Conductor Seiji Ozawa is best known for his long tenure as the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at 29 years one of the most durable in the history of the American orchestral scene.
Ozawa has been noted for his advocacy of contemporary music, even early in his career, when such a thing was rare among American orchestra conductors of the top rank.
Ozawa was born in Mukden, in Japanese-occupied northeastern China (now Shenyang, China), on September 1, 1935. He started piano lessons at seven, and when the family returned to Japan in 1944, he got serious about lessons, studying the music of Bach intensively. With dreams of a career as a concert pianist, Ozawa enrolled at Tokyo's Toho Gakuen School of Music. His keyboard career came to an end, however, when he broke both his index fingers while playing rugby. A sympathetic teacher, Hideo Saito, took him to see a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 ("Emperor"). Far from regretting his lost opportunity, Ozawa became fascinated by the role of the conductor, at the time a rare occupation among Japanese musicians. He conducted Japan's NHK Symphony Orchestra and Japan Philharmonic during his student years, and after finishing his studies in Tokyo, Ozawa headed for Europe with hopes of undertaking further studies. He had to support himself for a time as a motor scooter salesman, but when he saw a poster for the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors in Besançon, France, in 1959, he entered the contest and won. Even better, one of the judges was Boston Symphony conductor Charles Munch, who invited Ozawa to travel to Massachusetts for conducting classes at the Tanglewood Summer Festival. Ozawa walked away with the festival's Koussevitsky Prize, and with a scholarship to travel to Berlin for studies with arguably the most famous conductor of the day, Herbert von Karajan. During this sojourn, he also attracted the attention of New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein, who gave Ozawa lessons and hired him as an assistant conductor for two seasons.
Ozawa served as the music director of Chicago's Ravinia Festival from 1964 to 1968. His first major orchestral post was as the music director of the Toronto Symphony from 1965 to 1969, where he championed and recorded works by Messiaen and Takemitsu that, at the time, were rarely heard on major symphony programs. His orientation toward contemporary music only grew after he became the principal conductor of the progressive San Francisco Symphony in 1970, taking the orchestra on a European tour and remaining in his post until 1977. After returning to Tanglewood as the artistic advisor in 1970, Ozawa was hired as the music director of the Boston Symphony in 1972. The move was a bold one on the orchestra's part; Japanese musicians were not well known in the U.S. at the time, and Ozawa was just 37. He also became the artistic director of the Tanglewood Festival.
As far back as his time in Japan, Ozawa sometimes showed a prickly personality that led him into conflict with musicians and colleagues. His tenure in Massachusetts continued this pattern as he attempted a major reorganization at Tanglewood that led to the resignation of several longtime instructors in the 1990s. His leadership of the Boston Symphony was also controversial, especially during his later years with the group, but what is inarguable is that his leadership, which extended until 2002, was rarely excelled for sheer durability. That year he moved to the Vienna State Opera as the principal conductor, remaining there until 2010. He continued his association with Tanglewood. In 2013, Ozawa was sidelined for treatment of esophageal cancer, but he returned to a busy schedule of recordings and guest conducting slots.
Ozawa's recording catalog is vast, numbering more than 275 items as of the early 2020s. He made numerous recordings with the Boston Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon, RCA, Philips, and other labels. He favored contemporary music, not only by marquee names but also by lesser-known composers, and was an enthusiastic conductor of Mahler, Stravinsky, and French music, but his recorded performances range as far afield from these specialties as Gershwin. Ozawa has remained active on recordings into old age, releasing a recording of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19, with pianist Martha Argerich on the Decca label in 2020 (in a live performance recorded several years earlier). On that recording, Ozawa led Japan's Mito Chamber Orchestra, which he had advised, supported, and often conducted since its formation in 1990. Ozawa's long list of awards includes the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.