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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 7

Kent Nagano - Fresh Air in Montreal

by Wah Keung Chan / April 26, 2004

Version française...

On March 2, 2004, internationally acclaimed Japanese-American conductor Kent Nagano was named the new Artistic Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (starting in 2006-07), replacing the departed Charles Dutoit. Nagano is presently the artistic director and principal conductor of the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, Berlin, and the musical director of the Los Angeles Opera. For the next two years, he will act as special consultant for the MSO's programming. In 2006, he will also become principal conductor of the State Opera of Bavaria,

In a recent interview with Daniel Poulin of Les Affaires, Jacques Laurent, president of the MSO's board, revealed that Nagano will receive $50,000 per week and, like his predecessor, will be in Montreal for 16-18 weeks per year. The OSM has announced that Nagano's next official Montreal visit will be for the launch of the orchestra's 71st season. The benefit concert will feature soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and former MSO artistic director Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos.

Kent Nagano follows former directors Wilfrid Pelletier (1935-1941), Désiré Defauw (1941-1953), Igor Markevitch (1957-1961), Zubin Mehta (1961-1967), Franz-Paul Decker (1967-1975), Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos (1975-1976) and Charles Dutoit (1977-2002). This major coup will maintain the MSO at the international level. La Scena Musicale met with the unassuming maestro.

TMS: Tell us about your experience as an Asian in the classical music world.

KN: I was personally very lucky in that I grew up in a musical household. A pianist and a cellist, my mother was a devout follower of musical trends, so we had music in the house. My sister and I both chose the professional musical pathway. My childhood teacher came from Munich and the instruction I had in those early years were very strongly tied to European traditions.

It is often a curiosity to see a long-haired Californian Japanese-American come and conduct European repertoire, especially this year when I had the great honour of opening the Mozart Wochen in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic.

What is more interesting for me is to see how my relationship with Japan and Asia developed. I grew up in Berkeley, California, and I didn't have direct contact with Japan until I was an adult. Most of my travels were oriented to the East Coast or to Europe. When I returned to Japan in my early 30s as an assistant to Maestro Osawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was a powerful moment for me personally. So many questions about my cultural past, my personality, my being, suddenly came into sharp focus. The nonverbal connection to the culture was very surprising. My wife is Japanese and our child's first language is also Japanese.

TMS: How has your Asian heritage influenced your performances?

Kent Nagano en compagnie
de Jacques Lacombe
Indirectly, it has had an enormous impact. Nature is one of the most important sources of inspiration of traditional composers of our great repertoire. The Japanese and Asian cultures have a very different idea of the relationship between nature and man. There is not nearly the great separation that there is in western literature and philosophies. To have a relationship with nature from both a Western and Eastern point of view is one example of the indirect influence on making music.

Since my wife comes from a conservative, traditional Japanese family, the idea of heritage and the passing on of that tradition has had a strong impact on educating our own child. It has brought within me a huge concern and major preoccupation with musical education and making sure our cultural institutions today are protected for our children who will become the public and performers of tomorrow.

TMS: Do you see a lot more Asian musicians now?

KN: Throughout all of Asia have come tremendous schools of instrumentalists and now schools of vocal traditions. Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, there are many more opera singers than 30 years ago; today it has become much of an accepted norm to have Asian singers.

TMS: Why do you think classical music is so popular in the East?

KN: Part of it has to do with education. In Japan, the arts are heavily promoted, stressed and underlined within a young child's education. Visits to the symphony orchestra are also considered very important for the completion of an education; cultural as well as scholastic education. I think as the world benefits from the advances of technology and communication, it allows more people in Asia to discover the wonders and riches of European and North American traditions. The enthusiasm that comes with any sort of discovery is always very special.

TMS: How do you respond to people saying that Asians are very good technicians, but not as musical?

KN: That is a risk in our very technically oriented world. It is a mistake to think that one can ever be perfect. We are human beings, are we not? Technical mastery is not making music, which is a deep spiritual and emotional human expression. And while a part of it can be natural talent, much of it is learned through the respect and research of our great repertoire traditions. This takes time and the investment of an enormous amount of energy to study properly and to continue to study. If one doesn't make sure that a respect for tradition and style remains a priority then one can really leave oneself open to criticism for being just technically accomplished. And this is not just for Asians--it is a criticism we see internationally.

captions: Kent Nagano with Jacques Lacombe

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