Seiji Ozawa, who served as Boston Symphony Orchestra music director for 29 years, died February 6 at the age of 88. At the time of his death, Ozawa was the orchestra’s music director laureate.
In their statement announcing his passing, the BSO pointed to Ozawa’s importance for the orchestra and for classical music in the 20th century as a whole. Taking up his post in 1973 with an orchestra that at the time had a legacy as one of America’s finest ensembles, with a core repertoire of music from the romantic era, French composers, and a clutch of modern American works, Ozawa crafted a new presence and stature for the BSO.
“Under Seiji Ozawa,” declared the orchestra, “the Boston Symphony entered a global era, through a renewed commitment to commissions and contemporary music, a prolific number of recordings, radio, and television appearances, and history-making tours.” While preserving the orchestra’s trademark beauty of sound, Ozawa added music from Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux, and Toru Takemitsu, producing memorable concerts and landmark recordings that included the world premiere of Messiaen’s monumental opera, St. Francis of Assisi.
Ozawa was born September 1, 1935, in Mukden in the Japanese-occupied puppet state of Manchuko in northern China. In Japan from 1944, he studied piano and later, in music school, conducting (in part because a hand injury from playing sports effected his piano playing). He burst upon the scene in 1959, in the middle of the era of the great maestros, by winning First Prize at the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors. The following summer, Charles Munch—one of the competition judges and at the time BSO music director—invited Ozawa to Tanglewood, beginning Ozawa’s long tenure in North America. At Tanglewood, he earned the Koussevitzky Prize for Outstanding Student Conductor.