Star Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa dies at 88

Charismatic Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly 30 years and delighted audiences with his energetic style, died at his home in Tokyo aged 88, his management team announced on Friday.

Ozawa conquered the world of Western classical music, bringing an East Asian sensibility to his work with some of the world’s most celebrated orchestras, from Chicago to Boston to Vienna.

“Conductor Seiji Ozawa passed away peacefully at his home on February 6th, 2024, at the age of 88,” his management team said in a statement on its official Facebook page.

He died of heart failure and the funeral was attended by close relatives according to his wishes, the statement read.

Ozawa was born in 1935 in the Chinese province of Manchuria, then a Japanese colony, and started learning piano at elementary school.

But he broke two fingers as a teenager while playing rugby — another passion — and switched to conducting.

He moved abroad in 1959 and met some of the greatest luminaries of the classical music world, including the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, becoming his assistant at the New York Philharmonic in the 1961-1962 season.

Ozawa went on to lead orchestras in Chicago, Toronto, and San Francisco. 

He was the longest-serving conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra with a 29-year stint as musical director. A concert hall was named for him at Tanglewood, the group’s summer home in western Massachusetts.

He left in 2002 to become chief conductor at the Vienna State Opera until 2010.

A musical genius

The Vienna Philharmonic, with which Ozawa first collaborated at the 1966 Salzburg Festival, paid tribute to his “loving interaction with his colleagues and his charisma”.

“It was a gift to be able to go a long way with this artist, who was characterized by the highest musical standards and at the same time humility towards the treasures of musical culture,” Professor Daniel Froschauer, chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, said in a statement.

Current BSO conductor Andris Nelsons called Ozawa “a great friend, a brilliant role model, and an exemplary musician and leader” in a tribute on X, formerly Twitter, accompanied by a photo of the pair.

“He has been an inspiration to me all my life and I will miss him dearly.”

In a separate statement from the orchestra, he recalled Ozawa’s “enthusiasm for the city and people of Boston, Tanglewood — and the Boston Red Sox!”

Marin Alsop, one of the few celebrated women conductors, said Ozawa had been a “great mentor” to her at Tanglewood. 

Chad Smith, the chief executive officer of the BSO, called Ozawa “a force of nature on and off stage”.

He was “a musical genius who combined a balletic grace at the podium with a prodigious memory”, Smith said in a statement.

In-demand operatic soprano Christine Goerke said the opportunity “to make music and experience such joy and belly aching laughter with this extraordinary human being has been one of the greatest gifts of my life”.

“I am in tears this morning, but am beyond grateful for you, Seiji Ozawa. Safe home, Maestro, and thank you,” Goerke wrote on X.