Biography of Seiji Ozawa

A World Famous Conductor

Seiji Ozawa, Conductor. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Conductor Seiji Ozawa (born September 1, 1935) is the word famous conductor with one of the most impressive careers in modern music history. 

Early Years and Education

Seiji was born to Japanese parents on September 1, 1935 in Fenytien (now Shenyang, Liaoning, China). At an early age, Conductor Seiji began taking private piano lessons, studying the works of Johann Sebastian Bach with Noboru Toyomasu. After graduating from Seijo Junior High School, Conductor Seiji, entered the Toho School of Music in Tokyo as a pianist at age 16. After breaking two of his fingers while playing rugby, however, he focused his studies on conducting and composition instead. It was then he began studying with his most influential teacher, Hideo Saito. Several years later with plenty of instruction under his belt, Seiji Ozawa conducted his first symphony orchestra, the Nippon  Hosso Kyokai  Symphony Orchestra, in 1954. Shortly thereafter, he conducted the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. Four years later, in 1958, Conductor Seiji graduated from the Toho School of Music, winning first prizes in composition and conducting.

Post-Graduation Accomplishments and Early Career

After graduating, Conductor Seiji moved to Paris, France, and in 1959, he won first prize at the highly esteemed International Competition of Orchestra Conductors held in Besançon, France. Upon receiving first prize, Seiji gained the attention and tutorship of Eugene Bigot (President of the Besançon competition jury), who gave Seiji lessons in conducting, and Charles Munch, who invited Seiji to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Conductor Seiji cordially accepted the invitation to Tangleood and began studying under Munch, the Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Monteux.

In 1960, Conductor Seiji won the Koussevitzky Prize, Tanglewood’s highest honor, for outstanding student conductor. Shortly thereafter, Conductor Seiji moved to Berlin after winning a scholarship to study with the prominent Austrian conductor, Herbert von Karajan. While studying with Karajan, Conductor Seiji caught the eyes of Leonard Bernstein, who later appointed him as the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Conductor Seiji remained with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic for the next four years.

Later Career

During the 1960's, Conductor Seiji's career blossomed. While working with the New York Philharmonic, Conductor Seiji debuted with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1962. From there, he began guest conducting with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival. In 1965, after leaving the New York Philharmonic, Conductor Seiji became the Artistic Director of the Ravinia Festival, as well as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He held these positions until 1969.

During this decade, Conductor Seiji appeared with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1970, Conductor Seiji Ozawa became the music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, where he stayed until 1976. In 1970, during his time with San Francisco, Conductor Seiji was appointed Music Director of the Berkshire Music Festival. In 1973, he was also appointed as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

After leaving the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Conductor Seiji was able to travel abroad to Europe and Japan with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1980, he became an honorary artistic director of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1984, Conductor Seiji and Kazuyoshi Akiyama established the Saito Kinen Orchestra whose purpose was to perform in memory of Conductor Seiji’s teacher, Hideo Saito. In 2002, Conductor Seiji resigned from Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra amidst his fans protests and took residency as the Music Director of the Vienna State Opera.

Conductor Seiji's Legacy

To this day, Conductor Seiji remains as busy as ever, traveling from venue to venue, conducting many of the world's best orchestras. His unique conducting style and easy personality inspire the thousands of musicians under his direction as well as his audiences. His work to educate young musicians and his founding of the Saito Kinen Music Festival has earned him many awards and accolades. It’s easy to see why Conductor Seiji Ozawa will go down in history as one of the few great conductors of our time.

Awards & Honors

  • 1958 - 1st Prizes in conducting and composition: The Toho School of Music
  • 1959 - 1st Prize: International Competition of Orchestra Conductors: Besançon, France
  • 1960 - Koussevitzky Prize for outstanding student conductor: Tanglewood
  • 1998 - Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur: France
  • 2000 - Honorary Doctorate from Harvard University
  • 2001 - Membership in the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut de France
  • 2002 - Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class, from Austrian President Thomas Klestil
  • 2003 - Mainichi Art Award and Suntory Music Prize
  • 2004 - Honorary Doctorate from the Sorbonne University of France