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OBITUARY | World-Renowned Conductor Seiji Ozawa Passes Away at Age 88

From leading internationally acclaimed orchestras and mentoring the next generations, Seiji Ozawa will be remembered for his many gifts to the world of music.



People place flowers and bid farewell at a stand decorated with a smiling photo of Seiji Ozawa on February 10 in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture. (©Kyodo)

Internationally celebrated conductor Seiji Ozawa passed away on February 6 in Tokyo due to heart failure. Ozawa, 88 years old, was the recipient of the 23rd Praemium Imperiale (2011). His funeral was held privately by close family members, with a memorial service being considered for a later date.

Seiji Ozawa gives a fist pump after being presented with the Praemium Imperiale commendation medal by His Royal Highness Prince Hitachi on October 19, 2011. (©Sankei)

Ozawa's Early Life

Born in 1935 in Hsinking, Manchukuo (now Shenyang, China), Ozawa began his musical journey learning piano at a young age. He later received guidance from conductor Hideo Saito at the Toho Gakuen School of Music. At the age of 23, in 1959, he embarked on a journey to Europe, triumphing in the prestigious International Besançon Competition for Young Conductors. He refined his skills under the tutelage of esteemed maestros such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein.

Following his early successes, Ozawa assumed distinguished roles such as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic and later Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In 1973, he was named Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the foremost orchestras in America. He served there for 29 years until 2002, significantly solidifying his global acclaim.

Also in 2002, Ozawa became the first Asian to serve as Music Director of the Vienna State Opera, the pinnacle of the operatic world. He served in that position until 2010.

Ozawa founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra in 1984 as a tribute to his mentor, Hideo Saito. From 1992 onward, he also continued to curate music festivals in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. His recording of operas conducted during the 2013 festival earned him a Grammy Award in 2016.

Seiji Ozawa conducts the music school founded in his name at the former Imperial Villa Nijo Castle in Kyoto. September 12, 2015. (©Sankei)

Honored for Commitment to the Next Generations

Throughout his time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ozawa passionately dedicated himself to nurturing young musicians. In 2000, he laid the foundation for the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy. Later, he expanded his educational vision with the establishment of an International Academy in Switzerland in 2005. 

These initiatives shaped the careers of many musicians who would go on to achieve international acclaim. Despite reducing his conducting commitments after reaching the age of 70, Ozawa remained unwaveringly committed to his educational endeavors.

He was honored with the Order of Culture in 2008. In 2011, he was awarded laureate of the 23rd Praemium Imperiale in the music category. He also authored numerous books. Among them is a collaboration with writer Haruki Murakami, specifically Absolutely on Music: Conversations (Knopf, 2016). His eldest daughter is the writer Seira, while his eldest son is the actor Yukiyoshi.

Seiji Ozawa conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a dress rehearsal of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at Symphony Hall in Boston, February 16, 1999. (©by Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Condolences from Overseas

Overseas media reported breaking news of the passing of conductor Seiji Ozawa on February 9. Reuters stated, "one of the best-known orchestra conductors of his generation, died." The article described Ozawa as someone who worked "with greats such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein." "His bushy hair and smile charmed audiences, especially in the United States," it added.

The Associated Press (AP) highlighted Ozawa's remarkable 29-year tenure as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1973 to 2002, noting that he held this position longer than anyone else in the orchestra's over 100-year history. Emphasizing his magnetic appeal, the AP observed that Ozawa's celebrity status "attracted famous performers including [cellist ]Yo-Yo Ma."


Austrian media also highlighted Ozawa's tenure as the music director of the Vienna State Opera from 2002 to 2010. They noted his historic milestone as the first Japanese conductor to lead the New Year's Concert with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002. Following his passing, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra expressed their condolences, fondly recalling their collaborations with Ozawa as an honorary member with "gratitude and love."

Seiji Ozawa resumed his activities and rehearsed for a concert on August 1, 2010, after cancer treatment. In Nagano Prefecture (©Sankei)


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: The Sankei Shimbun

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