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Seiji Ozawa dies at 88. In Berkshire County, some say 'he was one of ours'

Seiji Ozawa Conducting ca. 1983
Akira Kinoshita
BSO Press Office
Seiji Ozawa Conducting ca. 1983

Seiji Ozawa died this week. He was Boston Symphony Orchestra's longest-serving music director and a celebrated conductor and teacher.

He also brought a global spotlight to the Tanglewood Music Center and concert series in Lenox.

Even as a young conductor, Ozawa's artistry grabbed attention. In 1959, at age 24, he won first prize in the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors in France. Shortly afterwards, he came to the U.S. to study at Tanglewood.

Later, he had mentorships with Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan.

After directing symphonies in Toronto, Canada, and San Francisco, Ozawa became the music director at the Boston Symphony, where he served from 1973 until 2002.

Tracy Wilson, of Beckett, is a conductor at a community orchestra, the Stockbridge Sinfonia. She worked in fundraising at Tanglewood when Ozawa was there, and said he inspired musicians without saying a word.

"He would hunch, he would lift his arms, he would move. He would look just like an athlete on the podium," Wilson said.

Wilson said Ozawa was a legendary person who was very much a part of the Berkshires.

"So, he was more than worldwide," she said. "He was also one of ours."

Tony Fogg, vice president for artistic planning of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was Ozawa's colleague and friend. He said Tanglewood was an important place for Ozawa and not only musically.

"On a personal level, it was a time during the summer when he and his family could be together," Fogg said. "He was famous for driving his old, red and white pickup truck, hurtling around West Stockbridge and Lenox."

In an article about Ozawa the Associated Press reported he made controversial moves at Tanglewood.

"In 1996, as music director of the orchestra and its ultimate authority, he decided to move the respected academy in new directions. Ozawa ousted Leon Fleisher, the longtime director of Tanglewood, and several prominent teachers quit in protest."

Fogg said as music director, Ozawa had responsibility for the oversight of the Tanglewood Music Center.

"He felt that it had lost some of its focus, some of its energy," he said. That led to a change in leadership at the school.

"Change is often difficult," Fogg said. "It was a difficult period, but I think we saw new directions in the Tanglewood Music Center, which have led to the great institution that it is today."

In 1994, Boston Symphony opened the Seiji Ozawa Hall, a 1,200-seat concert hall at Tanglewood.

Ozawa died Tuesday. He was 88.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.

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