Kennedy Center Recognizes Conductor Who Enlivened American Stage When Seiji Ozawa joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1973, he caused a sensation, and helped pave the way for people of color in orchestras.
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Kennedy Center Recognizes Conductor Who Enlivened American Stage

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Kennedy Center Recognizes Conductor Who Enlivened American Stage

Kennedy Center Recognizes Conductor Who Enlivened American Stage

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Conductor Seiji Ozawa helped change the image of classical music in the 1970s. His unconventional look and conducting style attracted new audiences. And he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years. His contributions to American culture were recognized last night with a Kennedy Center Honor. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has his story.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Seiji Ozawa made a huge splash when he joined the BSO in 1973. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has followed his career since the beginning.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: He had long hair and wore beads and turtlenecks and just didn't look like any other Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor that anyone had ever seen.


SHEA: Ozawa's introduction to classical music wasn't like his European predecessors either. He was a kid in World War II Japan. His parents had little money, but they managed to get him a piano, which he played passionately until a rugby accident altered his musical destiny.

SEIJI OZAWA: Two fingers was completely broken. So - (laughter) - I had to stop piano.

SHEA: Ozawa's music teacher made a suggestion.

OZAWA: How about conducting? And I never heard orchestra before. I never saw a conductor. There's no television yet.

SHEA: He first saw a Japanese orchestra. Then the BBC's Symphony of the Air came to Japan.

OZAWA: Completely different sound. So I told myself, I must go out of this country, Japan, to be with this kind of sound.

SHEA: With his teacher's help, Ozawa went to France. And from there, he was on his way. He won an international conducting competition, studied at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Tanglewood Music Center and learned from some of the greatest conductors of the day, including Leonard Bernstein, says BSO current managing director, Mark Volpe.

MARK VOLPE: This little scrawny Japanese kid has access to Leonard Bernstein. This is after "West Side Story" and "On The Town" and "Candide." This is a guy who, you know, was the toast of New York. And there is Seiji, you know, as his assistant.

SHEA: That opportunity led Ozawa to orchestras in Toronto and San Francisco. Then the BSO offered him a job.


SHEA: Ozawa became a celebrity. By 1974, he was hosting a national PBS classical music program and even conducted an animal orchestra on "The Muppet Show."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As animal orchestra).

SHEA: Current BSO double bass player Todd Seeber remembers seeing Ozawa on TV and later in action on stage.

TODD SEEBER: He becomes the music. He always did, whether it was Beethoven or Berlioz or Stravinsky. He was incredible at bringing out the primal basics of any piece.

SHEA: That's not the only thing that stood out for BSO cellist Owen Young. Ozawa hired him in 1991. But Young was already a fan. As an African-American, he says seeing someone like Ozawa lead a major orchestra was inspiring.

OWEN YOUNG: For me, being sensitive to that, certainly it was eye-opening. It told me that this career, being a musician, being a cellist, is not just for a chosen group of people. I don't know how else to say it. But it's really - if I work hard, that I would also be included.

JOHN WILLIAMS: In Seiji's generation, he was alone in that. So he was certainly a pioneer.

SHEA: Composer John Williams was appointed by Ozawa to direct the Boston Pops in 1980, and the two became friends. Williams remembers Ozawa conducting his theme for the movie "E.T."

WILLIAMS: He brought some kind of depth and line to it that, as a composer and as someone who'd recorded it and wrote it and played it repeatedly, had really never seen. It was just a perfect illustration of what a great artist can do to enliven and animate music.


SHEA: Ozawa left the BSO in 2002, after a string of controversial personnel decisions and criticism of his leadership. He was forced to stop conducting a few years ago, after being diagnosed with cancer. But Ozawa beat it. And the 80-year-old looks spritely, with his full head of long, gray hair under his baseball cap. While he doesn't conduct much anymore, Ozawa is still active teaching the next generation of musicians in Japan. And he'll never forget what it means to lead a group of passionate musicians. That, he says, is what the Kennedy Center Honor is all about.

OZAWA: Conductor is only exist because of orchestra or chorus. Conductor doesn't make any sound. So when I receive this, it's with the Boston Symphony, my colleagues, together.

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

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