Seiji Ozawa, the iconic Japanese conductor known for his work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other world-famous ensembles, died Tuesday at his home in Tokyo due to heart failure, his management office said Friday. He was 88.
A trailblazer of Japanese conductors on the world stage, Ozawa's death was mourned both in his home country and overseas, with the Vienna Philharmonic, where he had also performed, calling him "one of the great conductors of our time."
Born in 1935 to Japanese parents in Manchuria, now northeastern China, Ozawa grew up in Japan and originally aspired to become a pianist. But a finger injury sustained playing rugby in junior high school set him on the path to conducting.
After schooling, Ozawa left for Europe to become a conductor. In 1959 he won first prize at an international competition for young conductors in Besancon, France.
He studied under Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan and U.S. conductor Leonard Bernstein, which paved the way for him to become assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic in 1961.
His international reputation was established by serving as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years through 2002, which, according to its website, is the longest in its history.
In 2002, he became the first Japanese to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day concert. He was music director of the Vienna State Opera from 2002 to 2010, while receiving honorary membership to the Vienna Philharmonic.
His performances also extended to such countries as China, where he was officially invited by the government to work with the China Central Symphony Orchestra in 1978.
Ozawa was among artists who received U.S. Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 for their lifetime contribution to American culture.
In Japan, he founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra in the 1980s as a tribute to his teacher Hideo Saito, a cellist and conductor at his alma mater Toho Gakuen academy, and it has regularly performed at the annual music festival held in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in central Japan.
He also held positions such as the conductor laureate of the New Japan Philharmonic.
Ozawa received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and was keen to educate the next generation of musicians. In 2005, the maestro opened the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland, where he taught young musicians for free.
In 2016, he won a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording for a performance he conducted of Ravel's "L'Enfant et Les Sortileges" (The Child and the Spells) by the Saito Kinen Orchestra at its 2013 festival.
Known for his hardworking nature and trademark bushy hair, Ozawa was beloved for his friendly and cheerful personality.
He had a wide circle of friends, including fashion designer Hanae Mori and internationally renowned writer Haruki Murakami, with whom he co-authored the book "Absolutely on Music."
Ozawa, who underwent surgery for esophageal cancer in 2010, struggled with health issues in his later years of life, which forced him to be absent from the podium for periods.
He made his final public appearance in a wheelchair in September last year at the curtain call of a performance in Matsumoto.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida lamented the loss on his official X account, calling Ozawa "a great conductor who held aspirations for the world, stirred significant emotions transcending borders and was a legend that Japan is proud of."
The Japanese government awarded Ozawa the Order of Culture in 2008.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, in its statement, said Ozawa was "a force of nature on and off stage" who brought it to "new heights of international recognition and acclaim in his almost three decades" as its music director.
The Vienna Philharmonic said in a statement that it was "a gift to be able to go on a long journey with this artist" and Ozawa "left a great artistic legacy with the Vienna Philharmonic."
Ozawa's management office M. Hirasa Ltd. said it is considering holding a farewell event at a later date.