Seiji Ozawa, who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly three decades, and in the process helped to remake the face of Western classical music, died Feb. 6, in Tokyo. He was 88.
A spokeswoman for the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland said the cause of death was heart failure.
Mr. Ozawa had dealt with serious health issues for the past dozen years, including esophageal cancer, back problems, and heart-valve disease.
Boston was home base for Mr. Ozawa for the 29 seasons he served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1973-2002), the longest tenure of any music director in the BSO’s history.
“For Seiji, music started with silence, a blank canvas,” said the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “He would then paint and illustrate a whole universe in a way the world had not seen before, and rarely since. It’s difficult to be a pioneer and he did so with grace, serving as a source of hope and inspiration for me, especially as an Asian American artist. To collaborate with him was to exchange intuition and emotion at the deepest level. But most of all, I remember Seiji as a joyful, kind, caring human being.”
Mr. Ozawa, who was the BSO’s 13th music director, succeeding William Steinberg, remained connected to the orchestra from his arrival as a conducting fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, in 1960, through his debut with the BSO, in 1964, his appointment as music director, and his final title, as music director laureate, in 2002, which he retained until his death.
“Without question, Seiji Ozawa was one of the world’s greatest conductors, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra was privileged to have had such a long and productive relationship with him as music director,” said Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s current music director, in a statement released by the orchestra.
Mr. Ozawa never won the unquestioning respect of the musical press, but his contact with the public was invariably electric.
The first Asian musician to establish a top-level international career in Western music, Mr. Ozawa became a major figure in Europe, America, and his native Japan and a conscientious citizen of each musical community in which he worked.
Mr. Ozawa was born of Japanese parents in Shenyang, China, on Sept. 1, 1935. As a child in the years after World War II, he sang spirituals in a gospel quartet with his brothers and began formal study of music as a pianist. He recalled that the first Americans he ever saw were pilots of low-flying planes, throwing bubblegum to children on the banks of a river. After he broke two fingers in a rugby match, Mr. Ozawa concentrated on conducting at the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, where his mentor was Hideo Saito, a major figure in the development of the study of Western music in Japan.
Following his graduation, Mr. Ozawa traveled to France in 1959 to participate in an international conducting competition in Besançon, sponsored by a motor-scooter company — he rode to the competition on a scooter. He won, capturing the attention of Charles Munch, then the music director of the BSO. Munch invited Mr. Ozawa to attend the Tanglewood Music Center, where he arrived by Greyhound bus, not speaking a word of English. By the end of the summer in 1960, he had won the Koussevitzky Prize, awarded to the most outstanding student conductor.
He became a protégé of Herbert von Karajan in Europe and of Leonard Bernstein in America — the only conductor to have been advised by the two most prominent conducting giants of the mid-20th century. Mr. Ozawa served as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein, and Karajan remained a counselor and mentor to Mr. Ozawa through the rest of his own life.
Mr. Ozawa’s rise to international prominence was meteoric. He became music director of the Toronto Symphony as early as 1965, then music director of the San Francisco Symphony in 1970, a position he continued to hold until 1977 — for four busy years he was a bicoastal music director. He was also busy with such major European orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Nevertheless, it took him years to overcome prejudice against Asian musicians in the West and even more especially in Japan, where for decades he was a prophet without honor and often dismissed as an arrogant upstart, lacking proper humility. At the beginning, people wondered out loud if an Asian could master the complexities of Western music; later it became impossible to say such things openly, but the issue never entirely went away.
“I know it will not stop until I die,” he said in a 1999 Globe interview. “I know I am a test case. Everyone wonders how much I can learn, how much I can understand. But the problems I have had have always ended in a positive way. I have always enjoyed learning, and I still do. . . . To be a conductor you have to understand things inside of you; you have to find the next level within yourself. Music is this really big thing, and you have to come up to it.’’
Yo-Yo-Ma said that “as an Asian musician, it’s thanks to Seiji that I could exist. When I first started playing concerts, I would say 90 percent of interviews started with, ‘How could someone like you understand our music?’ If that happened to me in the 1970s, imagine what he got in the ‘50s and ‘60s? He was the first Asian musician who really became well known around the world.”
From the beginning, Mr. Ozawa’s unusual background and colorful personality made him a natural for the media, which delighted in his occasional scandals and failures every bit as much as his regular triumphs.
