Friday, February 9, 2024

Mourning Seiji Ozawa

In the wake of the turmoil and terror of the 1960’s, the British-Hong Kong government launched the 1st Hong Kong Arts Festival in 1973 to improve the cultural life of the city. This was when I first encountered Seiji Ozawa, one of the featured performers, conducting the New Japan Philharmonic. No, I did not attend any of his concerts, but somehow, I saw his picture on the festival brochure. My first reaction was, “This doesn’t look like a symphony conductor.”


It was only much later, that I realized that underneath the cool and “hip” image – the designer shirts he always wore, and the hippy beads that were part of his wardrobe at one time - he always conveyed, was a deeply serious musician and thinker, and one of the truly great conductors of the 20th century. 

I try to imagine the courage it took for young Ozawa to board the freighter bound for Europe, taking the first steps of a musical journey that, with his talent and determination, eventually took him to every musical capital of the world. 


To my eternal regret, I have never attended a live performance by Seiji Ozawa. But thanks to those glory days of PBS, I was able to watch many of Ozawa’s Boston performances in the series aptly titled, “Evening at Symphony”. There are, of course, his extensive discography, performances with the Toronto Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and, in his later years, the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which he founded – a truly glistening list of great orchestras.


Ozawa’s close friend, composer and conductor John Williams says, “From a composer’s point of view, there are two types of conductors: the first will offer less than what your ‘inner ear’ imagined the music to be, and the second will infuse the music with a beauty that is beyond what you have imagined. Clearly, Seiji belongs to the much smaller second group.”


However, the talent of Ozawa did not preclude the malice of the critics’ pen. There has been a singular narrative in critical circles that refuses to admit Ozawa into the first rank of “great musicians”. Perhaps because of his Asian heritage, there had been comments about whether he really “felt” the music. In Boston, his musical home base for 29 seasons, reviews by critics like Richard Dyer had invariably been scathing. Towards the end of his tenure in Boston, even a few of his fellow orchestra musicians had their knives out for his departure. A musician who, thankfully, would remain unnamed, makes this insulting statement, “[Seiji] can memorize a menu, a telephone book, perhaps even King Lear, but he wouldn’t understand the poetry of the composition” – a statement the betrays the prejudice he had had to face in his years as a musician.


No, it is the opinions of his fellow musicians that I tend to trust, his friends and close colleagues – Peter Serkin, Rudolf Serkin, Kent Nagano, Jessye Norman, Yo-Yo Ma, Isaac Stern, Evgeny Kissin, Krystian Zimerman, Itzhak Perlman, Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn, to really name just a few – loves to play and collaborate with him, and counted him as their close friend. 


His closest musical friend and comrade-in-arms was perhaps the late, great cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who had met his share of great musicians and composers, writes after their initial encounter, “When I came back to Moscow, I said to Shostakovich, ‘Remember that name – Seiji Ozawa. For certain you will hear again about him.” The great cellist continues, “You are one of the best soldiers of music I have ever met in my life. I embrace you and I bow down before you, my dear, irreplaceable friend.”


Pianist and teacher Peter Serkin, whom Ozawa had known and mentored since his youth, movingly writes, “Rather than using music to project and further himself, Seiji takes a more humble route; he works to make himself a worthy vessel for the music and the composer.”


To talk about Ozawa’s great recordings would require a book-length article. One can think of his ground-breaking and still astounding recording of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a disc that really put the Canadian orchestra on the musical map. Then there is his electrifying Le Sacre du printemps with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His very moving performance of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which some think of as his best recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Of course, the long list of recordings with his beloved Boston orchestra include some truly fine performances – a beautiful Faure disc, his Mahler cycle, Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Tchaikovsky’s NutcrackerSwan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. His many fine recordings with the Saito Kinen Orchestra – also deserve much greater critical acknowledgment. 


During his tenure at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ozawa commissioned a total of 44 compositions. From his earliest days as conductor, he has been a dream conductor for contemporary composers. He was Messiaen’s own choice as conductor for his massive opera St. Francis of Assisi, which he rehearsed and conducted without a score. When he was reviewing a new work by composer Peter Lieberson, the young composer was impressed about how well he had studied the new score; it was as if the conductor is guiding the creator through his own composition.

To get a sense of Ozawa as a human being, one must be grateful to author Haruki Murakami for his recent volume, Absolutely on Music - Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. What comes across in reading these extended conversations is a humble man utterly devoted to his art, and without a trace of vanity or self-glorification. 


No talent, no matter how great, cannot be immune to old age and illness. Seiji Ozawa had suffered from cancer and various health challenges in his later years. Most recently, a wheelchair-bound and extremely frail-looking Ozawa conducted the Saito Kinen Orchestra in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. At the end of the performance, the great conductor was overwhelmed and moved to tears by the greatness of the music. 


Today’s classical musicians seem to focus much on career and image. Music has, unfortunately, become a commodity to be exploited by managers and record companies. Ozawa himself was often surprised at the excitement he generates when he walks into a room. For him, it was the music, and nothing else, that really mattered. 


I will miss Seiji Ozawa very much. May he Rest in Peace.











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