The famous conductor, probably the first internationally renowned conductor of Asian origin, has died at 88. Obituaries rightly focus on his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony, but they also mention his time at San Francisco, which he passed through in 1970-76 with the same hoopla with which he arrived at Boston, for which he rather crassly abandoned us. I remember Ozawa at SFS; attending it under his direction was my introduction to symphony concerts.
I can best express an honest, unfettered reaction to Ozawa by reproducing what I wrote about him a decade ago in an entry on SFS music directors whose work I've known:
Ozawa, one of the first of the many Leonard Bernstein protégés to be launched on the conducting world, was brought in with the level of hoopla that would later accompany MTT's arrival in 1995, only in 1970 style. He was young! (35 at the time) He had a Beatles haircut! He wore a turtleneck sweater while conducting! He was announced with pop art posters! Unfortunately, unlike MTT, he didn't live up to the hype. His conducting was unexciting, his repertoire choices wayward. (I liked his penchant for obscure Haydn symphonies, but others didn't; even Herb Caen carped about it occasionally.) The orchestra had terrible flaws in technique during Ozawa's tenure, and the conductor got caught up in debilitating personnel wars when he tried to do something about it. I recently picked up a CD re-release of their recording of Dvorak's Symphony from the New World; it perfectly captures the blatty sound of the SFS of those days, and listening to it made me drip with nostalgia (which proves you don't have to like something to be nostalgic for it).
Ozawa's greatest sin, however, was that, though he'd assured everyone he was committed to San Francisco and wouldn't be just a jet-setting hired hand dropping in every now and then, after only three years on the job he accepted simultaneously the music directorship of the Boston Symphony. It was hard to believe he could devote sufficient attention to both at once, and soon afterwards he gave up SFS entirely for Boston, where critical consensus is that he stultified a great orchestra for an enormous tenure of thirty years. He's never been back, but he did leave one great legacy in San Francisco: He created a permanent symphony chorus, instead of hiring community groups whenever we needed one; the result has been continually one of SFS's most solid assets.