Conductor Seiji Ozawa's two loves

Seiji Ozawa, 63, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducts the orchestra in an open air concert of Beethoven's ninth symphony on the Boston Common in Boston Sunday, Sept. 27, 1998.

Patricia McDonnell/AP

The conductor, of course, does not make a sound, but is responsible for every note heard. And it's said, for more than half a century, world-renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa has transformed orchestras and transfixed audiences.

A genius? Well, not if you ask him. It's just hard work, reports CBS News correspondent Seth Doane.

Throughout most of his career he was up by 4 or 5 a.m. reading music. Even on the day CBS News met with him, at the age of 80 he'd been studying a Puccini opera.

"Because you cannot make telephone call to Puccini anymore, so you have to understand," Ozawa said.

At his Tokyo home, he gave us a glimpse of the complexity a conductor sees on the sheet music.

"This is the string part, this is the wind part, this is the percussion part," Ozawa described.

"And you have to almost imagine what this all sounds like?" Doane asked.

"Exactly," Ozawa responded.

Rehearsal, he said, is the most important part.

"If everything goes well, sometimes that happen, you know on stage, and with me -- that moment is unforgettable," Ozawa said.

There have been countless such unforgettable "moments" in a career spanning six-decades which took him from Tokyo to Chicago, and onto Toronto and San Francisco.

Then he spent 29-years in Boston as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hence, why he was wearing a Red Sox jacket at the interview. He also owns a gold lifetime pass to Major League Baseball.

He showed us around his Tokyo neighborhood. At his favorite soba noodle shop, his picture is up on the wall next to some sumo wrestlers.

"How did you balance your conducting with your love of sports?" Doane asked.

"Boston Symphony is almost walking distance from Fenway baseball," Ozawa responded.

"So end of a concert, I look at the television -- and usually, baseball is longer than concert so I ask Peppino, our driver, 'Okay, Peppino, let's go!' And then I go," he described.

He would watch the last few innings at the field.

It was his love of sport that changed his career, as pointed out by no less than President Obama at a White House event celebrating the Kennedy Center Honorees.

"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," President Obama said. "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."

At a busy café, he told us it was his piano teacher who first suggested Ozawa become a conductor.

"And those days, no television yet. So, I never saw orchestra. I never saw conductor. So, I did not know what to say," Ozawa recounted.

By 1960, he was a fellow the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires. Though he spoke very little English, he made quite an impression. His first New York Times review appeared that same summer. It said: "with his talent, exotic good looks, flair and choreographic ability, Mr. Ozawa is a young man who will go far."

Fifty-five years later, a Tanglewood concert hall bears his name.

He was born into a Japanese family in then-occupied China, or "Manchukuo," in present-day Shenyang. The working-class family moved back to Japan after the war.

"I read you had to mow your teacher's lawn because you weren't paying for the classes -- is that true?" Doane asked.

"That's right. No money, my house," Ozawa said.

Many decades later, it was a fight with cancer and then a tumble this summer which kept him in Japan to recuperate with family.

In September, he took the stage for a special 80th birthday concert, where he conducted in front of family and friends.

"When you're conducting, you seem to be very expressive. You almost seem to speak with your eyes," Doane pointed out.

"I think you're right... I was busy with piano and rugby, so I didn't speak. My English was zero," Ozawa said. "I tell you, my answer is because my language is so bad, I think when I conduct, I have to use gesture and eyes.

Today he loves passing on his knowledge to the next generation and said kids make good audiences because you know right away if they're listening.

After decades of conducting, he said his favorite piece of music is usually whatever he's studying at the moment.

"I must...almost fall in love to this piece, otherwise a little too distance between piece and me. Not so good," Ozawa said. "Composer just left paper. ...And then when we play -- when orchestra play -- this become life... and to do that my energy must feel almost similar to the composer who wrote this."

When it goes just right, he says, a symphony can make magic.

His two loves -- sport and music -- can cut across boundaries, transcend language and unify. Both also require some talent and a lot of hard work.