General Music Director and Chief Conductor Kent Nagano in an interview
BY SANDY STRASSER
Kent Nagano is a great defender of classical music, which in his opinion ought no longer be the exclusive domain of connoisseurs. After a string of positions in cities all over the world he has recently become particularly big in Hamburg, where he has taken up no fewer than two new appointments. The Californian is now Chief Conductor with the city’s Philharmonic State Orchestra and Music Director of its equally renowned State Opera. The 65 year-old’s language, manners and lifestyle mindfulness, and devotion resonate clearly with musicians and audiences alike, the latter of which he specifically says never to underestimate. We met up with the maestro in Munich, listening to both his work and encouraging words about classical music in a modern world.
Mr. Nagano, how did you get into classical music?
Kent Nagano: Classical music was sort of always a part of me, my two sisters and my brother. Our mother was a pianist and already played regularly before we were born. Music thus was already a part of our lives before we came into this world. Today that sounds somehow extraordinary, but in the sixties it was quite normal. Many families in those days listened to classical music at home, especially here in Europe – in France, Germany and Italy. For me it has proven to be of great advantage growing up with classical music and that my mother was my first teacher.
What is its special attraction and charm to you?
K. N.: Classical music is charming, but as we know, it is much more. Sometimes loving, sometimes burning, even something revolutionary. It confronts us constantly with both new ideas and forms of expression. Classical music is not bound to the time it was composed. It is different from fashion, entertainment or what we define as pop music. These are subjected to the passage of time, which, if no longer new or hot, disappears. Classical music on the other hand, has led to socially relevant cultures and practices. It created a tradition and developed, as such, relevance over many generations for communities everywhere. Therefore Beethoven melodies, although they are already 200 years old, are still full of meaning – especially in times like ours. In these he wrote down his concept of freedom, equality and brotherhood. This type of music has no limits, neither in time or linguistically. It flows about everywhere.
What inspiration can music provide us with?
K. N.: The basis of classical music is the pure soul of the people. It is a metaphor for humanity. It is done by people, inspired at the highest possible level. Its themes are, as I have mentioned earlier on, human. They are of an existentialist nature, go far beyond the artistic realm and relate to elementary aspects of life. All communities feel love. All can experience hate, conflicts, authority. All can cherish hope and a desire for tolerance. This is not only the case in Germany, France or Italy. Strange as it may sound I feel Beethoven to some extent is related to places as diverse as China, San Francisco and England, even though the man has never been in any of these places. His music moreover has to do with people. For this reason he and his music is beloved around the world: and that’s why concert halls the world over are full when a European orchestra visits from so far away.
How can the number of classical music fans have grown so much in recent years?
K. N.: I believe that we have a special, highly talented generation of young soloists, artists and musicians. They play with an incredible precision and in great freedom. And they know very different techniques from those known to our generation.
So music flows over time; because every generation, every culture, every artist, every individual background allows for a special interpretation. This is what gives life to such music. Today there are young soloists coming with such fresh ideas that they are even new to me, but these make for completely different perspectives. Eventually there is no single status quo which is passed on from one generation to the next.
How should we in future lend our ears to classical music?
K. N.: Whenever something is of excellent quality it will always be valued. Children, for example, immediately understand whenever their parents say something which is wrong or incorrect as they are extremely sensitive to truths. Extraordinary quality in the musical sense is also a kind of truth. There is a substantial core and an epitome of perfection. We as interpreters should therefore never underestimate the sensitivity of our audience.
The responsibility to make romantic music available for future generations rests not solely on the shoulders of performers because it especially is spread through education. Today this is unfortunately somewhat forgotten. Originally classical music was written for an open society, not just for a segment of it or an isolated elite. Unlike kings and wealthy aristocrats in times of old, the average citizen did not have the financial resources to appreciate this art. It was Beethoven who changed this. He virtually created a free subscription for all people which enabled them to dive into the world of music. It was what today embodies modern pop music. Nowadays classical music seems to be only for an elite of our society, which is completely wrong. Whenever one hears a symphony, its composition originally never had anything do with affluence. What matters is the soul, spirituality, emotions one can experience. This type of humanitarian involvement is what I believe is especially felt by today’s youth. Therefore I believe that with them classical music will always be popular.
What do you think of classical music increasingly becoming digital?
K. N.: The word digitality can not be used in the same breath as music. Rather, it is a special way to communicate the matter. In music, we usually think of instruments as sound-producing; acoustically through the air in a room. Contact with wood, metal or a skin is organic because these are materials sourced directly from nature. Wood for example is sensitive to temperature and humidity, not unlike humans are. When using this organic material to make music it is as if it were an extension of our own bodies. Electronically, it is much simpler: plug and play.
