Seiji Ozawa, world-renowned Japanese conductor, dies aged 88

World-renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa has died aged 88, national broadcaster NHK reports.

Reuters cited the cause of his death as heart failure.

Last year, Ozawa returned for the first time in four years to lead the Saito Kinen Orchestra in a world-first performance broadcast live to outer space.

Given in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the performance of Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture was sent to JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata on the International Space Station (ISS).

“I believe that this project will give us courage and hope for those of us who live in difficult times,” Ozawa said in a statement at the time. “Music has the power to connect people’s hearts, transcending language, borders, races, and the atmosphere.

“I am very happy to be able to realize such an amazing project with JAXA… I am very much looking forward to meeting Mr. Wakata, who is now in space. I wonder what music sounds like in space.”

Born in the Chinese city of Mukden in 1935, Ozawa began studying piano at an early age before breaking two fingers in a rugby-playing accident halted his practice in 1950. During that downtime, Ozawa’s teacher took him to see a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5, which changed him forever and led him to shift his focus to conducting.

Seiji Ozawa in 2013 (AFP via Getty Images)
Seiji Ozawa in 2013 (AFP via Getty Images)

Nearly a decade later, Ozawa won the first prize at the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors in Besançon, France, which was a key point in him starting to achieve international success.

From 1964 to 1968, he served as the first music director of the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, then an additional year as its principal conductor.

Elsewhere in North America, Ozawa was music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 1969 and of the San Francisco Symphony from 1970 to 1977.

However, his best-known music director stint was his time spent heading up the Boston Symphony Orchestra, from 1973 to 2002. His 29-year tenure was the longest-ever, beating Russian-American conductor Serge Koussevitzky’s 25 years at the institution.

Seiji Ozawa (JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)
Seiji Ozawa (JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)

In 1999, Ozawa told The Independent of his great appreciation for Boston. “The BSO and I are like family now, but I never lost contact with Japan,” he noted.

“My children were educated there. But Boston is a city I've grown to love.”

Ozawa was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2010 and cancelled all performances for six months as he received treatment. In 2011, he postponed further concerts due to ill health.

Seiji Ozawa is survived by his wife, the actor Miki Irie, and their children Seira and Yukiyoshi.