The Lifelong Musical Odyssey of Legendary Conductor Seiji Ozawa

In 1959, a youthful gentleman, a mere 24 years of age, embarked on a voyage astride a moped aboard a Japanese freighter, adrift upon the sea for more than two months ere reaching Europe and commencing his “motorcycle study tour.”

As his sojourn extended, this young luminary, ablaze with a fervent desire for Western culture, gradually assimilated and acclimated to European and American society, culminating in a fabled odyssey as a maestro of music.

At the tender age of 25, he clinched the top prize in the Besançon International Conducting Competition and apprenticed under maestros such as Charles Munch and Karajan, subsequently assuming the mantle of Bernstein’s deputy conductor in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

In the year 2002, at the age of 67, Seiji Ozawa professed in an interview with Yang Lan, “I harbor a profound affection for opera. The rigors of conducting in an American orchestra are all-consuming. At times, I can only undertake a single opera within a year, and occasionally, none at all, for time is a fleeting commodity. It is an immense boon for me to seize the opportunity to immerse myself in opera in Vienna. I intend to conduct several more operas before my mortal coil unwinds.” That year, he ascended to the post of music director at the Vienna State Opera.

Rewinding 29 years, to his inaugural foray onto the centennial stage of the Tanglewood Music Center in Boston, Ozawa brimmed with ambition, poised to unveil his prodigious talents. From 1973 onwards, he helmed the baton as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a span of 29 years, solidifying his eminence as a luminary conductor on the global stage.

On February 6, 2024, the eminent Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa breathed his last at the age of 88 within the confines of his abode. To the protégés under his tutelage, he oft imparted, “Music mirrors the sunset. While the sunset itself is singular, each individual, each day, beholds and perceives it with unique nuances.” Pursuing the sunset is but a trifling endeavor. Seiji Ozawa’s lifelong expedition epitomizes, “If one seeks the resplendent sunset, let them seek it through music. For beautiful music perennially abounds.”

“Art transcends borders.”

“In my encounters through the medium of music, I find myself immensely privileged to have crossed paths with such venerable souls!” “To be ensconced within the realm of music is a profound blessing.”

The term “bliss” recurrently punctuates Ozawa’s narratives of his experiences. The tome “Conducting Career – My Study Travel Essay” chronicles Ozawa’s odyssey from Japan to Europe and the United States in pursuit of music conducting. Spanning more than three years of retrospection, the discourse scarcely dwells on music itself, instead foregrounding the saga of a young luminary, borne of the 1960s, possessed of an ardent yearning for Western culture, who navigated and flourished within European and American society, ultimately attaining legendary stature. The publication proved a sensation in Japan that year, undergoing over ten reprints.

Ozawa frequently extols the “ecstasy of the musician” within the tome – the ineffable joy that ensues upon one’s comprehension and appreciation of the wholly unfamiliar.

Such rapture oft induced a profusion of perspiration down his spine. It was during the juncture when he embarked from Kobe upon a cargo vessel, traversing four days upon the waves. His initial glimpse of Estancia Island in the Philippines, upon foreign shores since the dawning of his cognizance, was amidst a protracted 60-day maritime voyage. It was amid this voyage that he traversed Paris and abruptly alighted upon the banks of the Seine. Therein, he indulged in reveries, traversing the silvery snow-capped peaks, casting his gaze upon the verdant terrain, and savoring the icy crests and snowy precipices. It was when he traversed the European expanse to Boston by air, beholding the American continent for the first time from the aerial vantage; and as he soared across the Pacific with the New York Philharmonic, surveying the verdant mountains and meandering rivers of Japan…

He reminisced of the Dan Valley Woods in the environs of Boston, USA, replete with verdant foliage, placid lakes, undulating hills, and invigorating air. In his endeavor to solicit counsel from the revered mentor Charles Munch, Ozawa clinched the top spot in the discipleship selection contest. This followed a battery of arduous examinations and conducting performances, which he and nearly 30 young conductors from across the globe successfully navigated. Consequently, he garnered the Kushevitzky Prize, named in honor of the late Kushevitzki, the progenitor and conductor of that musical festival. Thus, Ozawa secured the opportunity for tutelage under Munch himself.

For Ozawa, Berlin epitomized a haven of music, ensconced beside a vast expanse of water. Fueled by a yearning to glean the art of conducting from Karajan, who seemed to possess an enigmatic allure, he hastened to Berlin to partake in the “Young Conductor Competition to Study Under Karajan.” Therein, Ozawa selected Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” and Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture as the focal pieces for assessment, emerging victorious yet again. For several months thereafter, he journeyed betwixt Paris and Berlin, imbibing wisdom from Karajan.

In the ensuing days, at Carnegie Hall in New York, Ozawa conducted the premiere performance of Dai Minlang’s “Feast” under the auspices of deputy conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. To his astonishment, the rendition elicited fervent applause from the American audience and commendation from maestro Bernstein. The orchestral musicians, too, reverberated their accolades through the percussive beat of their instruments. “Music is a realm devoid of national confines,” Ozawa remarked emotively. “To be ensconced within the realm of music is a profound source of joy.”

“Would you care to endeavor such artistry?”

In addition to his prowess in music conducting, Ozawa espoused distinctive pedagogical methods.

In the summer of 2011, the Japanese litterateur Haruki Murakami accompanied Ozawa to the Seiji Ozawa Swiss International Conservatory of Music. This forum, a conclave for aspiring string instrumentalists convened in Basel, a quaint hamlet adjacent to Montreux on the banks of Lake Geneva, was presided over by Ozawa. Exceptional string virtuosos hailing from diverse corners of Europe, predominantly in their twenties, convened to partake in a residential instructional program.

