Kent Nagano, Back At Symphony Hall, Remembers His Formative Days In Boston

Kent Nagano, conducts the Montreal Symphony Orchestra during the opening concert of their Japan tour at Musashino Civic Cultural Hall. (Koji Sasahara/AP)
Kent Nagano, conducts the Montreal Symphony Orchestra during the opening concert of their Japan tour at Musashino Civic Cultural Hall. (Koji Sasahara/AP)

Kent Nagano, who has been music director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal (OSM) for a decade and will be leading that orchestra at Symphony Hall this Wednesday has deep roots in Boston, though he hasn’t conducted here since he was Seiji Ozawa’s assistant conductor in 1984. On Nov. 30 of that year, he made his unexpected Boston Symphony Orchestra debut filling in for Ozawa at short notice in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (the very work in which Andris Nelsons replaced James Levine at Carnegie Hall — the first stop on his route to become the BSO music director).

The BSO didn’t have an assistant conductor back in the 1980s. Nagano won a conductors’ award which gave him the chance of studying with important senior figures. He chose Bernstein, Boulez and Ozawa. “It was the beginning of my artistic life and had a huge impact on my development. There were remarkable performances at the BSO. The BSO brought me to Japan for the first time in my life.” Born in California, in 1951, Nagano is a third-generation Japanese-American. “My family emigrated from Japan in the 1890s! On the personal level, this was my first chance to encounter Japanese culture as an American, to experience where my ancestors came from.”

As the young conductor of the Berkeley Symphony, he first encountered the composer Olivier Messiaen, whose disciple he became, and, living with Messiaen and his wife, assisted the composer in his preparations for the world premiere of his operatic masterpiece, St. Francois d’Assise, in Paris in 1983. In 1986, when Seiji Ozawa wanted to perform three tableaus from this musical epic with the BSO at Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, and Tanglewood, Nagano was instrumental in getting Messiaen to agree to a performance of only selections from this masterwork.

Kent Nagano with students in 1985. (Courtesy Walter Scott/Boston Symphony Orchestra)
Kent Nagano with students in 1985. (Courtesy Walter Scott/Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Opera has always been an essential part of Nagano’s career. Even before his affiliation with the BSO, Nagano served for three years as Sarah Caldwell’s assistant for her legendary Opera Company of Boston, ending the tenure with the Caldwell’s transition from the Orpheum to the Savoy Theatre (now the Opera House), in a memorable production of Puccini’s Tosca with the great Italian diva, another legendary figure, Magda Olivera. “We learned how to paint,” Nagano reminisced, “how to hold a jackhammer. It was all hands on deck. An unusual education. Olivera was astonishing. I was privileged to be part of those rehearsals.”

“My ties to Boston are such an important part of my own development as an artist — critical and pivotal,” he tells me. “So many brilliant musicians! I remember sitting down to discuss bowing with BSO concertmaster Richard Burgin” (who was playing in Caldwell’s orchestra). “There were such ambitious projects, ” he recalls, such non-standard “artistic provocations” as the American premiere of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla — which, he chuckles, “bordered on whether or not you questioned the sanity of the people involved.” He considers his formative concepts about opera shaped by Caldwell. “In an uncanny way, she was able to bring the whole community together. It affected the way you think about opera for the rest of your life. It was as if she were giving us the whole evolution of the development of opera.”

Nagano has since those days conducted the premieres of such major operas as John Adams’ "The Death of Klinghoffer," Unsuk Chin’s "Alice in Wonderland," Péter Eötvös’ "Three Sisters" and Kaija Saariaho’s "L’amour de loin," which is finally on the Metropolitan Opera schedule for next season. Opera, he says, “is a very special art form. It involves not only music but spectacle. And intimacy. There’s the score, the music that supports the libretto, the orchestra, all the supporting aspects of the theatrical.”

“We somehow think that masterpieces have always been there,” Nagano says. “But all works were at some time contemporary music. The ones we remember are the great ones — and they are very rare. The rest lack those special qualities that rise above time and fashion. So many of the works we love, that have had some historical significance, were at first controversial. There was discontentedness with Mozart’s 'Idomeneo' and 'The Magic Flute.' Over time, there’s a consensus.” He’s struck by how quickly the operas he’s introduced have found their way into the repertoire.

Kent Nagano talks to orchestra members. (Koji Sasahara/AP)
Kent Nagano talks to orchestra members. (Koji Sasahara/AP)

His latest recording is the first complete one of "L’Aiglon" (“the eaglet”), a “lyric drama” premiered in 1937 about Napoleon II that was a collaboration between Arthur Honneger and Jacques Ibert. “Both composers working together,” Nagano says, “rose to a higher level, with provocative effect (like Lennon and McCartney), greater than the sum of its parts. Such exquisite writing. A brilliant sense of the orchestra, the style, and the spirit of the time. They captured a particular Parisian voice, the development of Paris as a social and artistic world capital, with an unusual sensitivity to the French language as an aesthetic style and a real concern for real French style of singing, which is different from speaking French.”

I of course asked Nagano about his choice of programming for Boston, the third stop on this OSM tour: Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, with the celebrated young Russian virtuoso Daniil Trifonov (in his only Boston performance this year), and Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring." He knows that this repertoire “will be of great significance to the Boston public.” He remembers Seiji Ozawa leading both the Debussy (taking particular pleasure in the phenomenal flute solo by Doriot Anthony Dwyer) and the Stravinsky, “and the Prokofiev as well,” which was introduced to the BSO by Serge Koussevitsky, with Prokofiev himself at the keyboard, and was a great favorite of Ozawa’s.

Here's Nagano talking about the same program except for Debussy's "Jeux," instead of "Prelude."

But there’s also a larger reason for this choice of repertoire. “The world is going through a period of transition — so complicated it defies clear explanation, or comprehension. What we felt were our givens, our mores, codes of behavior, are just not there anymore. Paris before and after the First World War was also going through a period of redefining social and cultural constructs, international relations. Fast forward one hundred years and we’re feeling that sense of transition again. From change comes a special intensity, a pull upon this particular time. Harmony, rhythm, and form are being redefined. OSM has natural ties to the French language — it’s part of the OSM tradition. We wanted to assemble a program that might be relevant to our time today.”

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Lloyd Schwartz Arts Critic
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and Somerville's Poet Laureate.



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