Seiji Ozawa was born on September 1, 1935 in Hoten, Manchuria (Fenytien, China) of Japanese parents at a time when Manchuria was an occupied province of the Empire of Japan. As the borders of the Empire were beaten back from their largest expanse in the early days of World War II, Ozawa's parents were compelled to move the family back to the main Japanese islands in 1944. Seiji had begun music lessons at age seven, already preferring classical European music to Chinese or Japanese music. At the age of 16, he entered the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, intending to be a professional pianist. However, he broke both his index fingers in a rugby game and was forced to abandon that plan. So instead he turned to conducting and composition. His most influential teacher was Hideo Saito. During this period he heard the Symphony of the Air and the Boston Symphony Orchestra when they appeared in Japan on tours; these were also profound experiences. He began to conduct professional ensembles, including the NHK (Japan Broadcasting) Symphony Orchestra and the Japan Philharmonic while still a student. He graduated from Toho in 1959 with first prizes in conducting and composition. He went to Europe for more studies upon graduation, supporting himself by becoming a salesman for Japanese motor scooters, and he traveled through France and Italy, pushing the product. While thus traveling, he saw a notice for the Besançon International Conductors' Competition, decided on impulse to enter it, and won. Charles Munch, one of the judge (who had conducted the Boston Symphony on the tour performance that so affected Ozawa) was impressed and arranged for Ozawa to study at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in the summer of 1960. Before leaving for the United States, Ozawa studied conducting further with Eugène Bigot, another one of the Besançon judges. His summer at Tanglewood was a success: he won the Koussevitzky award given to each year's outstanding conducting student and a scholarship to go to work with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein visited Berlin; the illustrious Tanglewood graduate looked in on the most recent Koussevitzky winner, heard him work, and hired him as an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in time to appear with the orchestra on an upcoming tour of Japan. Ozawa made his debut with the orchestra in Carnegie Hall on April 14, 1961. He then traveled with the orchestra and conducted in Japan, and commenced his regular assistant conductor duties for the 1961/1962 season. In 1962, he returned to the NHK Symphony Orchestra for an engagement as guest conductor. Oddly enough, by Western standards this appearance was relatively unsuccessful. The properly deferential kid who had conducted them earlier had been replaced by a Western-trained conductor who apparently absorbed some of the imperious manner of his teacher von Karajan, and the orchestra players objected to this tone. Some commentators have concluded that this was because they were not used to being commanded in such manner by a fellow countryman; it is more likely that they felt the much younger man was not showing them the proper respect a Japanese pays to age and experience. On subsequent returns to Japan, however, Ozawa has found it easier to get along with orchestras of his homeland. Ozawa served as assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic with distinction. He was also appointed music director of the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1964-1968). At that point his career took an a precipitous climb, noted for his total command of the most complex scores, brilliant performances, penetrating insight into the music, and mastery of a wide repertoire from all periods of orchestral music. In 1969, he became principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's regular series. He became music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1965-1969), taking it on a spectacularly successful tour of Britain in 1965. While there, he produced an outstanding recording of Olivier Messiaen's ten-movement Turangalila Symphony, and backed it with Toru Takemitsu's November Steps, a recording which was one of the first steps toward that Japanese composer's eventual world-wide fame. In 1968, he became the music adviser to the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. He made his operatic debut at the Salzburg Festival with Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte in 1969. In 1970, he became the music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. That musically aware city, receptive to new trends in music, provided him with a very congenial audience to which he introduced considerable new music. His tenure these lasted through 1977, including the last season, when he served as "music adviser." Throughout the years with San Francisco, Ozawa had been developing ever-closer ties with Boston. He became the co-artistic adviser of the Berkshire Music Center with Gunther Schuller in 1970. In 1972, he was named music adviser of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1973 he was appointed music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and sole artistic director of the Berkshire Music Center. He was the first Asian (or non-European of any background, for that matter) to serve in these capacities. He has remained with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Berkshire Center ever since, and has also undertaken important guest conducting duties. His first London Covent Garden appearance was conducting Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in 1974, where he was singled out for praise of his keen command of the dramatic timing of the work. He returned to Europe leading the Boston Symphony on a well-received tour of Europe in 1976, and in 1978 took it to Japan, an occasion for a triumphal return and an outpouring of national pride. The year 1979 saw two major tours: he traveled with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the People's Republic of China, an unprecedented cultural exchange signaling the continuing thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations (and Japanese-Chinese relations, for that matter). In August of that year he took the orchestra on a tour of the major European music festivals. The year of the orchestra's centennial, 1981, saw many special concerts, including appearances in 14 U.S. cities and a major world tour that included Japan, Germany, France, Austria, and England. Ozawa's wide repertoire has included such complex works as Mahler's Eighth Symphony, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, the Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives, the music of Prokofiev, Sessions, Piston, and other important American composers, several Japanese composers, and most of the standard repertory. He has recorded extensively. He is universally considered to have remarkable musical talent, but he has also been subject to criticism that his being a quick study with an unusually retentive musical mind has led to his sometimes scheduling performances for music that he then fails to grasp fully in questions of interpretation. He also seemed to have fallen prey to two related phenomena: the tendency of local audiences and critics to perceive (rightly or wrongly) staleness creeping into the work of a music director as an extended tenure progresses, and a genuine phenomenon recently dubbed the "Fifties slump," a sort of mid-career crisis as conductors who had early spectacular successes seem to lose their spark and originality for a while as they make the transition to becoming (if all goes well), seasoned elders among conductors. Thus for a period of several years on both sides of 1990, his concert appearances and recordings were often attacked as dull. Tellingly, this problem has not seemed to afflict his concerto recordings, where the interpretive spark of the soloist becomes predominant. In 1997 and 1998 he has become embroiled in a severe dispute concerning the future direction of the Berkshire Center and the Tanglewood Festival. ~ Joseph StevensonPortions of Content Provided by Rovi Corporation.
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