No conductor of his generation, or since, boasted a comparable physical gift for the art. His movements on the podium were exact and detailed, the music translated into fluid calligraphy,
“He had a once-in-a-generation gift for turning the score into air sculpture,” said Lawrence Wolfe, assistant principal bass for the BSO. “The music on the page took on new dimensions: It was graceful, beautiful, evocative, and just absolutely extraordinary what he could do. I’ve never seen a physical gift like that on the podium.”
Mr. Ozawa’s prodigious musical memory awakened awe — and envy — from his colleagues.
Mark Volpe, who served as the BSO’s president and chief executive during part of Mr. Ozawa’s tenure in Boston, said that was just one of the conductor’s many gifts.
“Everyone talks about the memory, but the energy of this guy was astonishing,” said Volpe, who described Mr. Ozawa’s outsized ambitions for the orchestra. “He thought big. He was always pushing to tour, to record, to do television.”
Mr. Ozawa favored loose Asian high-collared shirts and jackets instead of formal Western concert attire, and in the ‘60s and ‘70s strands of love beads danced around his neck. His hair also kept time with the music.
Despite his trendy appearance, Mr. Ozawa was strongly rooted in tradition, and as a young conductor gravitated toward distinguished senior musicians from whom he could learn, like the pianists Rudolf Serkin and Wilhelm Kempff. Yet he also formed professional friendships with musicians of his own generation and younger like the pianist Peter Serkin, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and sopranos Jessye Norman and Dawn Upshaw, which lasted through his career and theirs. Among the younger conductors he mentored were Kent Nagano and Robert Spano.
One of his closest friends in the profession was the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, whom he listed as his personal hero in response to a questionnaire from a French music magazine. For years Mr. Ozawa and Rostropovich made annual short tours of rural areas in Japan and elsewhere, performing concerts on a truck bed maintaining a complete blackout on publicity.
Mr. Ozawa, a 2015 Kennedy Center honoree, had a strong exploratory curiosity about new music of nearly every kind, but his commitment and dedicated advocacy were restricted to a chosen few, especially for established masters like Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux, and Hans Werner Henze. But he also helped create special relationships between the BSO and such younger composers as Peter Lieberson, John Harbison, and Osvaldo Golijov. His advocacy for the music of his countryman Toru Takemitsu continued through his entire life. Perhaps the most significant premiere of his career came at the Paris Opera in 1983, when he led Messiaen’s massive opera, “Saint Francois d’Assise,’’ conducting the entire four-hour work from memory.
Mr. Ozawa’s performances of the Baroque and classical repertory were often criticized, but in romantic music, French music, works of the late 19th- and early 20th-century periods, he stood among the major interpreters of his time. And in many areas of music, the symphonies of Mahler, for example, Mr. Ozawa’s trajectory was one of continuous improvement. He regarded developing the BSO’s ability to play the heaviest German repertoire without losing its famous French refinement as one of the biggest challenges of his career.
He particularly excelled in large-scale works that require organizational as well as strictly musical skills — the Requiems of Berlioz and Verdi, Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder,’’ Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” At the turn of the millennium, he attracted world attention by conducting a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with choruses from all over the word performing together through electronic technology.
Following the performance, Volpe recalled accompanying Mr. Ozawa to a function where a Japanese protocol officer briefed him on how to address the royalty from various countries who were in attendance.
“At that point, Juan Carlos from Spain walks by,” recalled Volpe. Mr. Ozawa “jumps up and says, ‘Hey, King, over here!’”
Mr. Ozawa’s early performances of opera were uncertain, and it wasn’t a good idea for him to start out on Mozart at the major Mozart shrine, the Salzburg Festival, but he made himself into an important opera conductor through appearances at La Scala in Milan, Italy, the Paris Opera, Salzburg, and a string of nearly 20 semi-staged performances with the BSO in Boston and at Tanglewood, where the 50th anniversary of the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes’’ was celebrated with magnificent performances by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Mr. Ozawa, who may have found a personal resonance in the opera’s story of an outsider.
The seal on Mr. Ozawa’s operatic career was set with his appointment as music director at the Vienna State Opera, in 2002. There he was finally able to conduct some of the major works that had hitherto eluded him. Because of what he called “opera life,’’ Mr. Ozawa told the Globe in 2004, “My head has changed and I think I am now more flexible — you have to learn to go with what different singers want to do. Some of them are big shots who want to do things their own way, and I have to handle this kind of thing. Sometimes it is wonderful; sometimes it is catastrophe.”
