Conductor Seiji Ozawa has died at the age of 88 The pioneering Japanese-American conductor who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly decades died Tuesday.

Seiji Ozawa, longtime conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has died at 88

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Seiji Ozawa, the conductor who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly three decades, has died of heart failure at age 88. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR remembers a celebrated and controversial musician.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: When Seiji Ozawa arrived to lead the BSO in 1973, he was different from the get-go. Longtime classical critic Ellen Pfeifer remembers how the 38-year-old conductor often wore a tunic at the podium, not a tux. He had a mop-ish head of hair, and hanging around his neck...

ELLEN PFEIFER: Love beads (laughter). He was very much a product of that era.

SHEA: Ozawa's predecessors were older and had names like Leinsdorf, Steinberg, Munch, Koussevitzky. Pfeifer says choosing a 30-something Asian was a bold move for the BSO.

PFEIFER: They went out on a limb.

SHEA: Ozawa's rise paved the way for other Asians to break into a genre dominated for centuries by white men. This cultural sea change wasn't lost on the maestro either, as he told NPR in 2002.

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SEIJI OZAWA: Since I'm kind of a pioneer, I must do my best before I die, so people younger than me think, oh, that is possible.

SHEA: Ozawa could be heard grunting when he led the orchestra. He could conduct massive symphonies from memory. He didn't use a baton, and he moved behind the podium. Ozawa was also fun. In 1988, he led the All-Animal Orchestra on "Sesame Street." Ozawa's grasp of certain real composers was profound, says trombonist Norman Bolter.

NORMAN BOLTER: Seiji did Bartok, in my mind, like nobody did. He let the orchestra play. He wasn't a control freak in that way.

SHEA: But in other ways, it appears he was. A string of controversial personnel decisions enraged longtime BSO administrators and musicians in the mid-1990s, leading to resignations, bad press and a precipitous drop in morale. Even so, critic Ellen Pfeifer says Ozawa changed the face of the orchestra and was something of a musical ambassador. He took the BSO to China, making it the first U.S. cultural organization to do so after relations with the country were normalized. Seiji Ozawa left the BSO in 2002 to lead the Vienna State Opera. But fans could still see the maestro in Boston - not at the podium but at Fenway Park, egging on his favorite baseball team.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

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