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Masters and masterpieces ride together at the reins of Kent Nagano

Juan Rodriguez

October 2011

For years to come, Montreal’s new symphony orchestra hall will be synonymous with the lithe, elegant man who was arguably its prime mover: conductor Kent Nagano.

The Californian maestro took over the reins of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra six years ago, after being snubbed by the New York Philharmonic because of what some observers believe was his proclivity toward new-world adventure over old-world bureaucracy, and has brought an unimagined international profile to the city’s bastion of high musical culture. The Big Apple’s loss turned into Montreal’s gain.

When the opening night reviews came in, New York Times critic Anthony Tomassini pinpointed the Nagano effect: “Sometimes a music director’s artistic vision and personality just fit with a city and its orchestra … [Nagano], still youthful and trim at 59, seems to be a high-culture rock star here. He has worked tirelessly to enhance the profile of the orchestra as a true Montreal institution.” He achieved this by first going to the Chamber of Commerce, before the provincial cultural ministry, to get Montrealers believing their city was a “star on the rise” and the MSO was playing an important role in its dynamism.

Finding harmony in his immediate environment—whether it be Munich or Montreal—is Nagano’s key to making his orchestras an integral part of the community. And not just on-stage: So there’s the glamorous maestro in tuxedo occasionally leading MSO soloists in rendering O Canada before Canadiens games at the Bell Centre, or visiting a centre for troubled teens (in perfectly faded jeans, his preferred attire), or plunging into a Québécois TV talk show.

I was lucky enough to witness Nagano up close and personal in the 1990s when I lived in Berkeley, California, where he got his start conducting the university town’s “little symphony that could,” and, over the years, continued there despite being in demand through the larger concert world. L.A. Times critic Mark Swed called his loyalty to Berkeley “unprecedented in the modern age of conductor careerism.” He did it “virtually for nothing,” Nagano said, but “almost for everything.”

It’s this attitude—albeit now as a high-priced classical star—that he brought to Montreal, reflecting his belief that “music nourishes a community’s soul and has a direct correlation to the quality-of-life issues we so cavalierly toss around. It’s not a purely empirically measurable aspect, such as affordable housing or number of parks. But there’s a profound sense of fulfillment in communicating through music those parts of us that are at the essence of humanity.

“We human beings have an exasperating need to classify and cubbyhole, which means there’s pressure on you not to experiment,” he told me. “An orchestra is a human phenomenon. You have to make an effort to avoid the routine. If you do one thing over and over again, then the senses become dulled.”

Thus he began the MSO season with the granddaddy of all symphonies, Beethoven’s Ninth (“Ode to Joy”), and followed up a few days later with the sumptuous if thorny Turangalila Symphony by the great French 20th-century composer Olivier Messiaen. In his last full season in Montreal, Nagano seems intent on demonstrating the range and ambition of the city’s cultural pearl.

It helps that Nagano is a born communicator, the antithesis of aloof, sometimes imperious conductors who typecast themselves as guardians of high culture lording it over the rabble. A lithe figure with high cheekbones and square jaw framed by a Prince Valiant hairstyle, he takes the stage with a serene stride that’s as purposeful as it is elegant. Call him a cool breeze, befitting a Californian who seriously loves surfing, martial arts and fast cars, and Nagano rolls his eyes at the image (“classical music’s hot new conductor dude,” as People magazine once dubbed him).

“Everyone who attends a concert goes to discover something unknown,” Nagano said, “and that shared sense of discovery is what makes live music so extraordinary. If you go with an open mind, the opportunity for discovery and tremendous emotional reaction can be more invigorating than you could possibly imagine. It’s the opposite of cynicism.”

The critics agree. “His music-making is voluptuous and passionate,” wrote F. Paul Driscoll of Opera News, “always alive with spontaneity and a sense of occasion, but scrupulously refined and immaculately pointed. It’s an intoxicating blend of glamour and serenity.” Nagano is a “dazzlingly theatrical musician who can electrify an audience,” according to the L.A. Times’s Swed, “a bold visionary as well as a cautious, conscientious, meticulously elegant musician.”

Music, Nagano told me, embraces four elements: “The vast range of emotions, the deep spiritual connections we have, our tremendous intellectual capacities and the physical abilities we have to feel so many stimuli.”

He said he dedicates “long periods of gestation for studying the repertoire that I’m currently performing. I try not to have things be a quick study. I love the chance to look inside and analyze and deconstruct and reconstruct, search and research these great masterpieces, to go into deeper levels of discovery.

“The overwhelming reason we dedicate our lives to music is because we firmly share a belief in the mysterious, powerful, benevolent force of live performance of great repertoire.”

In 1989, he took over the Opéra National de Lyon, derided as a mere “provincial” organization by the Parisians who run French culture (and where I met up with him in 1995). Quickly his landmark recordings—Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges, a French-language Salome by Richard Strauss, and the premiere of John Adams controversial The Death of Klinghoffer—won prestigious Gramophone Awards, and Grammys.

He oversaw the renovation Lyon’s opera house, its interior dramatic black, with custom-crafted moveable acoustic-baffles covering the walls, much like Montreal’s new hall. (Midway through his nine-year tenure he was named an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s second-highest civilian honour.)

When in 1995 he brought the Lyon orchestra to the Bay Area for a two-week American debut, Time magazine raved: “Now U.S. audiences are getting a look at the next great conductor.” The greatness arrived. And Montrealers are that much richer for Nagano’s presence.

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