Seiji Ozawa, Exceptional And Inspiring, Left His Stamp On Music World

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Seiji Ozawa’s professional conducting career got its start at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where he is fondly remembered. (Photo courtesy Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

APPRECIATION — When Seiji Ozawa first came to Toronto for a concert with the Toronto Symphony on Jan. 7, 1964, he was 29 years old. He had won some conducting competitions and had worked with both Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. But neither the orchestra nor the audience was prepared for what we saw and heard that night. The program included Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

When the young conductor came on stage, one was struck by his obvious youth, shyness, and slight build. Then he mounted the podium and worked his magic. Here was a young man with the grace of a ballet dancer and a stick technique that somehow combined poetry and precision. And then there was the intensity. The TSO musicians responded with an energy and commitment they hadn’t shown in years. Both the Prokofiev and the Tchaikovsky generated an excitement that rocked venerable Massey Hall.

It was thrilling to watch such vibrant music-making. Ozawa took Toronto by storm and solidified his first impression with an exhilarating Symphonie fantastique a few months later. Almost immediately, he was offered the music directorship of the TSO — his first orchestra. Over the next two years, I attended every Ozawa concert I could until my own career took me away from Toronto. But I enjoyed watching him grow over the years and made a point of seeing his concerts and opera performances whenever I could.

Seiji Ozawa died Feb. 6, 2024. He was 88. (©Michiharu Okubo, courtesy TSO)

When Ozawa died Feb. 6 at the age of 88, I felt a blazing light had gone out in our world of music. He was the first Japanese conductor to enjoy such phenomenal success in the West. He became an important symbol of what could be achieved in our increasingly global world. And let it be clearly understood that Seiji Ozawa was by no means a token Asian conductor who happened to be in the right place at the right time. He was truly gifted and exceptional. He inspired musicians and music-lovers alike around the world for more than 50 years. His recordings and videos will live on for years to come.

In 1965, Ozawa became music director of the Toronto Symphony, succeeding Walter Susskind. He spoke very little English at the time but communicated so powerfully through gesture and body language that this was scarcely a problem. Admittedly, in Toronto he was learning most of the repertoire. But he worked hard and learned quickly.

He began to learn the Mahler symphonies, leading Nos. 4 and 9 in Toronto. Later, of course, he would conduct all the Mahler symphonies. He also conducted Messiaen’s notoriously difficult Turangalîla and recorded it with the TSO. He championed the music of his compatriot and contemporary Takemitsu and recorded many of his works with the TSO. He did most of the major Berlioz pieces for the first time in Toronto along with the likes of Charles Ives’ fiendish Symphony No. 4. He did a complete opera for the first time: Verdi’s Rigoletto, with Louis Quilico in the title role.

Ozawa said he never ate better meals than dining with Rubinstein. (TSO handout)

While in Toronto, the young conductor formed a friendship with pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who was often a guest with Ozawa and the TSO; Rubinstein invited him to become his tour conductor. Ozawa recalls never having eaten better meals than those he shared with Rubinstein and being introduced to Punt e Mes Carpano, an Italian vermouth.

But everybody knew that Ozawa would not be stopping long in Toronto. He soon was snapped up by the San Francisco Symphony and then the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia. Then came the Boston Symphony, where he became music director in 1973.

After Toronto, the next time I saw Ozawa was in Salzburg in 1969. He did his first staged opera that summer, conducting Mozart’s Così fan tutte with a stellar international cast and with Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas almost stealing the show as the maid Despina. The red socks helped, too.

Ozawa also had a great triumph in Salzburg, leading the Orchestre de Paris in a spectacular performance of the Berlioz Requiem. Ozawa dazzled the audience in coordinating the four brass groups placed at the four corners of the Grosse Festspielhaus. He seemed to have at least eight hands as he whirled around the podium keeping his vast forces together.

And I will never forget the moment when the eight timpanists made their first entry. The 16 drums were lined up across the back of the stage. At the time, the musicians of the Orchestre de Paris wore tuxedos instead of tails but with red sashes around their waist. All eight timpanists stood up at the same time in an eye-popping display of color and drama, and then the floor of the auditorium began to shake beneath us as they began to play. Just a few years later, I had a chance to see Ozawa work his magic once again as he conducted the Requiem at Tanglewood.

Highlights of the Ozawa era with the Boston Symphony include an extensive library of Ravel recordings for the DG label. (Composite label assembly.)

Through the ’70s and ’80s, the center of Ozawa’s universe was the Boston Symphony. Ozawa was the hottest conducting property around, and Deutsche Grammophon and Philips turned out BSO/Ozawa recordings as fast as was humanly possible. They recorded a vast repertoire together, and many of them were extraordinary. I attended a DG recording session in Boston in the mid-’70s to watch them record a Ravel album. Conductor and orchestra were in their element, and in Symphony Hall they had just about the best recording venue imaginable.

Among the recordings they made together, I would single out the Ravel albums, the Berlioz, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Rudolf Serkin, the complete Mahler symphonies, the complete Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, and a great deal of Tchaikovsky, including the complete Swan Lake and the opera Pique Dame. Their recording of Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra deserves special mention, too.

