March 2004

Kent Nagano: An unbridled and unfettered and absolutely limitless love of music

The DSO's music director talks about Berlin, music, passion and his future

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Kent Nagano: An unbridled and unfettered and absolutely limitless love of music

The DSO's music director talks about Berlin, music, passion and his future

by Nancy Chapple / photos: Jens Paape

Kent Nagano

When did you first come to Berlin?
I first came as a guest of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester for the series Musik der Gegenwart, right when the Wall was coming down. Dr. Elmar Weingarten, manager of the DSO at the time, had been trying very hard to bring me to Berlin for 4 or 5 years. At that first visit, I didn't really get a feeling for the city. I gave the concert and I went to see a great composer who was very ill - Isang Yun - almost as an homage, a pilgrimage. Other than that I remember only the Großer Sendesaal. Architecturally it's quite a striking building and it stays in your memory [in Charlottenburg's Mazurenallee, built in 1926, a landmark in radio history]. But then I didn't return for nearly ten years, again with an invitation from Elmar Weingarten. It fit with a time that the DSO was searching for a new conductor, and we somehow had a very special chemistry. It wasn't really there the first time, but the second ... I had probably evolved a bit as a conductor, I wasn't quite so young and inexperienced. Somehow it just really worked well and continues to work well.

Does an orchestra have a character? What is the DSO like?
They're a very special orchestra. First of all as human beings: they're the most dedicated and ... agreeable people that I've ever met in an orchestra. Everyone is so committed to the music that the only time they get cross or angry is when they feel the conductor before them doesn't take the music seriously. Or if they feel that they are not being rehearsed well. What they love is to perform, to play. Funnily enough, this is quite a big statement: you don't always find orchestras where everyone is so excited by playing music. It's a wonderful feeling. It makes the working ambiance just fantastic. People bring scores to rehearsals and study along as we work. It's very serious. And the amount of detail that the orchestra is prepared to work on is unusually serious. Even in rehearsals the orchestra tends to give 100%. When I watch people play: physical engagement all of the time.

Kent Nagano became music director and chief conductor of Berlin's Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in the fall of 2000. Founded in 1946, the RIAS Symphony Orchestra had various names over the decades (Radio-Symphonie-Orchester), but was always associated with contemporary music. He will execute his contract until the end of the 2005/2006 season and then take over as head of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, long the domain of conductor Charles Dutoit. He has already announced that he will remain associated with the DSO with four concert projects each season in 2006/2007 and 2007/2008. Since 2001 he is also principal conductor of the Los Angeles Opera, where Plácido Domingo is General Director. Here too a change is coming up in 2006 when he will become general music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper. For 25 years, he has also been working with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, a professional orchestra "with quite a cross-section of the community involved." In December 2000 Kent Nagano was voted "Conductor of the year" by the Musical America Directory and won the Grammy for the best opera recording in 2000 for Busoni's Doctor Faust with the Opéra National de Lyon.

Did it take a long time to hit it off with the orchestra?
Not at all, it was instantaneous, in the first 15 minutes.

And they accepted you as their new boss?
They asked me to come to them. And that was based on a feeling that certainly I felt and they must have felt as well, that something worked very, very well.

How much time do you spend in Berlin in a year?
Well, it depends on the season. But I've spent up to 26 weeks with the orchestra. And a typical musical directorship is 12-14 weeks. So I spend a lot of time with the orchestra. Which is why, I think, they were able to enjoy a real period of stability. The orchestra and I decided we would invest in quality as our argument for security for the future, which means lots and lots of work. And that's what they've done.

Will you be dedicating a similar amount of time in Montréal as you've dedicated to the DSO?
You know, I don't think in terms of minimum or maximum weeks. The way I look at these things, if you're a music director, you have to be there for as much time as is required. Some places require more time than others. Some years require more time than other years. Part of the definition of being responsible is simply to be there when you're needed. When I accept a position as music director, it's understood that I'll be there as much as is necessary to do the job well.

How do you feel about moving on in mid-2006?
I of course have very mixed feelings, because I wonder if I'll ever meet an orchestra as special as this again. They are really unique.

Are there general differences among orchestras in the US, France, Germany?
There are differences in how people relate to regulations. Here I think it's an extraordinarily good balance between an entirely self-governing orchestra and a union orchestra. A very strong union governs the basic regulations. However: the orchestra places not the regulations but the music as the absolute priority. So if, for example, they see that - for nobody's fault and if the conductor has rehearsed well - the concert needs a little extra time, the orchestra will simply say "keep going". That could be possible in America, but I've never seen it happen. At least with the orchestras I've worked with, the regulations are really considered unbendable. The DSO's absolute and unarguable priority is to try to make the best music possible.

