Seiji Ozawa: a pioneer who has dedicated his life to Western music

The Japanese conductor most famously led the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years, and recently was awarded the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 1:42pm

For a couple of decades, Seiji Ozawa was one of the most familiar faces in American classical music. Turn on your TV, or look in your record store, and you’d see him: the mane of Beatles-like hair, the signature turtleneck in lieu of a starched shirt, the emotive energetic gestures. He ruled the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of America’s most venerable and honoured orchestras, for a record 29 years. He recorded just about everything.

Iconic though he is, people have a hard time pinning him down. He conducted with technical brilliance but didn’t have a repertory speciality – he did it all. He has been a wonderful teacher and led the training programme at the Tanglewood Festival, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home, but doesn’t have a clear legacy. He was a great American conductor but remained Japanese through and through.

Now, he’s a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, which turns the spotlight anew on such questions and will, possibly, help find the answers.

“You always knew it was an Ozawa concert,” says Tom Rolfs, the BSO’s principal trumpet, whom Ozawa hired in 1991. “He had a sense of driving rhythm under everything else that was going on. He had a sense of ferocity. He brought you into his world and moved us along.”

“There aren’t a lot of truly great conductors,” Rolfs adds. “But he was one of them.”

Ozawa has been called enigmatic. Some interviewers have found him distant and off-putting. Many have complained that his English, even after so many years in the States, never got very good.

So nothing prepared me for the genial, relaxed figure – hair now grey, but no less abundant – bubbling over with anecdotes and goodwill on my computer screen as we Skyped from Tokyo, 11,000km and 14 hours apart.

Now 80 years old, recovered from serious illness (oesophageal cancer, back surgery, several bouts of pneumonia), with nothing to lose and without the heavy workload he carried for so long, Ozawa is downright delightful.

He can reminisce about the great Herbert von Karajan, who was his conducting teacher in the 1960s, telling him not to micromanage the orchestra in the Brahms First: “You just conduct tempi, and they will listen to each other.”

He remembers Charles Munch, a jury member when he won the Besançon conducting competition in France 1959, inviting him to Tanglewood and praising his La Mer as “souple”. He remembers Leonard Bernstein, who hired him as an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, seeing him sitting alone in a corner at Carnegie Hall and impulsively bringing him along to the hospital to see his new baby daughter, Nina.

Ozawa was the first Japanese conductor to attain international status in the leading ensembles of the world. He achieved it, furthermore, without sacrificing his Japanese identity.

It’s true that early in his career, Tokyo’s NHK orchestra once publicly refused to play under him, charging him with arrogance – his style was too Westernised, too blunt. Such problems have been put aside long since, and Japan has remained home.

Having spent part of his childhood in China, and knowing what it felt like to start Japanese school as a quasi-foreigner – “I was half Chinese and half Japanese, my language,” he says – he made sure his own children were fully immersed in their own culture.

Once his son and daughter reached school age, his wife, Vera, remained based with them in Japan, while Ozawa commuted to Boston – and around the world.

A definitive highlight of Ozawa’s career is his music directorship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But when the ensemble first approached him, he resisted. They had to ask a few times before he said yes – and even then he tried to lead both the BSO and San Francisco Symphony at the same time, until his health began to suffer. Boston, of course, won.

Ozawa’s tenure in Boston has only been equaled, in length, by a handful of conductors. It was probably too long. He oversaw some fine years, led the orchestra on significant tours, and presided over a significant expansion of the Tanglewood campus and the construction of the wonderful chamber music facility called Ozawa Hall.

But in his later years, there was also a sense that he and the orchestra had grown tired of each other, and that standards were declining. Nonetheless, his departure in 2002, when he left to take over the Vienna State Opera, was marked with genuine emotion.

Today, says Mark Volpe, the orchestra’s general manager, “he comes back and it’s total deification. Especially the youngsters. He’s part of history. He comes to the hall when we’re playing Suntory Hall [in Japan] and the orchestra lines up [to greet him]. He had wonderful family relationships.”

Ozawa has won most of the awards the classical music world has to offer.

His children are grown; his son, Yukiyoshi, is an actor, and his daughter, Seira, is a writer with a one-year-old son.

For all of the allegations of his “inscrutability”, he seems to be simply a devoted family guy who gave his life to music.

More details may emerge in the forthcoming English translation of a book by the acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami, called I Talked to Mr Seiji Ozawa About Music.

It was a big success in Japan.

“It went so fast,” Ozawa says, looking back on his long career, and his 29 years in Boston. “I must say, I had a wonderful time.”

The Washington Post