Former BSO Music Director Seiji Ozawa Honored at Kennedy Center Gala

'With his mop haircut and his turtlenecks and his love beads, he almost looked like a Beatle,' said President Obama.

seiji ozawa kennedy center honors

Conductor Seiji Ozawa is one of six Kennedy Center Honors recipients this year. / Photo via AP

In 1960, a 25-year-old Seiji Ozawa arrived at Logan Airport, on his way to study at the Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires. Despite knowing only a few words of English, the young conductor had earned the program’s top honors by the end of the summer, as well as his first New York Times review, which proclaimed that his was “a name to remember.”

Ozawa went on to become Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, followed by posts in Toronto and San Francisco. In 1973, he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—a role he kept for a record 29 years.

On Sunday night, Ozawa was honored by President Obama as one of six recipients of the 2015 Kennedy Honors—the 38th annual national celebration of the arts—alongside singer-songwriter Carole King, filmmaker George Lucas, actress and singer Rita Moreno, and actress Cicely Tyson. Members of the rock band the Eagles chose to defer their acceptance until 2016, as one of them was unable to attend due to a recent surgery.

“Each of these artists was born with something special to offer their country and the world,” said Obama. “Each of them found a way to enrich our lives with their lives’ work. For all the joy and the pleasure, all the insight, and the understanding that they have brought us over the years, we want to thank them.”

The president’s remarks to the honorees were peppered with jokes—a stark contrast to the somber address he would give later in the evening, regarding the threat of terrorism in the U.S.

“His conducting was somehow sensitive and intense, drawing the ‘lyric essence of every note,'” said Obama while lauding Ozawa’s performances with the BSO. “And with his mop haircut and his turtlenecks and his love beads, he almost looked like a Beatle.”

The honorees joined Michelle Obama and celebrity guests at the Kennedy Center Opera House for a gala. President Obama missed the first half to deliver his address to the nation from the Oval Office, but arrived during intermission.

The gala, hosted by Stephen Colbert for the second year in a row, featured performances and tributes in honor of six honorees. Violinist Itzhak Perlman and soprano Renée Fleming praised Ozawa’s talent, and Perlman shared a memory of having dinner at a Chinese restaurant with Ozawa, who, after deciding that he didn’t want anything on the menu, had sushi delivered from a nearby Japanese joint.

“That’s chutzpah,” said Perlman.

The conductor was also honored with a performance by Yo-Yo Ma, accompanied with string musicians from the Tanglewood Music Center. The gala, which also features performances by Miranda Lambert, Janelle Monae, Sara Bareilles, Aretha Franklin, and more, will air at 9 p.m. on December 29 on CBS.

seiji ozawa kennedy center honors

The 2015 Kennedy Center Honors Honorees are, from left, Cicely Tyson, Seiji Ozawa, Rita Moreno, George Lucas, and Carole King. / Photo via AP