Renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa has died, aged 88

9 February 2024, 11:44 | Updated: 9 February 2024, 11:57

Renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa has died, aged 88.
Renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa has died, aged 88. Picture: Getty

By Siena Linton

The world-renowned conductor, best known for his long-standing relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has died at the age of 88.

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Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa has died of heart failure at his home in Tokyo aged 88, his management has announced.

The acclaimed maestro was known for his close relationships with several American symphony orchestras – most notably the Boston Symphony Orchestra where he held the post of music director from 1973 to 2002.

His 29 years in the position makes him the longest-standing music director in the nearly 150-year history of the orchestra.

Born in Japanese-occupied Mukden on 1 September 1935, Ozawa initially trained as a pianist with a particular affinity for J.S. Bach’s music.

However, upon graduating in 1950, Ozawa’s dreams of becoming a concert pianist were cut abruptly short when he broke two fingers in a rugby game.

No longer able to play, the disheartened Ozawa was taken to a performance of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto by his teacher. This experience proved transformational, and set Ozawa on the path to becoming a world-class conductor.

Read more: Listen to this 10,000-strong Japanese megachoir sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’

Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 (Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra)

A series of prestigious competition wins, including first prize at International Competition of Orchestra Conductors and Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Prize, brought Ozawa to the attention of some of the 20th century greats.

After studying with Charles Münch at Tanglewood, Ozawa moved to West Berlin to study under Herbert von Karajan on a scholarship. There, he was scouted by Leonard Bernstein, who promptly appointed him assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

The beginning of a great musical legacy, Seiji Ozawa is the only conductor ever to have been tutored by both Karajan and Bernstein.

Read more: When Leonard Bernstein needed only his eyebrows to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic

Seiji Ozawa with his tutor, legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan.
Seiji Ozawa with his tutor, legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. Picture: Getty

Ozawa’s moment in the spotlight came in 1973, when he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a position he would hold for 29 years.

His work with the Boston Symphony earned him two Emmy Awards, first in 1976 for a televised concert series, and the second in 1994 for ‘Individual Achievement in Cultural Programming’.

In the same year as his second Emmy, the Boston Symphony Orchestra honoured its conductor by dedicating a concert hall in his honour. The Seiji Ozawa Hall marked the conductor’s 20th season with the orchestra.

After stepping down as music director of the BSO in 2002, Ozawa remained close to the organisation, continuing to participate as teacher and administrator at Tanglewood.

He later became principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera, conducting the city’s renowned New Year’s Concert in 2002. Illness forced Ozawa to step back from Viennese conducting duties in 2006, but he returned in 2007 and remained in post until 2010.

Seiji Ozawa conducts Andrea Bocelli in concert, 2000.
Seiji Ozawa conducts Andrea Bocelli in concert, 2000. Picture: Getty

In 2004, Ozawa founded the Seiji Ozawa International Academy. Based in Switzerland, the organisation welcomes 30 string soloists each year to hone their craft in string quartet and string ensemble performance under some of the world’s top violinists.

In recent years, Ozawa has stepped away from the podium, but made a remarkable return in late 2022 at the age of 87 for a historic Beethoven performance.

At the helm of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which he founded in 1984, Ozawa conducted Beethoven’s ‘Egmont’ Overture – a performance that was broadcast live into outer space, for Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata on board the International Space Station.

“I believe that this project will give us courage and hope for those of us who live in difficult times,” Ozawa said in a statement. “Music has the power to connect people’s hearts, transcending language, borders, races, and the atmosphere.

“I am very happy to be able to realize such an amazing project with JAXA… I am very much looking forward to meeting Mr. Wakata, who is now in space. I wonder what music sounds like in space.”

Read more: Orchestra’s outer space Beethoven performance leaves legendary conductor in tears

Orchestra’s outer space Beethoven concert leaves legendary conductor in tears

Seiji Ozawa leaves behind an extraordinary legacy as an inspirational musician with a long list of honours, achievements and accolades.

In 2008, Ozawa was bestowed Japan’s Order of Culture honour, with a ceremony held at the Imperial Palace.

His illustrious career has also seen him conduct Beethoven at the opening ceremony to the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, as well as being awarded two Grammy Awards, Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in France, the first ever Tanglewood Medal, and becoming a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2015.

Ozawa is survived by his wife, Miki Irie, and children Seira and Yukiyoshi.