Curtain rises on conductor's new career

But as he heads to Austria, Seiji Ozawa receives a last ovation from Boston

There may be no baseball in Vienna, but ardent Boston Red Sox fan, music director Seiji Ozawa, is looking forward to "very good skiing."

He's heading to Austria next month after 29 years at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to embark on a new career as music director of the Vienna State Opera.

While Boston ponders what his absence may mean for their orchestra and for Tanglewood – where Ozawa made teaching the next generation of conductors and musicians a priority – Vienna embraces him.

"We are so happy he's coming," said Haide Tenner, head of Culture at Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF), and producer of the world-famous "New Year's from Vienna" telecast in which Ozawa made his Austrian debut last January.

"It was one of the most successful programs we have ever had," says Dr. Tenner. "He has a very good feeling for the music and is one of the richest people, inside, that I have ever met, not only as a musician, but also as a human being."

Austrians love their waltzes – a tradition at New Year's – and Mr. Ozawa more than proved he understands the music of Johann Strauss, the Viennese "Waltz King." But it's opera he'll be conducting at the Vienna State Opera – a longstanding dream come true.

"Change is good," Ozawa reflected recently. "I'd been wanting to do opera, and this is a good opportunity."

Even so, emotions have been running high for Boston audiences and Ozawa alike. After his three decades of leadership with the BSO, Ozawa says, the orchestra, Boston, and Tanglewood are "in my system."

Tributes were heaped upon him in a recent three-day celebration at Tanglewood, the BSO's summer home in the Berkshire Mountains. For the program finale, the audience of more than 14,000 sang the "Alleluia" by Randall Thompson – a stirring reminder of Ozawa's beginnings in this country more than 40 years ago.

The piece was the first music Ozawa heard in America when he arrived on foot at Tanglewood as a lanky and shy 20-year-old fresh from winning a conducting prize in Paris, speaking "zero" English, and carrying all his belongings in a paper bag.

Forty-two years later, his wide-ranging legacy includes building the BSO into a world-renowned orchestra, a finely tuned Rolls Royce of an ensemble, with more than 80 percent of its members selected by Ozawa. Among other achievements – some of them controversial – was instituting more practical curriculums at the Tanglewood Music Center, ensuring its place as a training ground for the conductors and musicians of the 21st century.

"Seiji is a force of nature," says conductor Robert Spano. "He has an incredible sense of choreography ... and the most comprehensive idea of what music is about."

Ozawa, who never uses a score or a baton, commits everything to memory and uses his entire body to express what he wants from the orchestra. His dancer's sense of choreography "defies gravity," as conductor Andre Previn said in a video tribute.

When he arrived in 1960, Ozawa says in his inimitable Japanese-English, "Tanglewood for me was like shock place – but good shock." Bewildered by the culture and unfamiliar language, he tagged along with fellow students so as not to miss classes, rehearsals, and meals.

Ozawa's childhood in Manchuria had taught him church music – he grew up singing hymns and spirituals. His mother was a church organist, and when the boy showed an aptitude for music, his father brought a piano some 50 miles in a wheelbarrow so he could have lessons.

"It's an amazing story," said his friend, composer/conductor John Williams, whom Ozawa brought to Boston from California in 1980. "Coming from another culture with virtually no connections in the music world, he proceeded to climb the mountain of classical music, eventually to arrive at the summit of achievement."

"He seems to have boundless energy," said Andre Previn. Even Peppino, his driver, can't keep up with him. But Ozawa disagrees, self-deprecatingly. "Oh no. The thing is, I concentrate when I work, and that looks like more energy."

A man of large-scale vision with a deep desire to unite people through music, Ozawa conducted the finale of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony with singers linked by satellite on five continents during the 1998 Winter Olympics.

His "man of the people," persona has endeared him to Bostonians. The consummate sports fan, Ozawa sped directly from the airport to the ballpark upon arrival from Tokyo recently to see the Boston Red Sox win a game.

"The best thing," he says, half-jokingly, of his time at the BSO, "is that Symphony Hall is near Fenway Park."

Behind the scenes at The Tanglewood Music Center, students are inspired by his example. "Students respond to him because he is a connection to the music," says Mitsuyo Ansai, a clarinetist from Tokyo who came to audit some classes, "They need someone to bring out their talent. When I saw his conducting, I felt more about the music – I felt his energy. He makes it enjoyable. He's not only a musician, he's a performer."

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