Seiji Ozawa and fellow honoree Cicely Tyson at the Kennedy Center Honors gala. (CBS)
Seiji Ozawa and fellow honoree Cicely Tyson at the Kennedy Center Honors gala. (CBS)

WASHINGTON— Conductor Seiji Ozawa was one of five honorees recognized at the Kennedy Center’s annual national celebration of the arts on Sunday.

He shared the honor with singer/songwriter Carole King, filmmaker George Lucas, actress and singer Rita Moreno, and actress Cicely Tyson.

“The Kennedy Center Honors recognizes the extraordinary and unparalleled talents of individuals whose impact and genius have left an indelible mark on civilization,” stated Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein when the recipients were announced. “Quite simply, our honorees represent the voices, soundtracks, and stories of our personal lives and memories.

“Carole King’s heartfelt lyrics and tunes are woven throughout the tapestry of American music; George Lucas’ films have enriched our world with stories of epic adventure; Rita Moreno’s iconic spitfire roles are embedded in the heart of American culture; Seiji Ozawa’s artistic leadership as a conductor has set a new standard for orchestras around the world; and Cicely Tyson’s range of strong female roles on stage and screen have broken boundaries for women of color.”

“When I look at this year’s outstanding slate of honorees, I am struck by a powerful common theme — artists as history-makers, artists who defy both convention and category,” commented Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter. “Each honoree and their career-spanning achievements exemplify a rare quality of artistic bravery. They have pushed the limits of their gifts as musicians, actors, and storytellers to inspire generations of Americans and those around the world.

“Their individual paths to excellence are inspirational and their contributions to the fabric of American culture are equally permanent and timeless.”

Ozawa is an internationally recognized celebrity and one of the great figures of the classical music world today. He served as music director of the Boston Symphony for 29 seasons (1973-2002), making history as that orchestra’s longest-serving music director.

His commitment to the BSO included appearances at the world-renowned Tanglewood festival, where Seiji Ozawa Hall was named in his honor. There he also worked closely with the Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO’s acclaimed summer music academy, where Ozawa himself was a fellow in 1959.

Now BSO music director laureate, Ozawa is also artistic director and founder of the Saito Kinen Orchestra and the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival, Japan’s pre-eminent music and opera festival. He has established many programs for young musicians, including the Ozawa International Chamber Music Academy in Okushiga and the Seiji Ozawa International Music Academy Switzerland. Ozawa served as music director of the Vienna State Opera from 2002 to 2010.

Tremendously popular in Europe, Ozawa has conducted many of the continent’s orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic, where he holds an honorary membership.

Born in 1935 in Shenyang, China, Ozawa graduated with first prizes in both composition and conducting from Tokyo’s Toho School of Music. In 1959, he won first prize at the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors in Besançon, France, drawing the attention of then BSO Music Director Charles Munch, who invited him to Tanglewood, where he won the Koussevitzky Prize as outstanding student conductor in 1960.

While working with Herbert von Karajan in West Berlin, Ozawa came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who appointed him assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1961-1962). He was music director at the Ravinia Festival, Toronto Symphony, and San Francisco Symphony, before being named BSO music director in 1973, leaving a legacy of touring, award-winning recordings (more than 140 works of more than 50 composers), television productions (winning two Emmy Awards), and commissioned works.

Praise from the President

President Obama recognized the honorees at a White House reception prior to the celebration. The president and first lady traditionally attend the Kennedy Center event, but due to Obama’s address to the nation about the San Bernardino attack, he was absent during the first half.

“Our achievements as a country and as a culture go hand-in-hand,” President Obama said at the White House reception. “The oldest of the 2015 Kennedy Center honorees was born over 90 years ago — you won’t be able to tell. But when we look back on the last century, for all the challenges we faced, what we see is a time of extraordinary progress. We won one world war, and then another. We endured one depression, and prevented another.

“And through it all, we created new medicines and technologies that changed the world for the better. We welcomed new generations of striving immigrants that made our country stronger. We worked together, and marched together, to open up new doors of opportunity for women, African Americans, Latinos, LGBT Americans, Americans with disabilities -– achievements that made all of us more free.

“Tonight, we honor five artists who helped tell the story of the first American century through music, theater, and film -– and by doing so, helped to shape it, helped to inspire it, helped to fortify our best instincts about ourselves …

“As a teenager in Tokyo, an aspiring classical pianist named Seiji Ozawa defied his mother’s orders and joined a rugby match. Now, I have to say, looking at you Seiji, I’m not sure that was a good idea. I mean, I don’t know much about rugby. He broke two fingers, and that put an end to his piano-playing career –— but fortunately for the rest of us, it opened up the door to a career as a conductor.

“Here, Michelle and my mother-in-law would like me to point out that defying one’s mother does not usually work out well. But there are exceptions, and for Seiji, it did.

“In 1960, when he was 25 years old, he landed at Logan Airport with only a few words of English and a sign that read, ‘Lennox, Mass.’ But his work as a conductor spoke volumes. Just a few weeks later, The New York Times pronounced him ‘a name to remember. He went on to become Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, and then led the Toronto and San Francisco symphonies, all by the time he was 35. It makes you feel kind of underachieving.

“His conducting was somehow sensitive and intense, drawing the ‘lyric essence’ of every note. And with his mop haircut, and his turtlenecks, and his love beads, he almost looked like a Beatle.

“And in 1973, Seiji found his musical home with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he led for 29 years. When he wasn’t cheering on his beloved Red Sox and Patriots, he was transfixing audiences with passionate, precise performances conducted entirely from memory, using his whole body — elbows, fingers, knees, hair — as a baton.

“Seiji has dedicated his life to bridging East and West with classical music. In his words, ‘Music is easier to understand than language — it can be understood right away. Just like the sunset, which is beautiful wherever you watch it.’”

The Kennedy Center Honors medallions were presented the night before the gala at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry.

“Seiji Ozawa was in Boston so long that he became part of the city’s DNA,” Kerry said. “He was like Fenway Park with a white turtleneck.What David Ortiz could do with his bat, Seiji could do with his baton.

“Conducting whole symphonies from memory, lifting spirits, and making classical fans out of people who had grown up singing ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Dirty Water,’ and he connected the eastern part of Massachusetts with Tanglewood and the western part in a way that had never been done before.

“Maestro, for being the very best and for sharing with us the very best, thank you.”

During the awards program, Ozawa was saluted by violinist and 2003 honoree Itzhak Perlman and soprano Renee Fleming. Cellist and 2007 honoree Yo-Yo Ma, who has been conducted by Ozawa, performed with string musicians from the Tanglewood Music Center. Ma was a member of the Special Honors Advisory Committee, whose recommendations were the basis for the selection of this year’s honorees.

The gala, which was hosted by talk show host Stephen Colbert, will be broadcast on CBS as a two-hour special on Tuesday, Dec. 29, at 9 p.m. (ET/PT).

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