Conductor Seiji Ozawa was petrified when a German journalist asked him the following question: “How can you, a Japanese, understand Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms?” In 1979, he confessed to The New York Times that it had taken him years to find an answer, since he had never seen himself as an oriental conducting Western music. “Music is as international as a sunset. It can be seen from Paris or Tokyo. But there will always be people who enjoy or appreciate it more. Everyone can enjoy Mozart. But not all minds are willing to pay attention to it.”
This musician who was as Japanese as he was Western, who was born in what is now Shenyang, in Manchuria, during the Japanese occupation, died last Tuesday, February 6, at his home in Tokyo, at the age of 88, as a result of cardiac arrest. The news of his death was not broadcast until yesterday Friday by the Japanese public broadcasting company NHK. In fact, Ozawa had been living in retirement since 2010 due to treatment for esophageal cancer, which he eventually overcame. But only he was able to sporadically return to the podium, after experiencing other health problems. His last appearance on stage took place on November 22, 2022, conducting the overture of Egmontby Beethoven, in a broadcast dedicated to a Japanese astronaut on the International Space Station.
These minimal and excited gestures of the legendary Japanese maestro contrast with the graceful and slightly rhythmic movements that captivated concert halls in the 1970s. An image that fascinated even Steven Spielberg, during a PBS broadcast of his program Evening at Symphony: “A fabulous creature who stood on the podium, an agile athlete and dancer with thick black hair and beads on his white turtleneck,” writes the film director, in Seiji. An intimate portrait of Seiji Ozawa, a tribute book published in 1998 to celebrate his 25th anniversary as principal of the Boston Symphony. A monograph full of anecdotes from friends, family and colleagues, which show, with abundant photographs, the restless, sincere and rigorous musician. But also the humble and funny man who always wore the traditional yukata or cotton robe after his concerts.
The most recent portrait of Ozawa can be read in Music, just music (Tusquets), by Haruki Murakami. The Japanese novelist created this book based on six conversations, between November 2010 and July 2011, which follow the chronological outline of his career as an orchestra conductor. From his beginnings as the main disciple of Hideo Saito, at the Tohogakuen Music School, in Tokyo, to his intermittent appearances at the head of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which he founded in 1984, as a tribute to his teacher, within the Matsumoto Festival, now renamed with his own name. Some conversations dotted with reflections from a musician who had to step away from conducting and found time to listen to his recordings: “It was like looking in the mirror,” he admits in the book.
But Ozawa’s career as a conductor got off to a strong start in 1959, with his victory in the Besançon conducting competition in France. He was followed by the Koussevitzky Prize, at Tanglewood, and work as assistant to Herbert von Karajan, in 1961, and, later, four years to Leonard Bernstein, at the New York Philharmonic. His first orchestral tenure would be the Toronto Symphony, from 1965 to 1969, where he began his discography with an excellent Turangalila Symphony, by Messiaen. And, after a brief period linked to the San Francisco Symphony, in 1973 he became principal of the Boston Symphony, where he remained until 2002. That year he conducted the popular New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic and He became the owner of his State Opera until his forced retirement at the end of 2009.
He always tried to conduct from memory the most complicated scores within his immense repertoire, focused on composers of the 20th century, from Schönberg, Stravinsky and Bartók to Messiaen and his compatriot Tōru Takemitsu. His interpretations have sometimes been criticized for lacking expressive force, although he always stood out for combining that restraint with an exquisite richness of color and precision. The lack of expressive force can be verified in his complete symphonic work dedicated to Mahler, in the seventies, with the Boston Symphony (Philips), although he later surpassed several of those recordings conducting the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Sony Classical). And the exquisiteness of his sound can be seen in his magnificent symphonic integral dedicated to Maurice Ravel, from 1974, leading his Massachusetts orchestra, recorded with quadraphonic sound by Deutsche Grammophon.
He developed greater fascination with opera in the final stage of his career. However, the first production he directed was That’s what they all do, by Mozart, in 1969, at the Salzburg Festival. And thereafter she collaborated intermittently, in the 1980s, with La Scala in Milan and the Paris Opera. In the first he directed several notable productions by Puccini and Tchaikovsky. And in the second he premiered, in 1983, the opera San Francisco de Asisthe Messiahs.