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Seiji Ozawa

Biography

For more than half a century, Seiji Ozawa was an icon for concert and opera audiences in Europe, North America, and Japan, as well as a steadfast advocate for young musicians. Born in 1935 in Mukden, Manchuria (now Shenyang, China), he graduated in both composition and conducting from Tokyo’s Toho School of Music. In 1959, he won first prize at the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors in Besançon, France, where he came to the attention of Boston Symphony Music Director Charles Munch, who invited him to Tanglewood, where he won the Koussevitzky Prize as the outstanding student conductor in 1960. While working with Herbert von Karajan in Berlin, Ozawa came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who appointed him assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic for the 1961–62 season. He made his first professional concert appearance in North America in 1962 with the San Francisco Symphony.

Ozawa’s series of major appointments began with the music directorship of the Ravinia Festival, followed by the role of Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and of the San Francisco Symphony. He first conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood and was subsequently named Tanglewood Artistic Director in 1970 and Boston Symphony Music Director in 1973, holding that post for 29 seasons – the longest-serving music director in the orchestra’s history. He left a legacy of brilliant achievement evidenced through touring, award-winning recordings (more than 140 works of more than 50 composers on 10 labels), television productions (winning 2 Emmy awards) and commissioned works. 1994 saw the inauguration of the Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.

In Japan, Ozawa formed the Saito Kinen Orchestra with Kazuyoshi Akiyama in 1984 to commemorate their late mentor, Hideo Saito. The orchestra held hugely successful concerts in Tokyo and Osaka and went on to tour Europe in 1987, 1989 and 1990. In 1991, it performed concerts in Europe and America and was received to great acclaim. These activities led to the inception of Ozawa’s artistic dream in 1992: the Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto. Ozawa became director of this international music festival, a role that continued until his death in 2024. From 2015, the festival was renamed the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival. Ozawa also founded an academy for aspiring orchestral players and in Switzerland, he founded an international music academy dedicated to training young musicians in chamber music. From 2002 to 2010, Ozawa was Music Director of the Wiener Staatsoper, and he was for many years a favourite guest of the Wiener Philharmoniker. He also maintained close ties to the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Orchestre National de France.

Ozawa’s discography for the Universal labels is immense and, as a uniquely sympathetic partner, he made many acclaimed recordings with such artists as Renée Fleming, Gidon Kremer, Viktoria Mullova, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Krystian Zimerman.

Ozawa won many awards in Japan and abroad, including: the Asahi Prize (1985); an Honorary Doctorate from Harvard University (2000); the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, First Class (2002); the Mainichi Art Award (2003); the Suntory Music Prize (2003); an Honorary Doctorate from the Sorbonne University of France (2004); Honorary Membership from the Wiener Staatsoper (2007); France’s Officier de la Légion d’Honneur (2008); Foreign Associated Member in the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l’Institut de France (2008); the Order of Culture, which is the highest honor in Japan (2008); Giglio D’Oro by Premio Galileo 2000 Foundation of Italy (2008); the first Japanese national to be bestowed honorary membership to the Vienna Philharmonic (2010); the Praemium Imperiale from the Japan Art Association (2011); the Akeo Watanabe Foundation Music Award (2011); and the Kennedy Center Honors (2015). In February 2016, the Ravel L’enfant et les sortilèges album conducted by Seiji Ozawa and performed by the Saito Kinen Orchestra that was recorded at the 2013 Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto won the 58th Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. In April 2016, he was named an Honorary Member of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

“The warmth, generosity and sense of humour that Seiji Ozawa radiated in personal encounters and conversations are among the most memorable experiences for anyone who had the pleasure to meet him, and he inspired so many young talents with his aura, advice and selfless support. He will be very much missed.”

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