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Seiji Turns 85!


Seiji Ozawa (Shintaro Shiratori)

Seiji Ozawa frequently told students: “Listen! You MUST always listen! Only playing your own music is not enough, you must listen to others. To communicate with others who are playing with you is the core of music. Making harmony and ensemble, that is music!”

Even absent today’s proclamation from Mayor Walsh in celebration of Seiji Ozawa’s 85th birthday, we would have recognized him, to anyone who asked, as the most expressive and balletic conductor we have ever witnessed … especially in his favored repertoire.

I have known this since participating in a Dessoff Choirs Summer Sing of the Berlioz Requiem c. 1963. How could a musical high school student ever forget the two hours of preparation under a very young Ozawa before a very old Leopold Stokowski led us in a performance better-remembered for enthusiasm than for polish?

Flash-forward some decades to a post-performance tête-à-tête in the Symphony Hall green room. When I recalled the earlier inspiring moment, Ozawa, sitting on a sofa only inches away, looked into my eyes and claimed to remember.

Many BMInt readers will be able to summon similar recollections. If not, watch “March to the Scaffold” from a 2002 Tanglewood performance of the Symphonie Fantastique HERE.

Late in his progress from lovebeads to sublimity, the master avers that “A life in music is a journey with no real end.”

On the beloved conductor’s 85th birthday, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, along with worldwide organizations closely associated with him — including the New Japan Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, Vienna Philharmonic, Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival, Seiji Ozawa Music Academy, Ozawa International Chamber Music Academy Okushiga, and Decca recording label — join a social media celebration—#happybirthdayseiji.

BSO CEO Mark Volpe wishes Seiji Ozawa “a very happy 85th-birthday celebration with his wife, Vera, daughter, Seira, son, Yuki, and dear grandson, Masaki. As the longest-serving music director in BSO history and a most beloved figure worldwide, Seiji holds a very special place in the hearts and minds of his many colleagues and the innumerable young musicians he has mentored throughout his distinguished career.

“Those of us fortunate to know him and to have been present for the fantastic music-making he elicits from an orchestra have been dazzled by his conducting, often described as balletic and always without a score. His prolific body of orchestral and operatic work — captured through hundreds of audio and video recordings — continues to strengthen a legacy of inspiration that will live on for generations. Andris Nelsons joins the entire BSO family in extending our very best wishes to his illustrious predecessor upon reaching this remarkable milestone. Seiji has touched the world with his beautiful humanity and musicianship and the world is no doubt a better place for it. Happy Birthday, Seiji!”

Ozawa responds:

“For me, Boston is like my second home. I love and miss all my colleagues and friends at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“And of course, I miss my friends at the Red Sox and Patriots. (I have been watching ALL games through Internet!) My time in Boston is a very important part of my life and it is always with me, wherever I am.

“I am grateful to Mayor Walsh and the City of Boston. Thank you, Boston! With love, Seiji.”

Seiji Ozawa, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein in 1980 celebrating the 40th anniversary of
the Berkshire Music Center while Koussy plays double bass. (Walter Scott photo)

The longest-serving conductor in Boston Symphony history, Seiji Ozawa held the title of BSO Music Director for 29 years (1973-2002) and continues his long association with the orchestra with the title Music Director Laureate; his most recent BSO conducting appearance at Symphony Hall took place in November 2008. His legacy of achievement with the BSO is evidenced through national and international touring, award-winning recordings (more than 140 works of more than 50 composers on 10 labels), television productions (winning two Emmy awards), and numerous commissioned works by Toru Takemitsu, Henri Dutilleux, Peter Lieberson, and many others. During his time in Boston, Seiji endeared himself to music lovers through his graceful podium presence and bringing such prominent artists as Yo-Yo Ma, Jessye Norman, Itzhak Perlman, Mstislav Rostropovich, Peter Serkin, Frederica von Stade, and Krystian Zimerman regularly to the BSO stage. He was widely popular with the greater community through his love of Boston sports. Known to ardent and casual fans alike as “Seiji,” the BSO’s beloved Music Director Laureate continues to be a major fan of the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots.

Seiji Ozawa’s first official association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra came in 1960 when, at age 24, when Charles Munch (BSO Music Director 1949-62) invited him to attend the Berkshire Music Center — now the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO’s acclaimed summer music academy at Tanglewood, which initiated a lifelong commitment to teaching and mentoring the next generations of young musicians. Ozawa’s led his final concert as BSO music director at Tanglewood in summer 2002.

