The Nagano Mystique by Wah Keung Chan
/ January 4, 2007
Philosopher, humanist, innovator—all
words that describe Californian Kent Nagano, the long-maned maestro
taking Montreal by storm with sold-out concerts and standing ovations.
Everywhere, Nagano is greeted like a savior given the vacuum left by
Charles Dutoit’s departure from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in
2002. The musicians love him, as do the business community and fans.
To date, the only detractors seem to be a few music critics.
There is quite a mystique surrounding
the 55-year old over-achieving conductor who has made 72 recordings
with some of the music world’s who’s who. From symphonies to opera,
he seems to do it all. A student of French composer Olivier Messiaen,
Nagano is also known for being a champion of contemporary music from
Schoenberg and Boulez to Zappa. To hear him rave about Bach and Mozart
is surprising. No wonder it is difficult to fully grasp the man.
Part of the mystery is self-imposed.
Naganomania took seed in early 2003 when speculation grew about his
taking over the MSO. The first time Nagano met the Montreal press in
February of that year he appeared somewhat uncomfortable during a Dutoit-type
round table scrum with the city’s classical music reporters at Place
des Arts’ Green Room. By the time he was officially announced as the
new artistic director of the MSO in 2004, he opted for individual interviews—five
or ten minutes here and there with each reporter, a structure which
plays well for TV sound bites but is ineffective for print scribes since
Nagano is known for his long and reflective responses generously peppered
with anecdotes and metaphors.
During his first press meetings, Nagano
chose to speak only in English. The grumblings from Quebec’s French
press became more vocal after the season launch in February 2006, when
Nagano gave a long all-English speech. “The reflex of going back and
forth between English and French is difficult for me right now,” he
admitted at the time. Nevertheless, Nagano silenced the critics when
he received an honourary doctorate from the University of Montreal last
May by delivering the convocation address entirely in French. He hasn’t
looked back since.
As if Montreal were unworthy of a director
of his stature, Nagano is regarded reverently by almost everyone, including
his staff and the media. Moreover, to say that Kent Nagano is in constant
demand whenever he’s in town is an understatement. “The maestro
is like a salami,” remarks his Montreal assistant. “You can get
a sliver of him here and there.” Despite this, the man of a thousand
projects took a two-month sabbatical last summer because “…for the
last 7 years, different kinds of experiences and stimuli have happened
to me. It is important to take perspective from a period of intense
growth. Also it is important to really leave the performance stage to
properly research and study, to make sure that the source of inspiration
and creativity doesn’t run dry. Coming to Montreal is a big challenge.”
During his time away, Nagano took formal
courses in medieval and renaissance music, refreshed his language skills
(particularly German and Italian), practiced his own instruments and
studied composition with a former teacher. “I don’t consider myself
a composer,” he says humbly. “My music is not important enough for
concert stage.” He explains that he uses his skills to make arrangements
or bridge material for encores or cuts to certain pieces.
Nagano has also been consulting with
two professors about his longstanding book project on the spiritual
and compositional development of music in Germany in the 19th-century.
Musing philosophically he comments, “Looking back 100 years gives
a perspective of somehow seeing from where we are coming and that helps
establish ideas of identity and self-identity, and from that we can
have a clear sense of the world where we live. My publisher had attended
several lectures I had given five years ago and they thought it would
prove to be an interesting basis for a book.” He jokes that it will
likely take ten more years to complete this project.
When you listen to Nagano speak, you
observe his penchant for using the words “development” and “tradition,”
often pertaining to the future. By emphasizing these words, it’s as
if they represented him and were a key part of the message of moving
forward by looking back, something he seems to want to impart to his
audience. For Nagano, “Development is different from progress.
Progress suggests that the orchestra is getting better. The orchestra
is already great, but it also has a deep and profound talent pool of
great potential, which I want to develop to see where it’s going to
take us. The key to establishing the highest levels is to make sure
you don’t [just] maintain a level. Either you are developing and getting
stronger, or you maintain and get worse. The most important aspect is
to have a collective sense of purpose and direction, which implies participation
from all aspects of the organization.” He sees “tradition” as
“…part of the soul of a community. It’s important that we evolve
the tradition to ensure the arts for the future.”
Two of the factors that continue to nurture
Naganomania in Montreal are the maestro’s clear leadership and hiscollaborative
approach to music making. He believes that an exceptional and emotional
performance requires “heart, spirit, drama and emotion…[that] come
from the input of individuals.” During rehearsals behind closed doors,
he is open and approachable, a distinct contrast to Dutoit’s authoritarian
style. Orchestra members and choristers alike cite Nagano’s ability
to relate the musical aim to real-world analogies and symbolisms that
work well with the under-50 crowd. “I feel the orchestra has new life,
new breath,” shares principal trumpeter, Paul Merkelo. He is confident
that with Nagano’s vision, the MSO will return to the forefront of
the classical music world. Bass trombonist, Pierre Beaudry, likes the
fact that the maestro keeps him on his toes, which in turn helps him
continue to appreciate the many wonders of music.The enthusiasm is mutual.
Last February, after the orchestra performed Bach’s St. John Passion,
Nagano was very complimentary of his musicians when he remarked, “The
development and evolution of the orchestra has been going much faster
than I had initially thought possible.” The maestro likens his six-year
tenure to painting a tableau in that,”…the more sophisticated and
complex takes time, so rather than packing everything into one year,
it’s [more] interesting to let a five-year period exist, so that at
the end, you see a much broader tableau, a rich and complete picture.