Born in 1951, he was raised in Morro Bay, California - "a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, four hours north of Los Angeles and 4 ½ hours south of San Francisco." He was fortunate to attend a conservatory run by Wachtag Korisheli, a Georgian-born exile from Munich's Hochschule, a school that produced "an amazing number of people playing all different kinds of music, professional musicians in prestigious orchestras. And they all came out of this little town!" He then studied composition at the University of California at Santa Cruz and San Francisco State University. Slowly shifting into conducting, he apprenticed at Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston and became Seiji Ozawa's assistant with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His next stages were heading up the Opéra National de Lyon (1988-1998) and Manchester's Hallé Orchestra (1991-2000). He lives with his Japanese-born wife and 5-year old daughter (who speaks French, German, English and Japanese) in Paris and San Francisco.

Do you determine what will be played on all the DSO's concerts?
Not for the entire season. I try to work very closely with the orchestra to make sure the season is balanced. Part of the orchestra's growth is due to having a stable and healthy working environment and working schedule. And a balanced repertoire throughout the season, not too much focussed on one type of music. For my own programs, of course, I determine what works we play.

Does the orchestra like some types of music more than others?
Well, every person has their own personal tastes. The most important thing is to be able to defend a work as being simply great. We try to make sure that virtually all the repertoire that appears on the concert stage is great repertoire. In the case of a work that hasn't yet been written - we try and collaborate with composers we have a good connection to.

When there's a guest composer, do the two of you sit down at some point and talk about concepts and sounds?
No. But I couldn't imagine inviting a composer to be a composer-in-residence or committing to a premiere if his or her compositions didn't feel special or meaningful. A lot of orchestras will apply for special new music granting agencies simply to be able to be part of a consortium of premiere works. For us, it's really important that the orchestra play repertoire they can respect as great music.

Kent Nagano

I see that you're going to be doing Shostakovich's Nos at the Staatsoper again. Is that fun?
Yes. It's a great, great score. Of course I could have premiered The Nose and left it for a second conductor or a third conductor to take over. But since I started it, I feel I should try to take care of the production as long as I can. This is again a philosophical issue.

Did you work with the director there too? Can one say it is a joint concept?
No, no. It's Peter Mussbach's production. We have known each other for some time and we enjoy working together very much.

Are you going to be able to concentrate on the DSO's next two seasons? You've got so many obligations at this point ...
Well, I don't. I realize it looks like a lot. But that's because unfortunately we have to plan so much in advance these days. No, for the moment and until 2006, the DSO is my only orchestra. Of course, the Berkeley Symphony is an orchestra with whom I've been working for 25 years, but the concertising obligations are only 4 weeks in the year, not a major commitment of time. It's just the DSO until 2006. I've made the commitment to use virtually all of my extra weeks to maintain a very strong tie with the DSO instead of guest conducting. And I am also the GMD of the Los Angeles Opera. So just one opera house and one orchestra. And in 2006 that will be the same, just that the opera house will become the Bayerische Staatsoper and the orchestra will become Montréal.

But you'll still have the connection with LA?
No. In my life, I need to have a pretty strong sense that I can give as much time as necessary to complete projects, which means for me maximum one opera house, one orchestra. I haven't quite figured out a way to cut myself into smaller pieces.

Is one opera house and one orchestra a good balance for you?
I seem to have a great, great love for both operatic literature and symphonic literature and until now anyway there hasn't been any technical discomfort from passing from one to the other. On the contrary, after a certain period of performing opera, it feels so wonderful and refreshing to then dedicate a long period of time to symphonic literature. And the other way around: returning to the theater. They offer contrasting dimensions that are very inspiring and wonderful. Combining both takes a lot of effort in terms of planning, but since 1989 I've managed to keep a balance.

Looking at your website, you do have a lot of travelling going on.
I've never felt comfortable with that. It's true that a couple of times I've had to travel much more than is ideal for a couple two weeks or so. I'm not a great traveler. I prefer to stay in one place for a certain period of time and then move on to another one. I know people with a different physical constitution. Like my colleague Plácido Domingo: he can sing a concert at the Metropolitan, fly in and do an administrative meeting in Los Angeles the following day, and then fly back to Washington and conduct an opera. The most amazing physical stamina I've ever seen. But I can't really do it that way.

Habakuk Traber, who gives introductory talks before the DSO's concerts, wrote
Kent Nagano: Musik für ein neues Jahrhundert
published by Henschel Verlag in 2002. Nagano Buch

What was it like to have a biography written of you?
Well, it came right around the time something else started: I'm having a bust done of me for the city of Berkeley. The first thing that went through my head when that happened was: "I'm not dead yet!" I thought you only got a bust when you're dead, and you only have books written on you when you're in your twilight final years! My first big thought: I'm not ready yet!

And the bust is now up in Berkeley somewhere?
No, it's still being done.

Will you have a chance to shape your opera productions a bit more with the Bayerische Staatsoper?
Opera productions in large opera houses are very much a team effort. I have a lot of colleagues who are great specialists in the areas they work in. The Bayerische Staatsoper has a fantastic team in place. It's one of the biggest and most ambitious opera houses in the world - so it's really a great honor and a privilege to go and become a part of this team. In Los Angeles it couldn't be more different. It's a very young opera house, just 10 years old, and it's a different kind of teamwork. We have to think there about the ramifications of playing repertoire that has never been heard there: Bluebeard's Castle had never been given. Tannhäuser was never given. Or Lohengrin. Idomeneo has never been performed. The Ring has never been performed. Huge gaps in the repertoire. As you might imagine: how much of the vast amount of literature can you do in ten years? So the responsibility of making sure that the right choices are made for the community is very different from a repertory house with a long and glorious history such as Munich.

