Hideo Saito was born in Tokyo on May 23, 1902. His father was an English-language specialist. Hideo learned mandolin and cello. He studied at the Leipzig Music Academy from 1922 to 1927, returned to Japan to become principal cellist of the New Symphony Orchestra (now the NHK Orchestra) and began to conduct.
In 1948, he founded the Music School for Children. A high school was added in 1952, a junior college in 1955, and a college in 1961, the Toho Gakuen School of Music. Saito's tours with its student orchestra brought high acclaim around the world. He taught the major part of two generations of Japanese musicians conducting, orchestral performance, and music theory and was awarded the Cultural Order in 1973, a year before his death.
His best known pupil is Seiji Ozawa (b. 1935). The 1959 winner of the Besançon conducting competition, Ozawa studied with Münch, Karajan, and Bernstein, and since 1973 has been the Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In 1984, Ozawa and fellow Saito conducting student Kazuyoshi Akiyama organized a special concert to mark the tenth anniversary of Saito's death. They assembled over a hundred of his graduates into an ensemble for the event, calling the group the Saito Kinen Orchestra. It gave acclaimed concerts in Tokyo and Osaka.
The two conductors recalled that one of Saito's favorite dreams had been 'Japanese people one day transmitting western music back to its European homeland'. To fulfill this dream, they gathered Saito students again--many of whom had jobs in some of the world's great orchestras--for concerts in Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris, and Frankfurt in 1987. Demand for their return after these outstanding concerts was so great that they assembled again in 1989. This time they also recorded, producing a CD of Brahms' Fourth Symphony and Takemitsu's November Steps for Philips. In 1990, they again gathered to play at Europe's leading summer music event, the Salzburg Festival. They were also invited to perform in the BBC Proms Concerts in London, the Edinburgh Festival, and the Schleswig Holstein Festival. In 1991, they again convened for the festival season, opening the London Japan Festival and traveling on to Düsseldorf, Amsterdam, and New York's Carnegie Hall.
It was clear that the summer gathering of the Saito Kinen Orchestra was becoming an annual occurrence. Yet continued emphasis on European performances contradicted the main contribution of Saito's life: sowing the seeds of Western music in Japan. The orchestra agreed that the orchestra should emphasize Japan through an annual music festival. Ozawa was appointed its music director. Under his leadership, the Saito Kinen Festival was established in 1992 in the city of Mastumoto in Nagoya Prefecture in August and September in the beautiful surroundings of the Japan Alps. The Saito Kinen Orchestra's concerts and opera performances are the two mainstays of the ten-day festivals, which have been held in Matsumoto in late summer each year ever since, still under Ozawa's leadership.
The Saito Kinen Orchestra's membership continues to comprise some of the world's leading solo performers, orchestral principal players, leading chamber musicians, and instrumental teachers. Their shared legacy as students of (or in some cases students of students of) Hideo Saito gives them common ground from which they create an orchestra of great cohesion and tradition despite gathering only for two or three weeks each year.