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Seiji Ozawa: Japan's classical maestro

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Seiji Ozawa: Japan's classical maestro
  • Seiji Ozawa was musical director of Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years
  • Successful career has seen Ozawa conduct some of world's greatest orchestras
  • Had to deal with prejudice and expectation as Asian in Western dominated art form
  • Music
  • Classical Music
  • Opera

(CNN) -- Seiji Ozawa is Asia's most successful conductor, a maestro in a quintessentially Western art form, and a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan. But the affable 74-year-old is used to crossing cultural boundaries.

Born in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation - his father a Buddhist, his mother a Presbyterian - he was raised in Tokyo, and greatly influenced by western culture and a Christian upbringing.

His love of music was first explored through the church, but later he studied at the Toho School of Music in Tokyo. A career as a pianist was curtailed when the 16-year-old sports-loving Ozawa broke two fingers during a rugby match.

From Toho he traveled to Europe and New York to further his studies. It was a steep learning curve where he learnt how to deal first-hand with other cultures and prejudices.

"I have many problem, beginning. Um... maybe now, I don't know, but beginning especially. It was difficult. Some people ask me, 'You came from China, you came from Japan, do you really understand Bach or do you really understand Mozart?'" he told CNN.

After years abroad, his return to Japan in 1962 to conduct the NHK Symphony Orchestra for six months was far from a happy homecoming; the orchestra rebelled and refused to play for him.

"I made mistake, and I think it was too soon [for me] to take a professional orchestra for six months and at the end I think they had enough.

"I think I was a little bit stuck up... I mean, I was conducting the best orchestra in Japan already I'm still 26 or 27. Very young. And I think I'm sure during rehearsal I say something not so nice. And in Japan very bad if conductor say something not so nice. But I learned, so I become more careful and I think I started more studying, so not make mistake.

"But in a way, it may sound very strange, but really it did me good that boycott."

It meant Ozawa explored opportunities outside of Japan, directing festivals and orchestras across Europe, Canada and the U.S. He became musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra a post he held for 29 years until 2004.

He left Boston for Vienna to embrace a new challenge with the State Opera. As well as the challenge of a new city and repertory, Ozawa believes it was a move that rounded out his musical education, even if he was 68-years-old at the time.

When a young conductor his interest in opera had been fostered by his early tutor Herbert von Karajan.

"He said if you don't study this, one half of Mozart you'll never touch and almost 99 percent of Wagner, almost 100 percent of Puccini and Verdi, you know, half of Mozart is gone."

While Ozawa will step down from his position at the Vienna State Opera next summer, he will remain active in directing, conducting and educating the next generation in classical music.

"I have big hope all Asiatic people and countries... everybody love music basically," he said. "Teaching has become, I think, more and more important my life, really."