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The conductor Seiji Ozawa raises his hands to aknowledge the Saito Kinen Orchestra after a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York on Dec. 18, 2010. His performances with that orchestra, which he helped found, were his last in New York.HIROYIKI ITO/The New York Times News Service

Seiji Ozawa, the Japanese conductor known for both his dynamic physicality and advocacy of new music, died of heart failure at his home in Tokyo on Feb. 6. He was 88.

An influential and beloved figure within the classical world, Mr. Ozawa was a passionate supporter of contemporary composition as well as a sensitive interpreter of traditional repertoire. His arrival onto the music scene in the late 1950s was crucial in raising the profile of visible minorities there. He was the first Japanese person to win at the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors in Besançon, France, and the first Japanese conductor to lead the annual Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert.

Famous classical artists including cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovich, violinists Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman, and pianists Martha Argerich and Mitsuko Uchida were regular collaborators, as were opera stars Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Placido Domingo, and Canadian singers Lois Marshall and Maureen Forrester. French composer Olivier Messiaen, with whom Mr. Ozawa worked on numerous occasions, called him “the greatest conductor I have known.”

During his rise in the 1960s and 1970s, 20th-century composition was largely considered too esoteric for mainstream appeal, but Mr. Ozawa helped to normalize the inclusion of names who languished in European or academic silos, creating a wider musical vocabulary among North American audiences. The music of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Mahler and Beethoven came with that of Nono, Ligeti and Takemitsu. On the podium, Mr. Ozawa would eventually cease using the conductor’s mainstay – a baton – and direct musicians with an active physicality and dramatic facial expressions.

Born on Sept. 1, 1935, in Mukden (present-day Shenyang, China) to Japanese parents, the piano-loving Seiji broke two fingers playing rugby in his teen years, forcing a shift from performance to conducting. A graduate of Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, Mr. Ozawa won first prize at the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors (now called Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors) in 1959. He moved to West Berlin and studied with conductor Herbert von Karajan before receiving an invitation from Charles Munch to conduct at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). The French maestro, then BSO music director, couldn’t have predicted the door this would eventually open, though it was Mr. Ozawa’s time in Toronto that proved formative in his development.

Mr. Ozawa came to Toronto via Leonard Bernstein, who, in 1961 appointed him as assistant at the New York Philharmonic and eventually made a recommendation to Walter Homburger, managing director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Homburger was keenly searching for a replacement for the departing Walter Susskind, who had led the orchestra on its first appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Mr. Ozawa was named the organization’s music director in 1965.

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Mr. Ozawa's arrival onto the music scene in the late 1950s was crucial in raising the profile of visible minorities there.KO SASAKI/The New York Times News Service

The Toronto of the mid-1960s was a very different place. Sushi bars, curry buffets and Chinese malls were foreign things, and young people preferred the coffee houses of Yorkville over the stuffy atmosphere of Massey Hall, then the orchestra’s base. Mr. Ozawa, not quite 30, brought a distinct cosmopolitanism along with his scores, making classical cool to the hippie crowd. It helped that he frequented popular clubs and bars, and that his attire was as unorthodox as his approach, favouring turtlenecks and beads over white tie and tails. Novelist Sarah Sheard recalled in a 1996 piece for The Globe and Mail that “[t]he classical-music scene up to that point had not exactly threatened to steal a piece of the action from anyone plastered on our walls until Seiji came along. When he joined our pinups, the adults in our lives kept popping by for another look, and soon it was clear that not only did they approve, but in their restrained, grown-up way, they were hooked on him, too.”

In a series of conversations with novelist Haruki Murakami published in Absolutely on Music (Knopf, 2016), Mr. Ozawa recalls the Toronto Symphony musicians had “plenty of enthusiasm” even as the conservatism of management prevented him from performing Mr. Messiaen’s complete works. “They said they’d never sell any tickets,” he recalls. “At least I managed to get the Turangalîla-Symphony and Oiseaux exotiques recorded.”

Over the course of his four-year tenure with Toronto, Mr. Ozawa led 210 concerts, toured North America and Asia, performed at the opening of Toronto’s City Hall, and represented Canada at the Commonwealth Arts Festival. Along with programming modern composers, Mr. Ozawa also instituted the orchestra’s first jazz series, one that featured Stan Getz, Louis Armstrong, Harry Belafonte and Canadian piano legend Oscar Peterson.

