The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Remembering Seiji Ozawa (1935–2024)

  14th February 2024

14th February 2024

Seiji Ozawa, who has died at the age of 88, was one of the chief representatives of a new generation of conductors who emerged on the international scene in the 1960s. Others included Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti. Replacing the largely self-taught conductors of earlier generations who had studied ‘on the job’ in junior Kapellmeister posts, many of the new cohort learned their craft on formal conducting courses, and debate continues to rage as to which is the best route for the budding maestro. Formally-trained maestri now vastly outnumber the self-taught variety, and Ozawa was one of the pioneers of the advance guard. Born to Japanese parents in Manchuria in 1935, he initially studied piano before a rugby accident in which he broke two fingers ultimately propelled him towards conducting.

Ozawa’s conducting mentor at Tokyo’s Toho Gakuen School of Music in the 1950s was the great Hideo Saito, and early engagements while still a student were with the NHK Symphony Orchestra and Japan Philharmonic. He studied further in Europe. His victory in the 1959 International Competition of Orchestra Conductors in Besançon began to gain him wider recognition and brought him to the attention of Charles Munch, who invited him to the Berkshire Music Center (now Tanglewood), where he studied with Munch and Pierre Monteux. There he won the Koussevitzky Prize, which in turn brought him to the notice of Karajan, with whom he studied in West Berlin, and then Bernstein, who invited him to become assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic in the early 1960s.

Ozawa’s subsequent rise was little short of meteoric: he conducted the San Francisco Symphony for the first time in 1962, was the first music director of the Ravinia Festival (summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) from 1964 to 1968, and from 1965 as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where among his early recordings was a Grammy-nominated account of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, one of the first to be widely commercially available (on RCA). In 1966 he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time at the Salzburg Orchestra, and went on to enjoy a long and happy relationship with the orchestra.

Now sporting long hair and flower-power smocks, Ozawa was a shrewd choice for the San Francisco Symphony, where he was music director from 1970 to 1976. While there he commissioned San Francisco Polyphony from György Ligeti. He was a more awkward fit in Boston, where he served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1973 in succession to William Steinberg. His time in Boston was not without controversy, with several leading players (including the concertmaster) writing a letter of open protest at aspects of his conducting style and lack of communication skills (not the first time these charges has been levelled against him). Nevertheless he led the orchestra through a series of commercially successful recordings and tours, and by the time he stepped down from his post in 2002, he had become the orchestra’s longest-serving music director, outstripping even Koussevitzky, with an extensive catalogue of recordings to his name (many for Philips and DG).

Ozawa transformed the ‘Boston sound’ from the French-style sonorities encouraged by Monteux and Munch to a weightier, more Germanic style, with more depth of tone and ‘digging in’ from the strings. This was a change that was bound to upset the old guard, yet ironically many of Ozawa’s most successful Boston recordings were of French repertoire, notably a much-admired recording of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Yet arguably his finest achievements were in repertoire that married French suppleness with Germanic discipline. Certainly his 1992 recording of Mendelssohn’s Overture and incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (graced by the singing of Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Stade and superbly atmospheric narration from Judi Dench) is hard to beat.

Accusations from many seasoned critics of superficial glamour did little to hamper Ozawa’s career or popularity with the public. Some of his greatest achievements in later years were with the Saito Kinen Orchestra which he helped to found in 1984. From 2002 to 2010 he was music director of the Vienna State Opera, kicking off his inaugural year at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day Concert, as well as productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa and Křenek’s Jonny spielt auf.

Ozawa’s later years were marred by ill health, including brushes with oesophageal cancer and pneumonia. Always a slender, diminutive figure, he now looked increasingly gaunt and frail. Yet his occasional appearances – for instance with Martha Argerich and the Mito Chamber Orchestra in Beethoven’s first two piano concertos – were enthusiastically received by his many admirers. His last concert, in November 2022, including a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture broadcast to the International Space Station, was conducted from a wheelchair.

Seiji Ozawa died of heart failure at his Tokyo home on 6 February 2024.

Recommended Recordings:
Conductors: Seiji Ozawa (5 DVDs) 4255388
Beethoven - Symphony no.1, Piano Concerto no.1 (Argerich) 4832566
Mendelssohn - A Midsummer Night’s Dream (BSO) 4398972

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