After a distinguished career conducting famous orchestras all over the world, the Japanese maestro has founded international academies that help young instrumentalists develop their potential by playing chamber music. From a young age, Seiji Ozawa was destined for a career as a classical musician. Born in 1935 to Japanese parents in China, he made a promising start studying piano when his family returned to Japan in 1944. His father had even bought a piano, and his teacher focused on the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.
But when he graduated from junior high school in 1950, he developed another passion – for rugby football, a famously physical ballgame that always carries a risk of injury. Playing in the school team in the scrum where the danger of serious impact is even higher, he collided with an opponent and was trampled on. As a result, he lost consciousness, breaking his nose and two fingers.
‘I had promised not to play a year earlier, but my parents didn’t know I was still playing. I had kept it a secret, so after I cleaned myself up, I travelled the two hours home by train!’
Unable to continue playing the piano well enough to reach concert level, he was encouraged by his teacher to think about conducting instead. However, he had no idea what a conductor did, having never seen an orchestra perform – there was no television in Japan at the time. But when his teacher took him to a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he realised that conducting was something wonderful that he wanted to do.
And so began a distinguished career as an orchestral conductor that has taken him all over the world, and included a remarkable 29 years as musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Today, at the age of 80, he no longer tours, though he still performs as a guest conductor. But he continues to play a key role in training the next generation of musicians through his inspirational leadership of academies which he has set up, including the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland, launched in 2004.
‘Teaching is like a drug,’ he says. ‘Once you start, you just can’t stop! Working with such top-class young musicians gives me enormous pleasure. It’s fascinating to observe how young artists develop within a short period of time.
’The Swiss Academy brings together 24 young violinists, violaplayers and cellists and one double bass player for two weeks each summer in Rolle, a town 32 kilometres from Geneva. He oversees the students’ work with the tutors, renowned artists with substantial experience in teaching their craft. He also directs them in public rehearsals open to the residents of Rolle, and the Academy’s guests.
The instrumentalists are selected throughout the year from the best conservatories and international competitions in Europe, and they are invited to participate free of charge – as with all of Seiji Ozawa’s academies.
‘I benefited from the help of teachers in my youth,’ he says, ‘so it is important that talented young people from poor families should be able to attend. I try my best to raise money so that anybody can come – we had 17 different nationalities in 2014.’
The program begins with masterclasses and rehearsals in Rolle Castle which overlooks Lake Geneva, and concludes with concerts in the Castle’s courtyard, Geneva’s famous Victoria Hall and the Aigues-Vertes Foundation village outside Geneva which cares for people with cognitive impairments. In 2015, it concluded with a three-day residency at the newly opened Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne.
An unusual aspect of the Academy is that it is devoted to chamber music, especially the string quartet. In doing so, it follows the guidance of his first teacher, Hideo Saito, who focused on Western music. He believed that the quartet was the basis of all ensemble music, to which composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven gave the very best of themselves.
‘Studying the string quartet leads you right to the heart of music,’ says Seiji Ozawa. ‘That is why we urge the young musicians to focus on them. Becoming acquainted with this immense and significant repertoire at an early age paves the way towards being a good musician.
‘Most young instrumentalists think like soloists. We must snap them out of this: it is only once they have grasped the miracle of sharing chamber music that they will be able to understand great composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner.
‘In a quartet, musicians have nowhere to hide. There are no frills – nothing is purely cosmetic. They must listen to one another in order to play together, with great intensity. Everything must be perfect.’
Seiji Ozawa gives much of the credit for his professional success to his school teacher, who was very strict on method and whose lessons included sight-reading for singing and music dictation. And it was those skills that helped his former pupil reach public attention in 1959 when he was awarded first prize in the Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors at the age 24.
This led to an invitation from the French conductor Charles Munch, then musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to conduct the orchestra at the Tanglewood Music Festival in the US. Next he studied in Berlin with Herbert von Karajan, and then with Leonard Bernstein who invited him to join the New York Philharmonic on a tour of Japan. This was followed by spells as director of the Toronto and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, before he was appointed musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1973.
Throughout his professional career, Seiji Ozawa worked with a limited number of orchestras in cities such as Chicago, Berlin, Munich and London, in addition to his directorships in Toronto, San Francisco, Boston and Vienna. He became known for his expressive conducting style, which he attributes to his poor command of foreign languages: ‘I didn’t have good English, so when conducting overseas I moved a lot and used my eyes to convey my instructions to the musicians.’
After leaving the BSO in 2001, he became musical director of the Vienna State Opera, and while in that role he launched the Swiss Academy. However, he had not neglected his Japanese origins, having founded in 1984 the Saito Kinen Orchestra in honour of his first teacher. Each summer, this brings together Japanese musicians from the most prestigious Western orchestras in a festival in the town of Matsumoto.
He also directs twice a year the Mito Chamber Orchestra, created in 1990 and made up of some 30 top musicians. And he has created academies in Japan, including the Seiji Ozawa Ongaku-Juku (Music Academy) for Japanese and Chinese student musicians with a particular focus on opera, as well as the Ozawa International Chamber Music Academy in Okushiga.
Today, he is as involved as ever in his academies, inspiring the musicians who have participated in them and grateful to the sponsors who have made that possible. He sees the young musicians as amazing individuals who deserve the best – to be in contact with tutors of the highest calibre who can give them the opportunity to explore their abilities.
‘These young people are amazing. They have strong personalities that shared experiences can help to develop and, at the same time, control. I am happy to take them on such an adventure.’
For more information, visit www.ozawa-academy.ch