Do you think together with the commercial direction side about what pieces would fill the house?
Of course. What seems to have worked for me is to be part of a creative team. I've never been in a purely personality-driven or dictatorial situation. The decisions and the creative spark come out of the dialogue and discussion - collective dreaming. And within that collective dreaming and dialogue process, the relevant pieces to be performed tend to emerge by themselves just naturally. We all bring wonderful ideas to the table, and then we shift through the ideas and we see which one of these ideas is appropriate for now, here, today in this particular program.

This winter you conducted Madame Butterfly 14 times and Die Frau ohne Schatten 7 times in LA. What it's like to play the same work again and again? Can you find new things in it every night?
You must! It's important to maintain the tension, to use the benefits of doing repeated performances. Everyone actually has a chance to probe much deeper into the score. Assuming, first of all, that that score is a great one. If it's not good music, then you've taken everything you can out of it with a single performance. To make that happen means every day re-studying and re-thinking about the score for a long time. Frau days would be four hours of study and then a rest and then the performance.

Study at the piano?
Yeah, at the piano. Or just sitting and thinking about the score. Re-thinking the development of the opera and trying to remember parts of the night before when the feeling was that things could definitely be better.

Was it always clear to you you'd become a conductor?
I never thought I'd become a conductor. It's something that just evolved. I won't say by accident, but it was an unexpected development. I studied composition. Composers - colleagues, friends - asked me to conduct their works and since I seemed to be able to help my friends mount their performances, I found myself getting asked again and again. Which meant that I spent less time writing myself and more time conducting other people's music. One day I realized I was doing that more than anything else.

You must have had some score reading ability very early if you were able to take any score and put it together at the age of 20.
I don't think that's so exceptional if you learn how to read music at an early age. It's like books, learning how to read. If it's a passion, then it's not at all an obligation.

Kent Nagano

Are you still writing music? Would you like to?
I haven't since university days. I sometimes do arrangements and draw upon the composition skills. I suppose I was never really convinced that I had that much talent as a composer. I did an enormous amount of coursework and technical training. But that's not composition. Composition is something completely different from recreating or interpreting. To stare at a blank piece of paper with nothing on it and come up with original ideas is very humbling and daunting. Most of the smaller works that I wrote - I have to honestly say they were student works, derivative works influenced by the professor. And my feeling was that people who are really, really talented in the field of composition - it must manifest itself in a much stronger way than it appeared to be manifesting in me! Most composers rarely hear their pieces performed. Can you imagine how deep that frustration must be! Even Bruckner heard very few of his works performed, certainly few of his symphonies. So one shouldn't under-appreciate how special it is when a composer does get performances. What is it that enables the majority of composers to keep writing? They must have this great drive, this great passion and unquenchable source of creativity.

What would you say it takes to be a great conductor?
An unbridled and unfettered and absolutely limitless love of music. That's the first and foremost requirement. Because it's through that that one finds the discipline to spend the hours and hours studying, the hours and hours of constant learning, and I don't just mean musical scores but also the peripheral study that helps support the depth of the scores - literature, visual arts, theater, learning from that around you so you can look at 3rd or 4th or 5th levels. It doesn't happen automatically. It takes concentrated and focussed effort to make sure that that learning process continues. To keep the doors open takes an enormous amount of time. Dedicating oneself - and I'm speaking about 17-hour days, 7 days a week, 4 weeks a month, 12 months a year - you've got to be driven by an overwhelming passion.

But what you're describing - the passion, the love - could still be behind closed doors. A good conductor must also need certain social abilities.
I think you're right. To convince people to follow is not necessarily easy. In my own case, my personality type is a little unusual, I think, at least compared to a lot of my colleagues. I'm very, very reserved as a personality, rather shy, not extroverted.

I would indeed have thought that a conductor would often be extroverted.
It is unusual that this is the profession that developed for me who is, as I would describe myself, reserved and soft-spoken. I don’t feel the need to constantly talk or to be extroverted.

What kind of relationship did you build up with the city from the start?
Since the first moment I came to Berlin and played with the DSO, the city felt like a city of optimism. I loved it here and I love it here. For me it's really one of the greatest cities in the world.

Nancy Chapple / Kent Nagano

You live in a lot of great cities: Paris, San Francisco ...
I'm very lucky. But somehow in my heart I feel most at home here. Even though intellectually and from a legal point of view our residences are in America and France. It's a wonderful place to be ... the physical beauty, all these wonderful lakes and trees ...

It's not Paris!
It's very different from Paris. It's much less polluted than Paris, you can breathe here. And in 10 minutes you're out in the middle of a forest. One could say that Paris has a lot better restaurants, but Berlin's changing as well. Even in my short time here, the city has really grown. I have to say, I really love the city of Berlin. Living here is just so inspiring.