Maestro Kent Nagano: Nagano grooves

Nagano grooves

Photo: Jocelyn Michel

Maestro Kent Nagano's exclusive sit-down interview with Hour on the eve of the OSM's momentous 75th anniversary season

The Nagano family homes in San Francisco, Paris and Montreal are a long way away from the American concentration camps his Japanese-American parents and grandparents were imprisoned in during the Second World War.

That page from his family’s history ultimately helped shape the dazzling career of internationally acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning Maestro Kent Nagano of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

But Nagano, born in Berkeley, California, in 1951, shortly after the war, would quickly learn that racist stereotypes die hard.

"I remember my friends and I would play children’s games like cowboys and Indians and I always had to be the Japanese soldier in WWII games," Nagano recalls today. "I’d always get beat up and killed."

Even at that young age Kent Nagano understood the subtext.

"Oh yes. You suffer through racial slurs. But things become more blurred as you get older," Nagano explains. "One day I was sitting in a tramcar in Switzerland and some kids pointed their fingers at me and laughed. Was it racism? Maybe not. Maybe those children had never seen an Asian before."

That otherness helped Nagano focus and channel his energy into developing a conducting career that began at both the Opera Company of Boston and the Berkeley Symphony in 1978.

"We all face challenges," Nagano says about racism and growing up Japanese-American. "What is interesting is to see how you respond to it. In my case it helped cement my commitment to the arts."


Nagano’s achievements include music director of the Opéra de Lyon, principal conductor of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra, principal conductor and artistic director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, principal conductor and music director of the Los Angeles Opera, as well as the Bavarian State Opera and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

Along the way he has won Grammy Awards and worked with the likes of Björk, Sting and Paul McCartney, as well as Sophia Loren, Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But Nagano – delighted when I dub him the rock star of the classical world ("I’m honoured!" he laughs) – readily admits his first real big break was given to him by the late Frank Zappa in 1982.

"Life is funny – you never know what’s going to happen," Nagano says. "At the time I was visiting [an electronic music centre] in Paris and saw a list of future projects posted on a wall, and one was by Frank Zappa. So I wrote a letter to Mr. Zappa and said I was interested in hearing some of his music. And out of the blue I got a phone call from Zappa. ‘Kent? This is Frank. I’d like to meet you, could you come to my show?’ Which I did. It was the first rock show I’d ever been to."

Continues Nagano, "Zappa gave me a big stack of [orchestral] scores. I didn’t hear anything [from him] for a long time. Several weeks later he called and arranged for me to fly to Los Angeles. At that time I was a classic [31-year-old] starving musician. I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from. When I arrived in L.A., Frank Zappa had hired a private orchestra. He put me in front of it and said, ‘Conduct.’ I said, ‘What?’ I actually had to conduct the scores just by looking at them. It was nerve-racking. At one point there were so many mistakes being made that I just started putting it in order."

After retreating to the Zappa residence, Nagano and Zappa discussed the famed rock star’s upcoming project with the London Symphony Orchestra, a job Zappa would hire Nagano to conduct. It was the turning point of Nagano’s career.

"In a funny way it was my first chance, my first real break," Nagano says. "Mr. Zappa introduced me to the London Symphony Orchestra and that’s a relationship that still goes on to this day."


By the time he arrived in Montreal in 2006, Nagano was a bona fide superstar.

And Montrealers – used to the likes of Zubin Mehta and Charles Dutoit at the helm of their world renowned Montreal Symphony Orchestra – would settle for nothing less.

"The main reason I came here was because of the orchestra," Nagano says. "The rapport was special. Then I discovered the community, which is important if you’re going to accept a position like music director. Montreal also has an exceptionally sophisticated [classical music] audience, very similar to audiences in Bavaria where I’ve also conducted."

While Nagano; his wife, pianist Mari Kodama; and their nine-year-old daughter spend much of the year in their homes in San Francisco and Paris, they are based in Montreal five months of the year.

"Montreal feels like home to us," Nagano says. "Montrealers have welcomed me in a much warmer way than I expected. I have not had that kind of hospitality in any other city. It’s like everyone always said: The legend, the reputation of Montreal as a crossroads of Europe and America, is true. I know of no other place in the world that’s like Montreal."

But Nagano almost chose another path. In his youth he wanted to become a lawyer.

"In the 1970s I was interested in post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War international relations. It was clear that relationships around the world would be redefining themselves. You could foresee the coming down of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Iron Curtain. I wanted to participate from a humanitarian point of view. But law was also going through a change in the USA and I wasn’t sure if I could pursue my kind of ideals."

So he chose music instead. The rest, as they say, is history.


And on the eve the OSM’s historic 75th anniversary season, Nagano is preparing two spectacular concerts called Kent Nagano and the Symphony of a Thousand at Place des Arts on Sept. 9 and 10.

"The OSM is a major institution and profound tradition in North America," he says.

The coming season is chock-full of special events, concerts and international guests, including the much-anticipated return of Zubin Mehta with the OSM at Notre-Dame Basilica on Sept. 17 (the program will consist of composer Olivier Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and Symphony no. 3 ("Organ") by Camille Saint-Saëns, one of the flagship works of the French symphonic repertoire).

With his hands full, will Nagano have time to work on that rumoured project with Céline Dion?

"What I can tell you is I think she is an exceptional artist and we’ve been talking about a couple of projects," Nagano replies. "But she’s been in Vegas for five years and is now on a world tour, and chances for us to talk are few – two minutes there in Berlin, five minutes here in Montreal. It’s clear there are overlaps [in what we'd like to do] but I can also say the project cannot be in a crossover genre I feel uneasy about. This project will surely not be a crossover [recording]. I feel you really have to respect the art form. So there will be no compromise."

"No compromise on whose side?" I ask, then crack, "I can see there are going to be two divas in the house!"

Nagano lets out a huge belly laugh.

"That’s why I call you the rock star of the classical world!" I say. "You’ve got great hair, you look fabulous. Young people like you."

Nagano doesn’t miss a beat.

"I think it’s because I’m genuinely curious," he says. "I want to learn the great masterpieces. Beethoven is not old music, not something from a museum. Yes, it was written 150 years ago, but what he talks about is exactly what’s on the front pages of today’s newspapers. All of these unanswerable, terribly complicated questions about the world around us you find reflected in the music of Beethoven."

Nagano, 58, pauses.

"In the late ’60s," he remembers, "one of the bumper stickers around was ‘Beethoven grooves.’ I remember when I saw that my eyes popped out! ‘Beethoven grooves.’"

Forty years later, it’s the Maestro Nagano who grooves.

Montreal Symphony Orchestra
Kent Nagano and the Symphony of a Thousand
At Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts
Sept. 9-10 at 8 p.m.

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