Seiji Ozawa
(Photo: Holger Kettner)

The Berliner Philharmoniker mourns the death of honorary member Seiji Ozawa, who died on 6 February 2024, at the age of 88. Eva-Maria Tomasi and Stefan Dohr, orchestra board members of the Berliner Philharmoniker, said: “For us as an orchestra, Seiji Ozawa was more than a highly-esteemed conductor. His great technical skill, his perfect knowledge of the score and his friendly, modest, honest and humorous manner made him a close friend and companion to the orchestra since his debut in 1966. We are very grateful that we were able to make music with him once again in April 2016, and we bow our heads in respect for this great conductor and wonderful person. Our thoughts are with his family.”

In 1966, Seiji Ozawa made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker – at around the same time as Claudio Abbado. Both conductors were “discovered” by Herbert von Karajan; the press was full of praise for the maestro’s unerring instinct for talent. Seiji Ozawa, winner of the conducting competition in Besançon, winner of the Koussevitzky Prize, and former assistant to Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, had only been Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for a year at the time, and had recently made his acclaimed debut in Salzburg. His “creative energy” – according to the press after his Berlin debut – was remarkable, and he was celebrated as a “conducting Paganini”. He conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler – a programme that was to become typical of future concerts.

Classical, romantic, modern

Whenever Ozawa stepped onto the podium of the Berliner Philharmoniker – as he did regularly from then on – the programme was always both classical and romantic, often spiced up with a pinch of modernism. Over the years, he has also introduced Berlin audiences to works by his Japanese compatriots: Takemitsu’s November Steps and Requiem as well as Ishii’s Polarities for orchestra; but also Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise, which the conductor premiered in Paris in 1983, presenting excerpts from the work with the Berliner Philharmoniker three years later. Seiji Ozawa was the first Japanese conductor to achieve world fame. He gained a profound understanding of Western classical music from his teacher and mentor Hideo Saitō, who taught him at the Tōhō Academy of Music in Tokyo. According to Ozawa in an interview for the Digital Concert Hall, he owed a great deal to Hideo Saitō. At a time when there was virtually no knowledge of Western music culture in Japan, Saitō, who had studied in Germany, taught his pupil the essentials of classical music. More than anyone else, Herbert von Karajan helped him in the development of a representative repertoire.

Permanent guest conductor

Ozawa was head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years, and music director of the Vienna State Opera from 2002 to 2010. Despite his many international commitments, he always found time for guest appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Before cancer forced him to cancel his planned concerts in 2009, and caused him to largely withdraw from musical life, he often came to the Berliner Philharmoniker twice per concert season. Of the many concerts that Ozawa conducted, a few events stand out as musical beacons: the commemorative concerts to mark the 100th anniversary of the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1982 and Herbert von Karajan’s 100th birthday in 2008; the Philharmoniker’s first concert in the newly-opened Suntory Hall in Tokyo; the New Year’s Eve concert in 1989; and the Waldbühne concerts in 1993 and 2003.

Seiji Ozawa gave his last concerts after a seven-year break in April 2016. Weakened by his illness, but still full of passion, he conducted a half-concert programme with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and the Choral Fantasy [after a performance by a chamber music ensemble]. It was a moving event for the conductor and the orchestra, which Ozawa made an honorary member during this performance. What made the Berliner Philharmoniker so special for Seiji Ozawa? “Every member plays like a chamber musician. That is very important. I think that’s what makes up the tradition of the orchestra.”

To mark the occasion, the Digital Concert Hall is making the concert with Seiji Ozawa from 17 May 2009 available free of charge.