A lot of the esthetic lines will only be complete five seasons from
now.” He plans to include more Bach in the MSO’s repertoire.
Montreal audiences heard the Nagano MSO
play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in September during his inaugural
concert as artistic director, which was broadcast and telecast live
on Espace Musique and Radio Canada. Although the general reaction was
positive, most critics took issue with the fast 62-minute tempo. Members
of the choir report that based on authenticity, Nagano’s instructions
were to treat the choral finale like a German beer drinking song. Unfortunately,
the quick tempo had the soloists gasping, leading some to sound screechy.
Although Nagano’s keen attention to detail brought clarity to some
sections it was at the sacrifice of the global phrasing. Most disappointing
was the slow third movement, which was marked molto cantabile, but which
ended up neither molto nor cantabile—the pace was too fast
for a discernable melody, and the entire movement lacked intensity and
Despite the fact that the 62-minute performance
was a far cry from the 74-minute von Karajan 9th, orchestra members
and choristers were quick to defend the maestro’s chamber music approach
to the famous choral work. The November performances of Schoenberg’s
Gurre-Lieder and Beethoven’s pastoral 6th Symphony demonstrated
more of this chamber-music approach. This time, the placement of the
orchestra with 2nd violins and violas on the right, and cellos and basses
in the middle made for a better performance leading one to surmise that
the Nagano-MSO transformation is on its way.
Only time will tell what mark Nagano’s
leadership will ultimately make on the MSO (and on Montreal culture)
but the paradox of Kent Nagano the man is sometimes evident in his responses.
When asked his age he sighs, “Well, I’m rather old,” and when
asked how he would like the first half of his career as a conductor
to be remembered, he pauses for a moment, and then laughingly chides,
“I’m not that old.”
Kent Nagano Facts
November 22, 1951
Mari Kodama, internationally-acclaimed pianist
Karine, age 8
Artistic Director, MSO
Principal Conductor, Los Angeles Opera
Music Director, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra
General Music Director, Bavarian State
Principal Guest Conductor, Deutsches
Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (end of tenure)
Annual Salary with MSO:
$ 1 Million +
Nagano, on education and judging
On the subject of developing a child’s
appreciation for arts and culture, Nagano advises:
“Try to make sure that a child is exposed
to as broad and as varied a stimulus as possible. Try not to prejudice
too much what sort of stimulus a child should respond to other than...making
sure that that stimulus represents the highest level of quality, the
highest level of sophistication that you can find. A child’s mind
is miraculous—it’s been called a sponge but I call it much more.
Before the corruption of growing up, of rules and limitations, it has
a seemingly limitless ability to absorb, a sensitivity without callous
and somehow hasn’t been filtered. That’s the only rule we used.
Our daughter is 8 years old. We try to
bring her to as many rehearsals and performances of music, theatre,
dance, the visual arts and literature as possible. It’s not true that
a child has a limited attention span. It’s really a myth. Children
can sit through a Parsifal of 4 1/2 hours or can sing back to you parts
of Messiaen’s Saint François D’Assisi or can have a favourite
video of Lohengrin or Tosca. It’s clear from seeing the children near
me that a child’s mind is [only] limited by what the parent can expose
to the child.”
Kent Nagano will be part of the jury
of the MSO Composition Prize in January 2007. LSM asked him his thoughts
on what makes a masterpiece and his approach to judging.
“Part of a definition of a masterpiece
includes a general consensus that bridges centuries and decades.
I attach importance to craftsmanship
and technical command, but that alone doesn’t make a composer. When
you are inspired by a composition, it goes beyond objectivity and explanation.
I look for a voice that is truly original and supported with gifts of
Nagano on Record
Kent Nagano is a wide-ranging interpreter,
at his most effective in elusive works, less so in central romantics.
He has been making records since 1989 and his output includes a number
of post-minimalist world premieres and some ground-breaking DVDs. My
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen
DSO Berlin, 2003
The first cartoon opera to make the grade,
a beautiful realization of Janacek’s fable that never quite cuts it
on stage but works perfectly as animated film. Nicely sung and fervently
played by a strong Berlin cast.
Adams: El Nino
Dawn Upshaw, Loraine Hunt Lieberson,
Willard White DSO Berlin, 2001
Dream-cast account of John Adams’ Latino
hypnotic hymn. One of those discs that will last forever.
Weill: Seven Deadly Sins, 2nd Symphony
Teresa Stratas, Lyon Opera Orchestra
and Chorus, 1997
Coolly objective interpretation of two
of Kurt Weill’s less impactful works, their pastel confusions showing
up all the better for lack of fiery advocacy.
Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf
Russian National Orchestra, 2003
A first of its kind—ex-leaders of East
and West, Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton, play out the forest chase
with Sophia Loren as love interest. Not just cute but musically among
the more winningly credible versions of this kiddies’ perennial.
Schoenberg: Kaiserwalzer and other transcriptions
This is the fun side of Arnold Schoenberg,
the laconic settings he wrote of pop tunes for pals in the Society for
Private Musical Performances. Witty little mind-benders, they are done
to a turn by Nagano in his Lyon days.