawa is shown with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli at a performance on May 5, 2000, at Champs de Mars in Paris. (Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images)

After his family returned to Japan in 1944, he sprained fingers playing rugby and could not continue, and so he switched to conducting. He studied music under Hideo Saito, a cellist and conductor credited with popularizing Western music in Japan.

Ozawa devoted time to teaching — in Boston, he held weekly classes for children, who all called him “Seiji” — and nurtured classical music in Japan, where he set up a summer music festival in the city of Matsumoto.

In 1998, at the Nagano Olympics, he conducted a synchronized performance via satellite with musicians gathered in Beijing, Berlin, Cape Town and Sydney.

“I will continue doing everything I have always done, teaching and conducting orchestra, until I die,” Ozawa told Reuters in a December 2013 interview.

Ozawa’s management office said his funeral was attended only by close relatives as his family wished to have a quiet farewell.

Ozawa’s survivors include two adult children. His daughter, Seira, is an author and his son, Yukiyoshi, an actor.

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