Classical music pioneer Ozawa looks to his legacy
By Isabel Reynolds
MATSUMOTO, Japan (Reuters) – For a couple of weeks in late
summer each year, the small Japanese mountain town of Matsumoto
becomes the kind of place where even the taxi drivers talk
The reason is simple — Seiji Ozawa.
The tousle-headed maestro, who turned 70 on Thursday,
became music director of the Vienna State Opera in 2002 after
almost three decades in a similar job at the Boston Symphony
Orchestra. He spends most of his year conducting the best-known
musicians in the United States and Europe.
But he sets aside the end of summer to return to his native
Japan and conduct part of the program at the Saito Kinen
festival, the country’s biggest event for Western classical
music, held in Matsumoto, some 180 km (110 miles) northwest of
Ozawa draws musicians from all over the world to an event
he established in honor of his former music teacher, Hideo
Saito, in 1992. The festival is also a magnet for local people,
who swarm to it to work as volunteer drivers, guides and
back-office staff, offer to play host to foreign musicians or
simply soak up the wealth of performances on offer.
“The members feel like this is a kind of second home,”
Ozawa said of the visiting musicians in an interview backstage
at the city’s culture center a couple of hours before
conducting his birthday celebration concert. “There are many
things happening in this one month. It’s wonderful, the
connections with local people. Not necessarily music-lovers,
but families invite the players to restaurants or other special
Ozawa’s road to international fame began in 1959 when he
set out on a cargo ship from the port of Kobe in western Japan
on a two-month journey by sea and road to France, where he was
determined to test his mettle at a young conductors’
competition in Besancon.
His combination of musical talent and stage presence
scooped him the top prize, an achievement that opened doors
around the world and opportunities to work with the conducting
greats of the time, such as Herbert von Karajan in West Berlin
and Leonard Bernstein in New York.
But Ozawa has in some ways stayed close to his roots in
Born the son of a dentist in 1935 in Shenyang, part of what
was then Japanese-occupied China, Ozawa spent most of his early
childhood in Beijing and has kept up connections with the land
of his birth since the late 1970s, when he was invited to work
with a Chinese orchestra for a week.
He was astounded to find that many of the Chinese musicians
had never even heard of Brahms, because Western composers had
been banned under the Cultural Revolution.
This year, half of the young musicians hand-picked to take
part in Ozawa’s annual music “cram school” are from China,
where musical standards have leapt in the past few years, he
“It’s a great surprise to me — a good surprise,” Ozawa
said. “In China I know they have an appetite to do classical
music, but the standard was low until five years ago. Now,
boom, something happened, because all the good people are
young, like 17, 18 or 19. They were not around five years ago.”
A brief observation of Ozawa in rehearsal for the evening’s
concert with a young orchestra, offers a clue as to why people
travel around the world to work with him. The pace is fast, but
the atmosphere relaxed and often broken by peals of laughter.
“That’s good, but try to enjoy yourself a bit more. Dance,
dance,” the bespectacled Ozawa tells one young violinist, his
hands plucking at the air to illustrate the point.
Ozawa’s old friend the conductor and cellist Mstislav
Rostropovich was scheduled to present him with a heart-shaped
birthday cake after the concert.
But Ozawa’s charisma is the source of nagging concerns for
classical music fans in Japan, who fear no one will appear to
replace him and events like the Saito Kinen festival and the
Tokyo Opera no Mori, a Japanese opera project he founded this
year, will fade away.
“With Mr Ozawa, it’s not just his talent, but his ability
to bring people together,” said Toshiaki Hanai, an Osaka air
conditioning salesman who decamps to Matsumoto for the period
of the festival every year. “Personally, I would come here even
if Mr Ozawa were not conducting. But I wonder how many other
people would,” he added.
Ozawa echoed the same worries when asked about retirement.
“I will try to thin out my schedule,” he said. “But I think
this is my life work here at Matsumoto. I may cut down my
conducting here too, but my work is to find the best person to
continue. That is my duty. I cannot just retire from here. I
have to find a way to continue.”