In the meanwhile we have arrived in the digital internet age, fascinating and important because it provides us with an unprecedented access to music. When I want to know what a composer or a certain interpretation sounds like, I google and can hear exactly what a certain performance sounds like. Although it is only a digital representation, it allows for developing an opinion. It is so wonderful what today is technologically available to us. We can reach out to virtually anyone with our music and that will continue in the future of course, ever faster and more extensive. There is however a risk of believing what we hear to pass on as reality. Whereas it is just a representation of what is the truth. Nothing of which has anything to do with a speaker of merely five centimetres.
What mental and creative power do you personally draw from classical music?
K. N.: Interestingly enough, I recently read an article in which TV strategists claimed that a normal television audience is only capable of focussing on one thing for a maximum of eight seconds. This is apparently quite long, because in children the attention level is just a second or two before images should be changed. This has highly surprised me because I remember when I was four, my mother took me to an event with a number of conductors. The concert lasted about 90 minutes. I was as quiet as a mouse throughout. I listened carefully and focused only on the music. God knows I am no Albert Einstein. I was only a four-year-old child but the point is this: Nothing is worse than to underestimate the capacity of a child or, for that matter, any audience.
Indeed scientists also agree that concentration is the basis of all creativity. There are many studies in which neurologists and brain researchers have proven that one learns automatically with concentration, an ability to solve abstract problems. This is especially apparent in children who learn piano from an early stage. How can I transfer these notes on paper to my ten fingers and make music? This is a very abstract thought, but one which encourages one’s imagination and thereby one’s creativity. Very often people playing instruments also bring along a talent for math, physics or biology as these subjects stimulate abstract thinking I suppose. I would even go as far as to say that it shapes a prerequisite for successful leadership in business. If you can follow different things simultaneously and solve challenges this is definitely a sign of strong leadership.
Your book Expect the Unexpected is a powerful plea for classic education, isn’t it?
K. N.: In fact, music education does far too little in German schools. My book shows where we are today. It examines the situation from different angles, such as from neurology and religion. In addition I have collected from different sources and underpinned my findings with anthropological principles which confirm that classical music has only positive effects on young people. If we underestimate this given, we will definitely feel the consequences because it is a pure metaphor for humanity. Our modern society however, underestimates its value. So we have deliberately raised the question of how we actually define our value structures. Does it build exclusively on consumption? And if classical music is only for the elite, then what remains for everyone else? How then should we define our self-worth? My book asks specific questions whether we are at all prepared to go in that direction; whether we are willing to volunteer to underestimate what music provides and the possibilities it holds for our children to be competitive and achieve more. Do we truly underestimate for the 21st century the real value of life – and if so, are we prepared to face the consequences?
Mr. Nagano, how can each of us enjoy a bit of classical music daily?
K. N.: Easier than you think: if you for example sit in your car, you may well turn on the radio and listen to classical music. That’s something. It will bring a different dimension and colours to the day. It is also not that difficult to learn an instrument. It only takes a bit of time. Anyone can learn how to use a cell phone, and that too requires just a bit of time and suddenly one can reach the world. So it goes with classical music, especially when one makes music with others. This brings such an active and rich joy. Whenever we for example receive guests at home, we insist they make some after dinner chamber music with us. That is where the fun begins as it makes no difference whether the person plays professionally or is a beginner: it is the great social effect of music!
Kent Nagano grew up in a fishing village, Morro Bay in California, without television, cinema and stereo but with piano and clarinet. Eventually he would study music and sociology. This season he has begun his tenure as Music Director of the Hamburg State Opera and Principal Conductor of the Philharmonic State Orchestra Hamburg. His international career took off in 1988 when he was appointed music director of the Opéra National de Lyon where he would work for ten years. Only one year earlier he was Music Director of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester whereas in 2003 he had become first Music Director of Los Angeles Opera. For six years he was Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the DSO Berlin, then for seven years the General Music Director of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. Since 2006 he has been Music Director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. In 2013 he was artistic advisor and principal guest conductor of the Gothenburg Symfoniker.
Expect the Unexpected
Kent Nagano & Inge Kloepfer
Nagano’s book states that classical music is losing its importance. There is a threat it is becoming just a hobby of the social elite. Orchestras wither, politicians cut budgets, practically everything seems lost in indifference. This has to change argues the author who in his childhood experienced what great changes and integrative power music brings to the young mind. Available at 22,99 euros from Berlin Verlag.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q1 2016. Picture credit © Felix Broede