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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Ozawa Creates a World of Harmony

Asahi Inoue

Mar. 3, 2016

At the age of 80, internationally renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa is still working hard.

Over the course of his career, he was the music director of the Boston Symphony for almost 30 years, and held the same position at the Vienna State Opera. He was the first Japanese person to hold those posts.

Ozawa won a Grammy award last month, after being nominated 7 times in the course of his long and illustrious career. The award was for Best Opera Recording, for his album of Maurice Ravel's L’enfant et les sortileges. It was recorded in August 2013 at the Saito Kinen Festival in the Japanese city of Matsumoto.

The opera tells the story of a mischievous boy and his magical surroundings. He realizes his faults at the end of the opera and grows up.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't know much about the award. I did hear that I had been nominated, but I didn't even know which album had been selected. But now I'm overwhelmed by the response we're getting. It's amazing, isn't it?" Ozawa says.

"The thing that makes me happiest is that I won this with the Saito Kinen Orchestra. I founded this orchestra a long time ago, in 1984, with my musician friends, and we’re still going strong today. And now we have members from practically all over the world. It's encouraging to receive this award after going through so much with this orchestra."

In 1984, Ozawa started the Saito Kinen Orchestra with other former students of Hideo Saito, the founder of one of Japan's most prestigious music schools.

The festival has grown to become a high-profile event on the international classical music calendar. Musicians from all over the world adjust their busy schedules to go to Matsumoto in August and play under Ozawa’s baton.

In 1952, when he was in high school, Ozawa began studying with Saito. He has performed Saito's transcription of Bach's Chaconne for orchestra countless times.

"Aside from teaching us to conduct, sing, or play violin, piano, or woodwind instruments, Mr. Saito taught us very fundamental ideas about what’s important in music," Ozawa says.

"The task of a musician is to convey to the audience what the composer wrote, while adding his or her interpretation. I think the same basic principle applies to all the musicians in the orchestra."

After studying the symphonic repertoire under Saito, Ozawa began performing abroad. He also studied opera for the first time.

Ozawa began to conduct opera because of something Herbert von Karajan, one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, said to him: "Operas and symphonies are like the two wheels of music."

"I hadn’t studied or conducted opera at all, because Mr. Saito only taught symphonies, chamber music, and sonatas. Maestro Karajan saw right through me and insisted that I conduct operas," Ozawa says.

"With symphonies, there’s no story, but in operas the dialogue always tells a story. The relationship between the story and the music is sometimes interesting, sometimes effective and sometimes not so effective. And it's difficult to understand that relationship until you actually work on an opera."

Ozawa has recently been working in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto. He performed last year at the city's Nijo Castle. He devoted himself to the project, despite suffering health problems recently.

"Yes, we played outside ― on the ground, which was covered in gravel. The acoustics were good because the sound bounced off the rocks," Ozawa says. "We performed there because they suggested it, and it was interesting. I thought the concert was pretty good. At least, the performers had a great experience."

He held his annual Seiji Ozawa Music Academy conducting seminar in Kyoto for the first time this year.

Ozawa says he feels lucky to have met wonderful teachers who advanced his career. He hopes to pass on the lessons he's learned to the next generation of musicians.

"Yes, even breathing. Young musicians who really have a desire to learn can tell when you take a deep breath and when you breathe faster. In fact, some people improve dramatically by mastering things like this. Violinists, conductors, woodwind players," Ozawa says.

"This is not something I take lightly. For me, it’s not really an exaggeration to say that my music academy is the culmination of things I’ve been working on all my life."

Ozawa thinks children should be exposed to music in their daily lives.

"What is opera? Put your hand up if you don't know," he says.

Three thousand elementary-school students attended a free opera concert that Ozawa presented last month in Kyoto.

At one point, the musicians played a tune that all the children knew very well, and the youngsters seemed to catch the opera bug.

"I especially want the children to hear live performances and want them to feel that we live in the same space, that the audience and the musicians are all breathing the same air," Ozawa says. "I think that’s a very important aspect of live music ― that’s why I wanted to work on this project."

Ozawa says he never had such an experience as a child though, because he grew up in wartime. He was born in 1935 in the region of northeastern China which was then known as Manchukuo.

His family returned to Japan when the Pacific War started in 1941. He has first-hand experience of the horrors of war.

"I was in elementary school during the war, and it was an extremely difficult period. There was a military aircraft base in Tachikawa in Tokyo, where I lived, and we were bombed every time there was an air raid on Tokyo. It was very hard. One of my classmates’ houses was bombed and the whole family was killed," Ozawa recalls.

"Most Japanese people living today ― including politicians ― have never experienced war, and that’s alarming. It is often said that history repeats itself, and that may be true, but we can't let another war break out."

Ozawa has long been a strong supporter of peace. He visited China to perform with an orchestra there soon after the chaotic period of the Cultural Revolution ended.

"I really believe that Japanese people must work much harder to avoid another war," Ozawa says.

He adds that young people "should make an effort to think about what life means to them and see the world. I hope they’ll be able to tell the world about what’s fundamentally important to humanity, and share knowledge that can only come from a country that has experienced a tragic war.”

Ozawa hopes music will inspire people to create a peaceful world where everyone lives in harmony -- and where music is at the heart of our lives.