Seiji Ozawa conducting in 1965

A great conductor leaves the stage

No conductor from China or Japan ever commanded world orchestras before Seiji Ozawa, and none has since matched his impact

On Music

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Seiji Ozawa was the first of his kind and, in many respects, the last. No conductor from China or Japan ever commanded world orchestras before him, and none has since matched his impact.

After entry jobs in Toronto and San Francisco, Ozawa was music director in Boston for just under three decades. When he left in 2002, the Vienna State Opera made him music director.

Although his opera repertoire was as limited as his German conversation, Ozawa added a much-needed dynamism. In an era of peacock conductors, Ozawa brought an unfeigned and impenetrable exoticism.

Not for him the post-1945 cringe that Japan displayed towards Western culture. Ozawa bore his twin heritages with pride. The son of a dentist in occupied Manchuria, he spoke Chinese as a child and visited China often after Chairman Mao’s death, holidaying with his family whilst giving masterclasses to young musicians. He buried half of his mother’s ashes in the garden of the family home. He considered himself bicultural.

Repatriated to Japan in 1941, he worked seven years as a household servant for his music teacher, Hideo Saito (in time, he would create the Saito Kinen orchestra in his master’s memory). At 15 he broke two fingers in a rugby scrum, ending hopes of a piano career.

A conducting competition victory in France earned him a summer in Tanglewood, where Leonard Bernstein hired him as assistant with the New York Philharmonic. Herbert von Karajan called him to Berlin. Ozawa syncretised both of his mentors, the repressed Austrian Nazi and the unbuttoned American Jew.

Seiji Ozawa takes a bow during his final performance after 29 years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Karajan preached precision, authority, personal elegance. Bernstein taught him how to dance on the podium, to sway with the music, go with the flow.

In San Francisco, Ozawa wore flower-power shirts and shiny, long hair. He blew into Boston with Scriabin’s Poem of Fire, rainbow colours splayed across the ceiling. In the stuffiest of concert halls, he exemplified a new breed of conductor, one who ignored Beethoven anniversaries but sang Beatles songs.

Ozawa’s musical tastes were eclectic, but tasteful. He performed an eruptive Messiaen Turangalîla and premiered the composer’s opera on the life of Francis of Assisi. Ozawa liked Bartók and Lutoslawski, Poulenc and Dutilleux, Stravinsky and Takemitsu. For the first half of his term, the Boston Symphony had a wow factor that other US orchestras could only envy.

Ozawa refused to live in Boston, raising his family in Tokyo and commuting when required. His English was never more than functional. Most musicians grasped what he wanted; any who protested did not last long. “Those women are making their own graves,” said Ozawa, shrugging off a pair of front-desk dissidents.

He could be pally as Bernstein, callous as Karajan. He conducted mostly without a baton, the better to generate an ethereal ambience. After a concert he could sink six Asahi beers. There were two arrests for driving under the influence, both hushed up. Also unreported were quiet acts of generosity to musicians and administrators who had fallen on hard times.

No music director raised more money for his orchestra. Ozawa acted as a sounding board to the heads of the Sony Corporation, Akio Morita and Norio Ohga, as they bought up half of Hollywood.

In return, Ohga donated one-fifth of the $10 million cost of a new Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood and paid another million dollars for the privilege of conducting the Boston Symphony.

Once Sony became the world’s second largest music company, it might have been expected that Ozawa would make stacks of records. Actually, his discography is modest, fewer than 50 releases. A 1984 Berlioz Les nuits d’été and a 1993 Franck D minor symphony stand out.

My own favourite is a 1972 William Russo piece for blues band and orchestra, with a harmonica solo by Corky Siegel that must be heard to be believed.

For all his remoteness, Ozawa was devoted to Boston. Where others held jobs on three continents, he upheld a traditional maestro-orchestra monogamy, burnishing an identifiable sound and style. Even in his last Boston years, when half the orchestra were in open rebellion, Ozawa stayed stubbornly loyal.

In this, too, he was the last of his kind. Boston, after his departure in 2002, lost its way with James Levine and Andris Nelsons, both of whom had parallel jobs elsewhere. The BSO no longer surprises or makes waves; it is just another subscription business in a failing industry. The orchestras of Cleveland, LA and Philadelphia outshine it week after week.

Stricken with esophageal cancer in 2010, Ozawa retreated to Japan, conducting sporadically and nurturing old friendships that transcended language and distance. He had few protégés, with the exception of the French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann whom he spotted as a conductor in the making; she is now music director at Atlanta, Georgia, and a summer fixture at Bayreuth.

Ozawa’s legacy is limited by the ephemerality of his vocation. You had to be there to feel the fire he lit in familiar works and the passion he invested in the new.

He never articulated his method. In a series of non-conversations with the novelist Haruki Murakami, he gave nothing away. “The maestro does speak his own special brand of Ozawa-ese, which is not always easy to convert to standard written Japanese,” wrote the frustrated Murakami. One must assume his obfuscation was intentional. Ozawa died on 6 February in Tokyo, aged 88.

Music, for Seiji Ozawa, lay not in words, nor even in notes, but in some supernal realm of hand and eye communication, a gesture and a look that allowed the music to in- and exhale, to be itself, to be.

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