fb-pixelSeiji Ozawa, the man and the maestro Skip to main content

Why I loved Seiji Ozawa

Working for Seiji was a high-wire act.

Seiji Ozawa conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York on Oct. 15, 1997.CHANG W. LEE/NYT

Seiji Ozawa was a born renegade.

The famed music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who died Feb. 6, was born in Manchuria in 1935 after his father, Kaisaku, moved his family there. His family returned to Japan in 1942 when Ozawa was 6. Emperor Hirohito had decreed that all men and boys wear their hair short, however, Ozawa’s father refused to comply, letting Ozawa and his three brothers grow their hair to their shoulders. It became known as his signature hairstyle as an adult.

His mother, Sakura, was Christian, his father Buddhist. She took her four boys to church where she played the organ. The first Western music Ozawa heard and fell in love with was Christian hymns. He could sing a soulful rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”


Ozawa yearned to play the piano but it was impossibly out of reach. When a relative left an old upright to him, it took him and his brothers three days to haul the piano in a wheelbarrow from Yokohama to where they were living, 50 miles away. Any career as a pianist ended when Ozawa broke two fingers playing rugby. He soon pounced on studying with the celebrated German-trained Hideo Saito, a distant cousin of his mother’s, who enrolled Ozawa at the Toho School of Music.

Ozawa was determined to get to Europe himself. At 23, he boarded a freighter (only problem — no women, he once told me) and sailed to France, winning first prize at the International Besancon Competition for Young Conductors.

BSO Music Director Charles Munch, a judge at the competition, captivated with Ozawa, recommended him to Tanglewood as a conducting student. He arrived in the United States without knowing a word of English and carrying only a small paper bag. Helen Perry, the wife of legendary BSO manager Todd Perry, found him some shirts, pants, and pajamas — Ozawa told me he thought the latter was a fancy outfit.


“My favorite part of life in Lenox was swimming at the Tanglewood beach,” Ozawa told me. “I didn’t have a bathing suit but everyone did skinny dipping. In Japan, onsens (traditional baths) are not with men and women together. I was nervous — I was so skinny. Americans are so free — I love that about this country.”

After he won Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Prize in 1960, he moved to New York where he became Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic after the world-renowned composer noticed his performance at Tanglewood.

“It was crazy lucky,” Ozawa often told me. “But they paid me $10 a week. I would save my money to buy Eskimo pies. I loved them and I think they were good for health.” Riding high, he returned to Japan, the conquering hero. In 1962, he won a 6-month contract with Japan’s most prestigious NHK Symphony Orchestra, known for its strong Germanic and rigid tradition.

Ozawa quickly became a prophet without honor.

At 27, he was regarded as too young, too flamboyant, and too Western by some of the NHK elders. He had the temerity to correct intonation in a wind solo or rushing in the violins. There is a Japanese saying “the nail that sticks up must be hammered down.” Undaunted, he went to the concert hall for an evening performance. Dressed in a new set of tails, he waited onstage. The orchestra never showed. They had organized a boycott to teach this young conductor with his Western ways a lesson.


Ozawa returned to America. In 1963, he was a last-minute replacement at the Chicago Symphony’s Ravinia Festival and was a sensation. He was appointed the director of Ravinia the next year, which was followed by appointments as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and later the San Francisco Symphony.

When he was then appointed part of the Tanglewood triumvirate of Bernstein and Gunther Schuller, he started a lifelong habit of trying to be in two places at once.

“I pushed myself too hard,” Ozawa told me. “I had to fight to keep going, but I started getting sick.” He was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. He imitated his doctor shaking his finger at him, saying “Seiji, you could die from this.”

He settled in one place when he accepted the music directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1973, where he served for 29 years. His health improved, except in one area: his teeth. Ozawa’s father was a dentist. “Only problem was, I would go home to Japan to see my father and have him work on my teeth. He was so happy to see me, he would get too drunk to work on my teeth.”

Working for Seiji was a high-wire act. He told me early on he allowed everyone one mistake. He had some rules but often didn’t convey them. He hated eating at any social event since it gave him a stomach ache. At one elegant party, I grabbed a tiny tuna tartar. Out of nowhere, he appeared: “Kim, you don’t eat when you are working!” He liked to playfully test your reflexes by tossing his glasses, a baseball, a water bottle at you.


He was a graceful athlete. It endeared him to anyone around him if they were athletic themselves. I was grateful for my barely varsity-level tennis and my misspent youth as a ski racer. During the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Ozawa conceived of the idea of performing Beethoven’s Ninth live in Nagano and uplinking it live for the other continents. I was excited to be recruited to go, although I had learned by then that embarking on an adventure with Ozawa did not include first-class treatment.

After a marathon trip to Nagano, I found my hotel. I returned to the front desk after seeing my closet of a room to explain there was no bed. “You are in businessman hotel,” the beleaguered clerk said. “Bed is drawer.”

The day after I arrived, Ozawa had arranged to send his ski instructor to take me to his favorite part of the Japanese Alps, Okushiga. The instructor was loose and at ease. “Kim-San,” he shouted. “There’s a big test coming for you.” It didn’t reassure me that we were on the same hill as the Austrian Men’s downhill team. “Here we are,” said the instructor, “Seiji’s favorite trail, Kim-San. It is called Bear Rolling.” I saw only rocks, more rocks, and tiny mounds of snow. “Where’s the trail?” I asked, but he was off and I had no choice but to follow, hoping he would tell Ozawa that I had been brave to the end.


I’ve wondered in the days since Ozawa died if the enlarged heart he had had all those years ago affected him more than anyone knew. He died of heart failure after a grueling 10 years of fighting to stay alive for his family and his adored 8-year-old grandson, Masaki. I also wonder if his big heart accounted for more room for all the love he held in it: for Boston, the Red Sox, scotch, his Boston musicians, Symphony Hall, and Tanglewood.

In 2002, he and his family left Tanglewood the day after his last concert at the center. It was a quintessential Tanglewood day: clear and shiny as a new penny. Word got around that some staff and members of the orchestra were going to wait by a bridge over the Housatonic River in West Stockbridge, which he’d have to cross on the way to New York. We took our position and soon saw the BSO car. The family was late to catch their flight and Ozawa threw himself half out of the car, waving frantically.

As he passed us, we let go balloons. They sailed off, twirling and delighting in the air currents, on to another destination, free. Just as Seiji is now. Free and on to his next adventure.

Kim Taylor, who joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1980, is a member of the BSO Board of Trustees.