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Kennedy Center 2015 Honoree, conductor Seiji Ozawa poses on the red carpet before the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors December 6, 2015 in Washington, DC.  AFP PHOTO/MOLLY RILEY (Photo by MOLLY RILEY / AFP) (Photo by MOLLY RILEY/AFP via Getty Images)
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Kennedy Center 2015 Honoree, conductor Seiji Ozawa poses on the red carpet before the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors December 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/MOLLY RILEY (Photo by MOLLY RILEY / AFP) (Photo by MOLLY RILEY/AFP via Getty Images)
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By Mari Yamaguchi and Ken Moritsugu | Associated Press

TOKYO — Seiji Ozawa, the Japanese conductor who amazed audiences with the lithe physicality of his performances during more than four decades at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony and other orchestras, has died, his management office said Friday. He was 88.

The internationally acclaimed maestro, with his trademark mop of salt-and-pepper hair, led the San Francisco Symphony from 1970-76, but was likely best known as the director of the Boston Symphony for more than 30 years until departing in 2002. From 2002 to 2010, he was the music director of the Vienna State Opera.

He died of heart failure Tuesday at his home in Tokyo, according to his office, Veroza, Japan.

He remained active in his later years, particularly in his native land. He was the artistic director and founder of the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival, a music and opera festival in Japan. He and the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1984, won the Grammy for best opera recording in 2016 for Ravel’s “L’Enfant et Les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells.)”

In 2022, he conducted his Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival for the first time in three years to mark its 30th anniversary. That turned out to be his last public performance.

“Music can link the hearts of people — transcending words, borders, religion, and politics. It is my hope that through music, we can be reminded that we are all of the same human race living on the same planet. And that we are united,” Ozawa said in a statement.

Music Director Seiji Ozawa in rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony
Seiji Ozawa leads a rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony, which he directed from 1970-’76. (San Francisco Symphony)

“It is with great sadness that I share the news of Seiji Ozawa’s passing earlier this week at the age of 88,” said San Francisco Symphony CEO Matt Spivey, who said the conductor left an “indelible mark” on both the orchestra and the city.

“Ozawa’s tenure ushered in an exciting new era at the San Francisco Symphony. He brought a modern sensibility to the organization and captivated audiences in San Francisco through his expert conducting and charismatic presence.”

At Boston, he was credited with helping the BSO become the biggest-budget orchestra in the world, with an endowment that grew from less than $10 million in the early 1970s to more than $200 million in 2002.

Ozawa was born Sept. 1, 1935, to Japanese parents in Manchuria, China, while it was under Japanese occupation.

After his family returned to Japan in 1944, he studied music under Hideo Saito, a cellist and conductor credited with popularizing Western music in Japan. Ozawa revered him and formed the Saito Kinen (Saito Memorial) Orchestra in 1984 and eight years later founded the Saito Kinen Festival — renamed the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival in 2015.

Ozawa first arrived in the United States in 1960 and was quickly hailed by critics as a brilliant young talent. He attended the Tanglewood Music Center and was noticed by Leonard Bernstein, who appointed him assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic for the 1961-62 season. After his New York debut with the Philharmonic at age 25, The New York Times said “the music came brilliantly alive under his direction.”

He led the San Francisco Symphony from 1970 to 1976, splitting his time between San Francisco and Boston for part of his tenure in the Bay Area.

“Ozawa’s legacy includes the San Francisco Symphony’s first European tour in 1973, highlighted by a memorable appearance in Soviet Moscow alongside the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich,” Spivey said. “Other significant milestones of Ozawa’s tenure included the establishment of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in 1973 and a string of adventurous recordings, notably a popular release of William Russo’s Blues Symphony.”

He came to prominence at a time there were few nonwhite musicians on the international scene. Ozawa embraced the challenge and it became his lifelong passion to help Japanese performers demonstrate they could be first-class musicians. In his 1967 book “The Great Conductors,” critic Harold C. Schonberg noted the changing ranks of younger conductors, writing that Ozawa and Indian-born Zubin Mehta were the first Asian conductors “to impress one as altogether major talents.”

Ozawa is largely credited with elevating the Tanglewood Music Center, a music academy in Lenox, Massachusetts, to international prominence. In 1994, a 1,200-seat, $12 million music hall at the center was named for him.

As Spivey noted, Ozawa’s impact extended far beyond Boston and San Francisco. “He created several international academies for young musicians and was also deeply involved in the musical landscape of his native Japan, founding the Saito Kinen Orchestra.”

Ozawa was one of five honorees at the annual Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 for contributing to American culture through the arts.

In later years, Ozawa’s health deteriorated. He canceled some appearances in 2015-16 for health reasons, including what would have been his first return to the Tanglewood music festival — the summer home of the Boston symphony — in a decade.

Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa leads the Saito Kinen Orchestra December 14, 2010 at Carnegie Hall in New York, part of a festival called "Japan NYC." Since making his Carnegie Hall conducting debut in 1967 with the Toronto Symphony, Seiji Ozawa has returned to the venue for more than 170 performances. AFP PHOTO / DON EMMERT (Photo by Don EMMERT / AFP) (Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)
Ozawa leads the Saito Kinen Orchestra in 2010 at Carnegie Hall in New York, part of a festival called “Japan NYC.”

His passing drew notes of sadness from around the world. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Chairman Daniel Froschauer said in his comment posted on X, formerly Twitter, that Ozawa “has left a great artistic legacy with the Vienna Philharmonic. We will sorely miss Seiji Ozawa as a friend and musical partner. Our thoughts are with his family.”

Ozawa’s management office said his funeral was attended only by close relatives as his family wished to have a quiet farewell.

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