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Longtime BSO Music Director and Berkshire County fixture Seiji Ozawa dies at 88 in Tokyo

Seiji Ozawa conducting in 1983.
Akira Kinoshita
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Seiji Ozawa conducting in 1983.

Conductor Seiji Ozawa died at his home in Tokyo from heart failure at 88 on Tuesday. He served as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director from 1973 to 2002, and was a fixture at the BSO’s summer home of Tanglewood in Lenox and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Ozawa had a lifelong relationship with the Berkshires, and owned a home in West Stockbridge until his death. In 1994, Tanglewood named one of its buildings after him: Seiji Ozawa Hall. To understand more about Ozawa’s life and connection the Berkshires, WAMC spoke with BSO Vice President Tony Fogg.

FOGG: Tanglewood was the first musical place in America that Seiji ever saw. He came there as a fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center in 1960, and he was completely overwhelmed, besotted by Tanglewood and was passionate about it. It was his- it was perhaps his greatest legacy of work and of growth. He was a very familiar figure around the Berkshires, he has a home there still in West Stockbridge. But Seiji developed the festival, incredibly. There's of course, a beautiful hall built in his honor, bearing his name – Seiji Ozawa Hall – that opened in 1994. But the spirit of Seiji’s everywhere around the campus. He was- At the height, he was absolutely ubiquitous on the Tanglewood campus, and his energy and his friendship and his love are something that just brought the whole place to life.

WAMC: Now, speaking about that energy and that love- He was this, again, as you say, ubiquitous figure at Tanglewood. Can you speak a little bit to his character and the presence he brought to the Tanglewood community?

Well, he was a very caring person. Seiji loved the whole breadth of humanity. He loved the most eloquent and articulate and had a feeling for those whose leadership roles were important, but he also, he loved the everyman, and he was frequently, of course – not so much in the Berkshires, but here in Boston – at sports games. There was nothing that he adored more than to be sitting in the bleachers at Fenway, having a beer, a hotdog and just enjoying the energy of the crowd. And for them, he was just their friend, he was Seiji who showed up at the sports games.

Are there any moments from Ozawa's prolific conducting career that stand out to you as you reflect back on his life?

Well, look, I had the great honor of working with Seiji from 1994 until he left the BSO in 2002, and then a little afterwards. But look, I remember some of those big moments where he was just totally in command. We presented a concert under the Eiffel Tower in Paris on the Champ de Mars in the year 2000, and he was Seiji controlling these vast forces, a combined Boston Symphony and Orchestre de Paris, a chorus, children, he wanted the audience to sing along, and so was conducting tens of thousands of people on Champ de Mars, and those sorts of moments, when Seiji was absolutely in his element. But I also remember many moments of just intense musical passion that he brought. For me, among the many great moments was when we reopened the theater concert hall at Tanglewood in 1996 with performances of Benjamin Britten's ‘Peter Grimes,’ which was a work he was doing for the first time, but he brought to that whole production and to the training of young singers the most incredible devotion, energy. He understood the character so well. For me, that was one of the great nights, but there are so many that it's hard to select one. But certainly, when Seiji was conducting the big forces, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, of course, which he brought about, the orchestra of which he appointed more than half, in all of their glory, that's when Seiji was really in his element and at his finest.

Now, how does the BSO intend to celebrate the life of Ozawa?

Look, early days yet, Josh. We will be doing a small remembrance at the concerts here in Boston this weekend, today and tomorrow. There will be a tribute to Seiji posted on our website very soon. But we're just starting to think now about how we will mark his passing and celebrate his life and contribution at Tanglewood this summer in the near future. So early days yet, but certainly, there'll be a chance for everyone to remember and celebrate Seiji.

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Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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