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A Beloved Genius Departed This Sphere

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Seiji Ozawa just died in Tokyo at the age of 88. His durable career with the Boston Symphony, where he spent a major portion of his years as music director, spanned 1973 to 2002, the longest such term in the orchestra’s history. The BSO’s press release is HERE. And we embed a video tribute within.

Upon his much-heralded arrival here, the young, love-beaded Ozawa appealed to so many…in manifold ways. The many players hired during his run invariably enthused. Older players, whatever their opinions about his interpretative depth in certain repertoire, completely respected his skill at running a rehearsal, and his balletic conductorial craft; indeed his conducting of polyrhythms with various parts of his bods reached a sine qua non.

Your publishers’ first exposure came in a 1970 (ish) Dessoff Summer Sings of the Berlioz Requiem, in which a very, very young Seiji prepared us for the unforgettable experience of singing under the ancient but inspiring Leopold Stokowski. The Maestro could also bring total concentration to contacts with individuals. I’ll never forget sitting on a sofa  with him the Symphony Hall green room while we pondered Art for a few minutes.

Mark DeVoto saw Ozawa conduct only a few times, but found every occasion memorable. “I heard his Gurrelieder in Symphony Hall in 1977, a solid but not notably exciting performance which Ozawa conducted (as he, of course, almost always did) from memory, leaving Schoenberg’s score glaringly visible on the conductor’s desk and never opening it. Ten years later he did a semi-staged Wozzeck, with Luxon and Behrens in the lead roles, and George Perle told me afterward it was one of the most moving performances he had ever heard. A few years later I had a fourth-row seat at a special concert that included the American premiere of Arthur Lourié’s fascinating Blackamoor of Peter the Great, followed by a magical performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Kremer, all superbly controlled.  I didn’t hear more than a portion of Messiaen’s seven-hour opera St. François d’Assise, when the BSO did a few excerpts after the Paris premiere; I thought the music was hideous, but couldn’t fault the performance, and Messiaen had personally selected Ozawa to direct it for him.  And I was present in Symphony Hall in 1981 for the premiere of Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra, which Ozawa used, along with Beethoven’s Ninth, as a season opener — a thrilling experience, particularly when I remembered that Ozawa, like his predecessors Steinberg and Leinsdorf, were not much interested in American composers. But he did make a record of Griffes’s Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, triumphantly resurrecting that masterpiece from obscurity after 56 years.

If not everybody was happy with Ozawa’s administration of the Tanglewood Music Center, there’s no doubt that his imprimatur brought that beloved summer institution into flower. The namesake hall proves it.”

6 Comments »

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

  1. A complicated legacy– there were famous grumbles that became more public maybe 10 years before he finally left.

    But his best work was astonishing. He cured me of an allergy to Strauss’ Elektra, which I saw in open rehearsal before the BSO’s recording of it. And the only time I played under him, as the last of the kids borrowed to fill out the requested 8 desks of violins in the BMC orchestra, he was better than anyone at curing anxiety and indicating what he wanted, from the tips of his toes all the way up. This was another Strauss, BTW– Zarathustra.

    We never saw his later work in Boston, with the Vienna State Opera and Saito Kinen. I hope those projects gave him and his audences pleasure. He had an amazing talent.

    Comment by SD Gagliano — February 10, 2024 at 7:48 am

  2. There is a wonderfully balanced career review of SO by ‘Herr Doktor’ at

    https://slippedisc.com/2024/02/the-elusive-seiji-ozawa-was-japans-greatest-peacemaker/

    It is disconcerting, but more important heartwarming, to read everywhere the strongly fond and appreciative memories — specifically of Ozawa’s stick and his skillful ways with the non-mainstream repertory (mainstream in the predictable sense). Disconcerting because during the two decades plus or minus from 1974 on, it often seemed the yawns would never end, meaning the maestro would never change or grow when leading the standard fare from Haydn to Dvorak: featureless, generalized, unidiomatic, dismaying to musicians and audience alike. In 1974 Richard Buell and I wrote in the Boston Phoenix a lukewarm initial appraisal (lukewarm is putting it politely) whose pulled quote was something Joey Silverstein said to me in an interview:
    You could take 500cc of blood from any other musician and somewhere in it will be found Beethoven 5. But not Seiji.

    And then 20 years or so later surprising developments happened, as Herr Doktor notes.

    Comment by David Moran — February 10, 2024 at 4:01 pm

  3. Unfortunately, Seiji’s triumphs were sparse and became less and less frequent as time wore on. Towards the end, the BSO musicians were in open revolt at Symphony Hall. I don’t think it was openly discussed very much but Seiji Ozawa had a mission to change the basic character of the Boston symphony from “a French orchestra” to what he called a Karajan style “German Orchestra”.

    He told me this in a published interview I had with him. When I heard this, I was a astonished; but cast in this light, his whole tenure in Boston suddenly started to make sense. Sort of.

    The saving grace was that Seiji was a congenial personality, a figure whom it was hard to dislike. But still and all, his long Directorship in Boston really can’t be considered an artistic success or one of great distinction for the institution. It’s taken several years for the orchestra to recover and refocus in more capable hands.

    Comment by posa — February 11, 2024 at 2:41 pm

  4. As for French vs. Teutonic orchestra–that has been going on for almost a century at least. Orchestra got too Frenchified after WWI (along with much American culture); Leinsdorf of all people particularly tried to convert the BSO. Now to MY Seiji Story. In 1995 I was fortunate to go with my girl to the BSO’s 120th anniversary concert of the premier of THE Tchaikovsky piano concerto (#1) in Boston October 25, 1875 with Evgeny Kissin making his first appearance with the BSA. That went well; then, after the intermission Ozawa conducted the BSO in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and it was HERE that Seiji demonstrated his control not only over an orchestra but the audience, too! Some overenthusiastic “lout” broke into immediate applause at the end of the 3rd movement’s march—but Ozawa held his baton for the segue to the finale and the irruption ceased; then Ozawa proceeded. Tremendous performance but at the very end with the orchestra silent he still held the hall in suspense with his raised hands. I timed it. TEN SECONDS!! Only then did he drop his arms to tremendous applause. TOTAL control over both orchestra AND audience.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — February 13, 2024 at 3:11 pm

  5. More interesting color and background:

    – Herr Doktor has a long second entry, again at
    https://slippedisc.com/2024/02/the-elusive-seiji-ozawa-was-japans-greatest-peacemaker/

    https://www.nippon.com/en/features/c03707/

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/2024/02/13/opinion/seiji-ozawa-boston-symphony-orchestra-legacy/

    Comment by David Moran — February 13, 2024 at 4:32 pm

  6. Just noted the bit from Silverstein regarding Beethoven 5. While too not a Seiji Idolater. does anyone else find Beethoven 5 “lacking”? It has a bang-up First Movement with major interpretive “challenges” but the following movements get weaker and weaker; the second even became the butt of a clever and well-received Peter Schikele joke. A girlfriend told me “don’t put anything written before 1800 in front of Seiji!”. Now you’ve all made me want to hear more. I did hear 6 of the 9 Mahler symphonies under Seiji (4 & 5 under Leinsdorf, 8 under Zander twice!). BTW it IS a fact that tickets for the first Zander Mahler Eighth WERE being scalped because I paid $60 cash for a $50 ticket to a sold-out performance. Now on to the Bruckner symphonies!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — February 21, 2024 at 6:50 pm

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