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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 4 January 2007

The Nagano Mystique

by Wah Keung Chan / January 4, 2007

Version française...

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 emotion.

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

Birthday: November 22, 1951

Spouse: Mari Kodama, internationally-acclaimed pianist

Children: Karine, age 8

Positions 2006-07:

Artistic Director, MSO

Principal Conductor, Los Angeles Opera

Music Director, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra

General Music Director, Bavarian State Opera, Munich

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 presentation.”

Nagano on Record

Norman Lebrecht

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 indispensables include:

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen (DVD)

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

Lyon, 1996

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.

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