15 February 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Seiji Ozawa – the sorcerer’s apprentice

On 6 February 2024, Seiji Ozawa died 88 years old in Tokyo. He was Karajan’s favourite apprentice, a life-long friend and almost a member of the family.

He was born in Manchukuo in 1935 and managed to learn conducting in Japan and – starting in 1959 – in Europe. Ozawa was introduced to Karajan by Michiko de Kowa-Tanaka, the wife of one of Karajan’s friends, the actor Victor de Kowa. Karajan offered him a position as his assistant in Berlin. Ozawa recalled:

“When I came to Europe and Herr von Karajan, he acquainted me with Mahler’s ‘Lied von der Erde’, Sibelius’ Fifth, Richard Strauss, Brahms and Wagner. I learned from him musical alignment and phrasing. It wouldn’t have been possible at that level in Japan. It was wonderful to study with Karajan in 1959 and 1960. It was a dream come true.”

Richard Osborne wrote: “Seiji Ozawa, a Karajan pupil, has reported how, as a teacher, Karajan would identify a point at issue but never proffer a solution, conforming to another fine adage of teaching: ‘You may take the pupil to the window but on no account should you attempt to describe the view.’ To Karajan these things were second nature.”
In 1961, Ozawa got an invitation from Leonard Bernstein to be his assistant at the New York Philharmonic. He hesitated because he didn’t want to offend Karajan, but Karajan said: “Go, Seiji! Go and come back.” Subsequently, Ozawa worked mainly in America with the San Francisco Symphony, the Toronto Symphony and – above all – the Boston Symphony, whose musical director he was for almost 30 years. In 1999, ten years after Karajan’s death, Ozawa conducted two memorial concerts at the Salzburg Festival. In 2002, he became Karajan’s successor as musical director of the Vienna State Opera and conducted the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert – like Karajan only once. The recording is the best-selling of all New Year’s Concerts so far. On occasion of Karajan’s 100th birthday, Ozawa conducted a memorial concert with the Berlin Philharmonic and Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2008.

This clip shows Karajan rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1978. Seiji Ozawa – already the five-year head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra! – joins the rehearsal with a score on his knees and attends an audition with the singer David Rendall. (Obviously, Rendall got the job. He appeared in the film of Bruckner’s Te Deum in the same year.)

Ozawa told a German newspaper:

“Karajan could be very generous at one moment and very stand-offish the next. He was simply wonderful to me although I was an absolute beginner. When he was in the mood for talking, he took me home in his Porsche and then he talked. His wife Eliette made a salad for us. At three in the morning, he threw me out. I stood there without a car and without money for a taxi, so I walked back to Salzburg. (Editor’s note: The distance between Anif and Salzburg City is about 4 miles)”

This conversation between Karajan and Ozawa was filmed in 1981. It is a rare opportunity to listen to two great conductors talking intimately about music-making and the long-term developments in an artistic life.

“Ozawa reminds Karajan of his advice about how to tackle the opening of Brahms’s Second Symphony – ‘Let the flute start and the violins will follow.’ ‘Yes, if it’s already running, don’t disturb it,’ Karajan laughs – a sentiment that could easily stand as Ozawa’s own personal motto.”
Philipp Clark, Gramophone

“He had created a deep connection with his musicians and singers, a unity that turned the music-making into something transcendental such as I had never heard before.”
Seiji Ozawa about the Salzburg “Rosenkavalier”

“Conversations with Karajan” Edited with an Instroduction by Richard Osborne. Oxford University Press. 1989

Manuel Brug, welt.de 12.2.24

Friedemann Leipold, br-klassik.de 9.2.24

Philipp Clark, Gramophone, 9.2.2024

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