Seiji Ozawa Says Farewell
The Long Career of the Boston Symphony's Music Director
Listen to Mark Mobley's story.
View photos of Ozawa from throughout his career.
July 14, 2002 -- If there's any doubt that a good classical music performance can be as physically beautiful as it is aurally delightful, perhaps it can be dispelled by the words of music critic Michael Steinberg. He describes the first time he saw Seiji Ozawa conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1965. There was "a kind of lightness and grace that was in the music-making," he says. "But above all" he noticed "a physical gift for conducting that I've never seen surpassed by any other conductor."
There was "an incredible current of energy that seemed to begin in the small of the back and flow up the spine and across the shoulders, along the arms, through the hands all the way to the point of the stick, and into the air beyond.
"It was a beautiful thing to watch."
Steinberg witnessed and documented Ozawa's rise, first as music critic at The Boston Globe and then as the Boston Symphony's director of publications. And now, he'll watch from the sidelines as Ozawa says goodbye after 29 years as the symphony's music director -- the second longest tenure at any major American orchestra after Eugene Ormandy's 44-year run at the Philadelphia Orchestra.
For Weekend Edition Sunday, Mark Mobley, music director of NPR's Performance Today, talks with Steinberg, conductor John Williams, and Ozawa himself about this Japanese immigrant's extraordinary life and career.
The above-described physicality was just one of many things that drew attention Ozawa's way when he came to the United States in the early '60s. From the beginning, he was considered different. First off, he was Asian, and Americans weren't yet used to Asian musicians. He sported long hair, and dressed a bit modish. "He had energy, fire, excitement," says Steinberg. "And if I dare bring up this controversial category: glamour."
There was doubt at the time that Asian musicians could fully grasp Western music. Ozawa took that as a challenge, and even made overcoming the notion a lifelong goal. He says he's still struggling with it on an intensely personal level. "I'm not talking about success or not success," he says. The aim is to "understand how much I understand quality -- that is my life… It is an experiment for me, and the result is important.
"I will know, just before I die, I think. Or, after I die, people will say, 'oh, yes, it was OK.' Or, 'oh, he tried, but he didn't arrive'."
Ozawa has drawn criticism over the years for being too remote from his own musicians. He's been called an "absentee landlord," and upbraided in the press for his many trips abroad to work with other orchestras or to teach. His friend and fellow conductor, the film composer John Williams, defends Ozawa in the strongest terms. "He's given more of his life and more of his energy to this than probably any music director in any American orchestra," he says. "You don't want someone cloistered in a parochial setting and not be in contact with what the great orchestras are doing."
Ozawa rehearses with Marcus Roberts of the Marcus Roberts Trio for Saturday night's performance with the BSO.
Photo: Josh Rogosin, NPR
For his part Ozawa simply says his "musical mind is much more open" for having traveled so much.
What will Ozawa's legacy be? Steinberg says that very early, Ozawa "restored a kind of sense of confidence," in the Boston Symphony's musicians. "A sense of delight in their own virtuosity." And Williams says that "his effect is profound in that 80 percent or more of the orchestra's membership has been appointed by him... he's been able to accomplish a continuation of the BSO sound."
Ozawa describes how he changed that sound. "When I arrived as musical director, they had a very good French kind of color," he says, alluding to the moods created by composers such as Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. "But I thought my repertoire should be more German," incorporating Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. "I asked the orchestra for a more dark sound -- and they did it." Some of the musicians thought the darker sound "would disturb the beautiful, colorful orchestra," he says. "They were completely wrong."
Nearly 30 years later, he remains astounded that his orchestra, even with "completely different faces" is still able to incorporate both of those strands of European music into a coherent whole. "I don't know how they do it."
NPR's SymphonyCast presented Ozawa's final Symphony Hall appearances in April
The Performance Today homepage
The Boston Globe account of Ozawa's departure
The Boston Symphony's homepage