After a long absence due to illness, Seiji Ozawa is to return to conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker – just in time to get together with them and celebrate the 50 years of friendly cooperation which connects the conductor and orchestra. Seiji Ozawa made his debut with the Phiharmoniker in 1966, almost at the same time as Claudio Abbado. Both were discoveries of Herbert von Karajan and the press outdid each other in their praise of the maestro’s unmistakable talent for discovering outstanding talent. Seiji Ozawa, winner of the conducting competition in Besançon, Koussevitzky Prize winner and former assistant to Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, had been music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for just over a year, and had recently made a spectacular debut in Salzburg. Compared to the elegant Abbado, the petite Japanese with his thick mane of hair seemed like a hippie. He darted around in front of the orchestra “like a hummingbird”, as one review said, but his “creative energy” was brilliant and he was celebrated as a “conducting Paganini”. He conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony – creating a programme concept which was also to be come typical for future concerts.

Classical, romantic, modern

For whenever Ozawa took to the podium of the Berliner Philharmoniker – something he has done often and regularly since then – there were Classical and Romantic works, often seasoned with a pinch of Modernism. Over the years, he also introduced Berlin audiences to works by his Japanese compatriots, such as Takemitsu’s November Steps and Requiem and Ishii’s Polaritäten for orchestra; but also Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise, which the conductor had premiered in Paris in 1983 and from which he introduced extracts in a Philharmoniker concert programme three years later. Seiji Ozawa is probably the first Japanese to achieve world renown as a conductor. He received his profound understanding of Western classical music from his teacher and mentor Hideo Saito who taught him at the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo. In an interview for the Digital Concert Hall, Ozawa talks about how much he owed to Hideo Saito: In a time in which there was still little or no knowledge of Western musical culture in Japan, Saito, who had studied in Germany, taught his student the fundamentals of classical music. Herbert von Karajan helped him especially in the preparation of a representative repertoire and advised him on what pieces he should study.