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Seiji Ozawa: An Encounter that Changed the Conductor's Life

In 1960, a young Seiji Ozawa almost gave up on chasing his dreams in Europe, until a writer reignited his determination to share his music with the world.



Seiji Ozawa during a rehearsal on August 1, 2010, in Nagano Prefecture. (©Sankei)

The world has a way of bringing people together to profoundly alter their paths. Such was the case for acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa, who passed away on February 6.

In 1960, celebrated writer Yasushi Inoue was in Rome to cover the Summer Olympics as a newspaper correspondent. After the event, he traveled throughout Europe, eventually arriving in Paris. 

It was there that he crossed paths with a young Japanese man in his twenties. The young man opened up to him, revealing that he had won an international conducting competition but wasn't earning enough money to sustain himself. He was contemplating returning to Japan to work for a local orchestra. 

Inoue challenged the young man's pessimism. He explained that while his novels could only reach an international audience through translation, music was different. 

"No matter which country you go to, people can listen to your music directly without requiring a translator," he said, urging the man to persist on the global stage.

The young man was Seiji Ozawa. Ashamed of his lack of confidence, Ozawa resolved to seek out opportunities to shine. The conversation set the stage for his remarkable journey to becoming one of the world's most celebrated conductors. 

Therefore, it wasn't a conductor's baton that illuminated the path for the lost musician, but rather the pen of a literary giant.

The encounter is chronicled in the book Ozawa Seiji Shikisha wo Kataru (Talking about the Conductor Seiji Ozawa), a collection of interviews published by PHP Institute.


The Language of Music

Overcoming his insecurities, he dedicated himself to honing his craft. He studied under the tutelage of 20th-century masters like Charles Munch, Herbert von Karajan, and Leonard Bernstein. Ozawa's passion for music soon earned him unprecedented recognition. He became the first Japanese conductor to assume prestigious roles such as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera.

Even amidst acclaim, Ozawa remained steadfast in his pursuit of the "language of music." Translating the "words" of composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven from the score to live music requires the conductor to grasp the composer's intentions and background. This dedication led Ozawa to spend entire nights studying the scores.

Another defining aspect of Ozawa's conducting style was his choice to abandon the traditional baton, a decision he stuck with for the last 20 years of his life. 

"I've come to realize I could accomplish more without it," Ozawa explained. For him, the passion and intensity conveyed through his every movement and gesture on the podium became "words" that resonated with the audience without needing translation.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: The Sankei Shimbun

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