Ozawa had always been a sports fan, and in Boston he regularly attended games by the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Red Sox and enjoyed being just a fan wearing a baseball cap. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots football team, recalled Ozawa’s involvement in the games: “During a game, he constantly asks me questions that reveal his curious mind. He understands the necessary talent, artistry, and team effort required for perfect execution — not unlike the requirements for an orchestra to perform at the highest level.”

Ozawa took his calling very seriously, but he made time to have fun, too. While he was in Boston, composer John Williams had taken on the mantle of Arthur Fiedler to conduct the Boston Pops. He got to know Ozawa well and tells a very funny story about him. After a concert one night, Ozawa invited some distinguished guests to join him for supper at a restaurant of his choice. The guests were dressed in tuxedos and long gowns and enthusiastically followed the maestro to his chosen restaurant owned by a woman named Carol Doda.

Topless dancer Carol Doda, an old friend of Ozawa, is recalled in a famous Ozawa story that John Williams tells. (Wiki photo)

“Surgically enhanced, she was the proprietress and star attraction at this place, which I later learned was a kind of mecca for the art of the striptease. Ms. Doda, I was told, was world famous and one of Seiji’s oldest friends. She and Seiji greeted each other like brother and sister after a long separation. As the lights dimmed she began her dance before our dumbstruck little group in furs and dinner jackets. The tempo quickened and the audience, backlit from the stage, formed a picture that I’ll never forget. Their eyes widened and their jaws dropped as they gazed in wonderment. I also caught a glimpse of Seiji. He was beaming.”

Ozawa was the toast of Boston for many years, but then rumblings of criticism began among the orchestra members. There were also clashes of personalities at Tanglewood that led to dismissals. After 29 years, it was clearly time to go. In fact, Ozawa had stayed too long. He had failed to heed the example of his mentor Herbert von Karajan and the trouble he had caused by staying too long with the Berlin Philharmonic.

While at the helm of the Boston Symphony, Ozawa had also developed connections elsewhere. Back in his native Japan, he had created the Saito Kinen Orchestra to honor his teacher, Hideo Saito. It was founded in 1984 and became an ensemble much like the Lucerne Festival Orchestra created for Claudio Abbado. The Saito Kinen Orchestra was made up primarily of Japanese players, but it also included musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, and other orchestras Ozawa had frequently conducted. These were musicians who were devoted to Seiji who would go anywhere to play with him. The orchestra was assembled for just a few weeks each year. But it was excellent, and together Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra made frequent tours and many recordings, including all the Brahms symphonies, Bach’s B minor Mass, and symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler.

During the 1980s, Ozawa formed a very close relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic. They made dozens of recordings together for DG, including the complete Prokofiev symphonies. There is a video available on YouTube of a concert given Dec. 31, 1989, of an electrifying performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana. Kathleen Battle, Thomas Allen, and Frank Lopardo are the soloists with the visiting Shin-yu Kai Chorus from Japan singing from memory. Ozawa conducted nearly everything from memory and does so on this occasion, too.

This historic Berlin Philharmonic concert with Ozawa is available for free viewing at https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/concert/25

In another video from 2009 (available on the Digital Concert Hall), a much older Ozawa is seen leading the Berlin Radio Chorus and the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah that could hardly be surpassed. Again conducting from memory, Ozawa is at his very best in a performance that has intensity, beauty, and depth. Matthias Goerne gives the performance of a lifetime as Elijah.

Ozawa stepped down from the Boston Symphony in 2002 after nearly three decades. But while one door closed, another one opened that year. Vienna called and wanted him badly. Ozawa became the first Japanese conductor to lead the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert. This is one of the most coveted engagements available to any conductor. He was a huge success in a concert seen by millions all over the world via television. Not only that, he was invited to become music director of the Vienna State Opera.

Up to that point in his career, Ozawa had done very little opera — he only conducted two operas at the Metropolitan Opera — but he welcomed the challenge and again enjoyed great acclaim. He took over at the Vienna State Opera in 2002 and stayed until 2010. It was serious health problems that forced him to resign.

In 2010, Ozawa was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and this was only the beginning of a series of health issues that plagued him for the rest of his life. He made occasional appearances over the next 14 years, mostly for educational projects in Japan and Switzerland, but the stamina that had propelled him for so long was gone. His love of music never waned, but his body could no longer give him what he needed.

“Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji” is widely available.

Ozawa seldom talked about music and was not a gifted raconteur. But the man who got closer than anyone to the private Ozawa was the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in his book Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. Murakami’s technique was to play recordings by Ozawa and others and get the conductor to comment. Murakami was able to draw him out to talk about himself and about how he felt about music and musicians he had known.

But above all, Ozawa was a musician’s musician who came prepared and got the best out of everyone in his orchestras, and through talent and force of personality made music at the highest level. One man who knew better than most what it was like to play under Ozawa was Vic Firth, the longtime timpanist of the Boston Symphony and a founding member of the Saito Kinen Orchestra:

“The demands he puts on himself, and his expectations of performance from his players, are intense. Every concert is an ‘event,’ every rehearsal a ‘happening.’ His stick technique is a player’s dream. He’s a ballet dancer who possesses a clear, intelligible beat. He has a grace and panache that is unto itself a work of art. He conducts without a score — flawlessly. He never misses a cue, a meter change or any musical subtlety that has been ordained in rehearsal. Perfection and consistency, coupled with his personal élan, are his signature to music.”