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Seiji Ozawa

Updated: Mar 21

[Seiji Ozawa conducts the Boston Symphony]

With a 29-year tenure as conductor at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the longest in the orchestra’s history, Seiji Ozawa’s powerful performances were a force to be reckoned with. Ozawa was born in 1935 in Shenyang, China where his family stayed until returning to Japan in 1944. He studied piano from a young age, but due to an injury playing rugby, he went on to study conducting under Hideo Saito at the Toho School of Music after graduating high school (Boston Symphony Orchestra). After graduating in 1959, he moved to Europe to further his studies. He won first prize in the international conductors’ competition at Besançon in France that same year. This so impressed Charles Munch, one of the judges, that he invited him to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts the following year to study (Millington). This was just the start of a long career.

Ozawa's career was an illustrious one. He served as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Ravinia Festival, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the San Francisco Symphony all before becoming conductor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in 1973. During his tenure at the BSO, he was instrumental in facilitating a tour in China to ease tensions between the U.S. and China while the latter was emerging out of the cultural revolution (Oestreich). After 29 years, however, he left the orchestra to pursue his career in Europe. 

[Seiji Ozawa Rehearses With The NY Philharmonic]

It was his performance on the stage that captivated audiences and gave him his reputation. Upon his departure from the BSO, Richard Dyer, the music critic for The Boston Globe, wrote, “As a young man, Ozawa displayed the greatest physical gift for conducting of anyone in his generation, and a range and accuracy of musical memory that struck awe and envy into the hearts of most musicians who encountered it" (Oestreich). He conducted massive symphonies from memory and often without a baton. "What a dancer he was!" longtime BSO trombonist Norman Bolter said of Ozawa (Shea and Huizenga). "But not only just a dancer getting up there and doing his own jig," Bolter recalls, "His clarity in conducting was extraordinary, but it just wasn't this persnickety, trying-to-be-clean detail. It had a fluidity, it had a ballet aspect to it, and it was alive.” Ozawa eventually returned to the BSO as its music director laureate in 2008 for two concerts at Symphony Hall, his final appearances with the orchestra.

In addition to conducting, Ozawa also established organizations to promote music education and provide opportunities. They include the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy Opera Project founded in 2000 and the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy Orchestra Project in 2009, which worked to cultivate young musicians through performance (Boston Symphony Orchestra). In 2011, the Ozawa International Chamber Music Academy Okushiga was established to provide musical education to outstanding students from countries in the region. Ozawa has won many awards internationally throughout his life. In 2008, he received the Order of Culture, the highest honor in Japan that is presented by the Emperor. He received Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.

Ozawa, friend and advisory board member to the Japan Society of Boston passed away in February 2024 in Tokyo. The dedicated Red Sox fan is survived by his wife, Vera; their son Yukiyoshi, an actor; their daughter, Seira; and a grandson.

Further Reading

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami (2016)

Related Media

From the Archives, Chronicle segment on Ozawa

Seiji Ozawa conducts Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" at Tanglewood in 2002


Works Cited

Boston Symphony Orchestra. Seiji Ozawa. Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

Millington, Barry. “Seiji Ozawa Obituary.” The Guardian, 11 Feb. 2024, Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

Oestreich, James R. “Seiji Ozawa, a Captivating, Transformative Conductor, Dies at 88.” The New York Times, 9 Feb. 2024, Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

Shea, Andrea, and Tom Huizenga. “Seiji Ozawa, Longtime Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Has Died at 88.” NPR, 9 Feb. 2024, Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

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