This colloquy transpires annually over the course of ten days and had reached its seventh iteration that year. Reflecting upon the experience, Haruki Murakami remarked, “The collective synergy burgeoned with each passing day. At a certain juncture, it resembled a dormant engine suddenly ignited, harmonizing autonomously and commencing its revolutions. In another vein, it mirrored a nascent entity, a creature birth

ed into a realm of ignorance, gradually mastering the intricacies of movement, sensation, and perception. Initially tentative, its motions gradually assumed a fluid grace, growing increasingly adept. At this juncture, this entity instinctively comprehended the nuances of sound and rhythm that Mr. Ozawa sought. This process transcends mere instruction, evolving into a unique communion that seeks resonance. Amidst this communion, the students unearthed the profound significance and innate joy of music.”

Ozawa implored his students to seek out the musical “sunset.” “Would you care to explore such melodies?” Guided by this ethos, he dispensed guidance in a congenial manner, interjecting occasional jests to alleviate the tension pervading the ambiance. In Haruki Murakami’s estimation, Mr. Ozawa’s directives to the orchestra were meticulous, whether pertaining to tempo, dynamics, timbre, or bowing technique. Much like a finely calibrated apparatus, he might task a player with repeated iterations of a passage until it achieved perfection.”

In November 1976, Seiji Ozawa arrived in China. During that epoch, the resounding strains of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven were yet to grace the ears of the Chinese populace. Ozawa, with prophetic fervor, declared, “I shall return. I harbor the conviction that one day, I shall be bestowed with the opportunity to conduct Brahms and Beethoven on this soil.” During this juncture, a companion extended an invitation to Ozawa, welcoming him into their abode where treasures lay concealed. Amongst them, a trove of records and tapes awaited discovery, prompting Ozawa to exclaim, “It’s utterly remarkable!” This indelible impression lingered with him throughout the passing years.

A year hence, Ozawa revisited China, wielding his baton to direct the Central Symphony Orchestra in renditions of Brahms’s “The Moon Reflects on Two Springs” and the enchanting Pipa. Upon hearing the haunting strains of the Erhu in “Er Quan Ying Yue”, tears welled in Ozawa’s eyes as he proclaimed that such music merited reverence, to be savored “on bended knee.” In 1979, whilst Deng Xiaoping embarked on a diplomatic voyage to the United States, Ozawa languished in his Boston abode, assailed by a virulent cold. From his sickbed, he witnessed Deng Xiaoping’s discourse with U.S. President Carter, wherein commitments to bolster cultural exchange between China and the United States were made. This augured the dispatch of a Peking Opera troupe to the United States and the cordial invitation extended to the Boston Symphony Orchestra to grace China’s shores. Thus, Ozawa’s cherished aspiration materialized as he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a momentous voyage to China that year. The clamor for tickets reached a crescendo, with queues snaking for miles, some enduring a twenty-hour vigil.

In 1999, Ozawa orchestrated another triumphant tour of China with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Despite ticket prices soaring to 500 yuan, the venues remained thronged with eager patrons. In 2002, commemorating the 30th anniversary of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations, the Japanese government summoned Ozawa Seiji to collaborate with the Four Seasons Theater Company in staging “Madama Butterfly” in Beijing. Reflecting on this honor, Ozawa quipped, “I am perpetually bestowed as a gift by the government.”

“I find my tongue insufficient to bid adieu adequately.”

In his twenty-fourth year, seized by a sudden impulse to traverse Europe astride a motorcycle, Ozawa found himself bereft of funds to procure a vehicle. Undeterred, he petitioned Fuji Heavy Industries, whose hearts were stirred by his fervor, ultimately gifting him with one. As he embarked on his European odyssey, Ozawa encountered adversity: whilst skiing in Nozawa, Shinshu, with friends from his schooldays, they sought shelter in the dwelling of a cantankerous elder. Alas, fate intervened cruelly as Ozawa plummeted from a precipice, sustaining injuries to his waist. That fateful night, he was besieged by a raging fever.

Remarkably, a fortifying draught of beer imbibed aboard a nocturnal train journey wrought a miraculous recovery. Homeward bound, buoyed by serendipity, Ozawa awaited the long-awaited response to prior entreaties: a cargo vessel, modestly priced, had consented to convey him.

Encountering such an unforeseen opportunity, Ozawa diligently made preparations for departure, bidding countless adieus to cherished companions and kin. Yet, despite these partings, “I find my tongue inadequate to articulate a sufficient farewell.” The fortnight preceding his embarkation raced by in a blur of activity. Recollecting this tumultuous period, Ozawa mused, “I doubt I shall ever again endure such a harrowing moment in my lifetime.”

On the eve of his departure, a throng assembled at Tokyo Station to bid Ozawa farewell, evoking near-tears from the maestro. The subsequent day found Ozawa ensconced in a Kyoto inn, reclining upon tatami mats alongside his elder brother, who had journeyed from Sendai to bid him adieu. In the fullness of time, Ozawa reminisced fondly upon that tatami.

In many respects, this marked the genesis of Ozawa’s quest for the twilight strains of music. Even in his waning years, he lamented, “Time proves all too fleeting… I aspire to conduct a few more operas ere I bid adieu.” Throughout his sojourn in this world, the melody of longing persists, echoing the refrain, “I find my tongue inadequate to articulate a sufficient farewell.”

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