Among the major events associated with the period of Ozawa’s BSO tenure: the opening of Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall in 1994 in his honor; the history-making 1979 BSO tour to China after diplomatic relations were reestablished; the international Ode: To Joy performance — with six choirs performing on five continents — for the 1998 Winter Olympics; a millennium extravaganza performance at the foot of the Eiffel Tower with the BSO, L’Orchestre de Paris, and Andrea Bocelli; and the establishment of the Saito Kinen Festival, which he co-founded in 1984 and is now named the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival (2015). For the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 100th anniversary in 1981, the Ozawa-led BSO commissioned works by John Harbison, Roger Sessions, Peter Maxwell Davies, Andrzej Panufnik, Leonard Bernstein, Olly Wilson, Donald Martino, Leon Kirchner, among others. Seiji Ozawa has led the major orchestras of the world and has held prominent titles at the Vienna State Opera, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Ravinia Festival, San Francisco Symphony; he also founded the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland (2004) for the intensive study of chamber music. Ozawa has received many prestigious awards and honors, among them France’s Officier de la Légion d’Honneur (2008) and the Kennedy Center Honor (2015).

For more biographical details, click here.

Lee Eiseman publishes the Intelligencer


8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Unbelievable that there are no comments. Seiji was and is a genius of the podium. May he be celebrated worldwide.

    Comment by Charles Addams — September 3, 2020 at 10:53 pm

  2. A very “Happy Birthday” Seiji from a violinist who was in your first orchestra, the Toronto Symphony, back in 1965. Fond memories of great music and concerts, a European tour and our Japanese tour with you. – Agnes

    Comment by Agnes Roberts — September 4, 2020 at 11:18 am

  3. >> Unbelievable that there are no comments. Seiji was and is a genius of the podium …

    I have been wondering about that. For all of his technical and technique skills especially in marshaling large forces (opera, including Mozart), and his associated gifts of clarity in much 20th-century repertory (also in Berlioz), I expect that veteran concertgoers still associate Ozawa with decades of generalized and largely unidiomatic results from most of the mainstream composers.

    In 1974 Richard Buell and I wrote a long piece in the Boston Phoenix surveying his first year (plus guest stints prior), focusing on musical dissatisfaction from audience and orchestra alike. Its most remarkable quote was from the concertmaster, who said that you could draw 500cc of blood from any classical musician and somewhere you would find Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but that was not the case with Seiji. (Podium expressivity aside.) Twenty years later many listeners would maintain the same thing: featureless Dvorak, for example. Not to say that there weren’t terrific performances of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

    Comment by David Moran — September 4, 2020 at 2:01 pm

  4. What an ungenerous, featureless, and generalized comment form the BMInt’s assisting editor. He seems entirely immune to the Ozawa magic. And to characterize Ozawa’s first year as filled with dissatisfaction is to misremember one of the most exciting periods in the history of the orchestra. When Seiji replaced those old-guy predecessors, there were damned few nay-sayers.

    Comment by generalized — September 5, 2020 at 7:00 pm

  5. Moran and Buell. Two names already from the creaky Boston past, soon to be totally forgotten. Ozawa? Major music director of three important orchestras, the Wiener Staatsoper, guest of every major orchestra on the planet, founder of Saito Kinen. Recording artist on major labels. A great conductor whose legacy will live in perpetuity. As T Roosevelt said, “It’s not the critic who matters. It’s the one in the arena, giving blood. “

    Comment by Sic Ovcritics — September 11, 2020 at 11:07 pm

  6. I had the pleasure and, yes, privilege of performing under Seiji’s baton from 1979 until his retirement in 2002. The repertoire was large and varied: from playing the extensive harpsichord parts for a long run of Stravinsky’s “Rake Progress,” a recording of Britten’s “Phaedre” with Jessye Norman, or in the Dutilleux Second Symphony, to a simple basso continuo in a Haydn Symphony (a composer Seiji understood very well). With his flawless stick technique and total command of the music and his musicians, my memories of working with and knowing this great musician and fine human being are indelible. So happy birthday, Seiji!

    Comment by Mark Kroll — September 13, 2020 at 7:18 am

  7. I don’t understand how “results” can be both “generalised” and “unidiomatic”. Be that as it may, unidiomatic performances of anything can well be wonderful.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — September 13, 2020 at 1:05 pm

  8. It is without a doubt in my mind that the name Seiji Ozawa will go down in music history as one of the 20th century’s great conductor. Think not only of the great performances he gave of the iconic masterpieces of the musical canon, but all of the important premieres he gave of contemporary composers. Think of all the great soloists who love to play with him and count him as a close friend – Rubinstein, Rostropovich, Mutter, Barenboim, Zimerman, Peter and Rudolf Serkin, just to name a few. Think of the orchestras he had been associated with, whose standards have been elevated because of his dedication – the Toronto Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, Boston of course, and the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which is now one of the world’s great orchestras. The words of a critic are as long lasting as a fallen leaf, and no one has yet erected a statue in honour of a critic.

    So Happy Birthday Maestro Ozawa. The world is a better place because of you.

    Comment by Patrick May — September 17, 2020 at 5:22 pm

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