Felix Aprahamian, deputy music critic of the British Sunday Times newspaper wrote of the TSO’s tour to London’s Southbank Centre in 1965 that “the sheer brilliance of ensemble and general liveliness of tone are probably due to its newly appointed conductor. … Lucky Toronto!” The Globe’s Blaik Kirky wrote that such notice “makes a winning gamble of the Canadian Government’s investment [...] in sending the orchestra across the Atlantic. It brings a stature to Toronto music that it has never before dreamed of.”

To mark centenary celebrations in 1967 the orchestra released Canadian Music In The Twentieth Century (Columbia/Odyssey), showcasing the work of composers Ernest MacMillan, Harry Freedman, Pierre Mercure, and François Morel. That same year, commissions from Italian avant-gardist Luigi Nono and German-born Canadian composer Otto Joachim were also presented, with the latter’s work also being performed by Mr. Ozawa in Boston in 1968.

Included on the orchestra’s release of Mr. Messiaen’s Turangalîla (RCA Victor) was November Steps by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. The work is scored for western orchestra and traditional Japanese instruments the shakuhachi (a wind-like bamboo flute) and biwa (a plucked instrument). Though initially resistant to such a combination, Mr. Ozawa assured Mr. Takemitsu that the instrumentation could, and should, rise above cultural novelty. Combining French and Japanese works on a single album may not be unusual by contemporary standards, but in the 1960s it was a coup for orchestra and audiences alike. Mr. Takemitsu’s work received its first televised performance on the CBC program East-West Concerto and the album was nominated for a Grammy. An album composed entirely of Mr. Takemitsu’s works, performed by the Toronto Symphony and led by Mr. Ozawa, was released through RCA Red Seal in 1969. The conductor departed Toronto the same year, having been named musical director emeritus.

He would return to Toronto to lead the orchestra in a variety of venues, including the rotating stage of the now-vanished Ontario Place Forum and at the TSO’s new home, Roy Thomson Hall. Speaking to The Globe and Mail’s John Kraglund in 1967, Mr. Ozawa had said that “the city should risk a new hall,” not only for acoustical improvements but to “provide better facilities for the audience.” The conductor’s final Toronto appearance was a 1996 benefit to mark the orchestra’s 75th anniversary; the Roy Thomson Hall audience rose to their feet in spontaneous applause the moment he entered the stage.

Moving on to the San Francisco Symphony (1970-1977) and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1973-2002), Mr. Ozawa cemented his reputation as a dedicated artist with a deep talent for both new work and late Romantic repertoire. His star power helped Boston become a financial powerhouse, becoming the biggest-budget orchestra in the world with an endowment of more than $200-million. During his tenure as music director of the Vienna State Opera (2002-2010), Mr. Ozawa conducted major works by Mozart, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and 20th-century composer Ernst Krenek. His cultural passion extended to numerous socio-cultural initiatives including the Saito Kinen Orchestra, created in 1984 and named after the co-founder of the Toho Gakuen School of Music; a training academy in Switzerland (established in 1992); and the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy, created in 2000 to foster young Japanese talent.

Mr. Ozawa’s achievements were recognized internationally and in his home country, where he held rock-star status. The Japanese government named him a Person of Cultural Merit in 2001, and, a year later, he was awarded the prestigious Suntory Music Award. Mr. Ozawa became a recipient of Japan’s Order of Culture in 2008. Made a Kennedy Centre honouree in 2015, Mr. Ozawa also won a Grammy in 2016 for his recording of Ravel’s L’Enfant et Les Sortilèges (The Child and the Spells) with the Saito Kinen Orchestra.

His treatment for esophageal cancer, made public in 2010, followed by back surgery in 2011, led to a lighter schedule. Mr. Ozawa’s final public appearance was in 2022 when he led a concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of the annual Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival.

Tributes were plentiful when his death was announced on Feb. 9. Vienna State Opera director Bogdan Roščić characterized Mr. Ozawa as “immediately convincing and inspiring” while Boston Symphony music director Andris Nelsons called him “a great friend, a brilliant role model, and an exemplary musician and leader.” Cellist Yo-Yo Ma stated in a video message that Mr. Ozawa “paved the way in many ways for Asian musicians, being one of the first ones to arrive on the scene and do what he has done.”

Mr. Ozawa leaves his wife, Vera, and their children, Seira and Yukiyoshi.

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