Mr. Ozawa, who was always informal in manner and sometimes alarmingly direct in expression, became an ardent fan of all the major Boston sports teams and could often be seen at Fenway Park, Boston Garden, and Foxboro Stadium on nights when he was in town and not conducting; he arranged his schedule in Vienna so that he could hear or watch important Boston games.
“We get the call from [the embassy] saying he’s costing us a fortune in overtime,” recalled Volpe. “They’re opening the US Embassy for a Japanese national to watch the Boston Red Sox. . . .That’s Seiji. That’s the power.”
At various times he made appearances with youth orchestras here, and for many years conducted an annual Bach cantata performance at Emmanuel Church. And he was instrumental in making the BSO more welcoming to women and minorities and developing the outreach activities of the institution — music for him was never something separate from its social context or from the life experiences that it expresses.
Under Mr. Ozawa’s direction the BSO made nearly two dozen tours, traveling across America and to Europe and Asia; the 1979 trip to China following the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States was historic. The orchestra also recorded more than 100 works under Mr. Ozawa’s direction, including a complete Mahler cycle, and maintained a presence on television.
Beginning in his late ‘50s, a series of events refocused Mr. Ozawa’s energies — the death of a beloved brother, the deaths of Bernstein and Karajan, a career-threatening ski accident that temporarily restricted his mobility. New elements of depth and subtlety entered his conducting, and he turned his attention to revitalizing the musical life of Japan. First came the establishment of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, in 1984, an annual gathering of Japanese instrumentalists active in orchestras around the world and the Saito Kinen Festival. Mr. Ozawa also helped create the Tokyo Opera Nomori in 2005 to produce top-level international productions in Japan that would travel to the great European opera houses, reversing the usual direction.
Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood stands as a lasting testimony to Mr. Ozawa’s relationship to the BSO and to its summer home. The hall, which opened in 1994, was named in his honor by the major donor Norio Ohga, chief executive of Sony.
But Mr. Ozawa was repeatedly embroiled in controversy at Tanglewood and elsewhere. In 1984 Gunther Schuller, director of the Tanglewood Music Center, resigned, citing artistic conflicts with Mr. Ozawa; and in 1997 there was a series of resignations, including those of director Leon Fleisher and chairman of the faculty Gilbert Kalish. Mr. Ozawa had discovered, none too soon, that the BSO was no longer playing a significant role in the summer institute for advanced musical training that it was paying for.
Mr. Ozawa spent his last summers at Tanglewood trying to restore the school he remembered from his student days while laying the groundwork for carrying it into the future. The most disturbing and unnecessary scandal in Symphony Hall was the 1982 decision to cancel performances of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus rex’’ because of objections to the presence of the pro-Palestinian actress Vanessa Redgrave as narrator. Redgrave sued and the public trial was a major embarrassment to the orchestra.
Mr. Ozawa was a man of strong emotions, stubborn convictions, fierce loyalties, and personal generosity, and he inspired those qualities in others. His presence in Boston led to the most spectacular period of institutional development since the orchestra’s early history — the acquisition and development of real estate in Boston and at Tanglewood, which doubled in size, and growth and consolidation of fund-raising and development.
The naysayers never vanished, and there were always people around to cry that Mr. Ozawa had “destroyed” the BSO, but in fact he left the orchestra better off than the demoralized institution he took over 29 years before. And his successor, James Levine, didn’t agree with Mr. Ozawa’s critics — he checked out the state of the BSO carefully before accepting the position, and found a situation he could work with. The surface of Mr. Ozawa’s work remained invariably brilliant, leading inevitably to charges of superficiality, but that is not what attentive listeners heard; Mr. Ozawa’s dedication to music and to educating himself about it.
The learning curve was sometimes a roller coaster as Mr. Ozawa changed, along with the orchestra, the city, and society at large. But it was a very human journey, and the destination and the goal were always a higher place.
Mr. Ozawa leaves his wife Miki Irie, a former fashion model and actress who is known as Vera; a daughter, Seira, a writer; and a son, Yukiyoshi, a popular Japanese television actor..
A previous marriage, to the pianist Kyoko Edo, ended in divorce.
Richard Dyer was the Globe’s chief classical music critic from 1976-2006. Globe staff writers Malcolm Gay, Mark Feeney, Jeremy Eichler, and Bryan Marquard contributed to this report.