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Positive Feedback ISSUE 54
march/april 2011


A Conversation With Conductor Kent Nagano
by Sasha Matson


Click here to read about and listen to Sasha Matson's Spell for Orchestra as directed by Kent Nagano with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra Spell for Orchestra - Sasha Matson

Sasha Matson, Kent Nagano - Montreal 2009.

Kent Nagano is one of the worlds leading conductors and music directors. He currently is in his fourth season as Music Director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, and also serves as General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. His past appointments include Music Director of the Opera National de Lyon, Music Director of the Halle Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and Honorary Conductor of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Kent was the first Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera, and has remained associated with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, which he founded in 1978. In addition to the classic symphonic and opera repertoire, Nagano is well known for significant performances and recordings of works by contemporary composers, including Olivier Messiaen and John Adams.

Kent and I both attended the University of California at Santa Cruz at the same time. I later got to know him in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in 1981 he commissioned and performed my composition "Spell for Orchestra" with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. I caught up with Kent last year in Montreal, after hearing him lead a wonderful all-French program with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal. Here is some of what we talked about.

Sasha Matson When we first met Kent I recall you had an apartment with a nice little McIntosh stereo in the closet with a bunch of scores and records. What do you listen to these days? Or do you listen, or are you too immersed in performances and preparing for performances?

Kent Nagano (Laughter) Recordings are still the best way to get to know new composition activity out there. Listening to a recording as you know is never the same as having a chance to hear a live performance. However, especially for composers, how are they going to expose their music? And you as a composer can sympathize with this. Are you going to simply send out a score and a cold letter? The chances that you are going to get a fair hearing, unless you have a personal relationship, are very very slim. In fact, it's always been that way. The difference being, that in the times of the court, in the times of patronage, there were venues where a lot more new music was being played. Everything was new music…How is a composer going to get their works out? Well, one of the ways is that he or she is going to send a recording or hand a recording to me. And I listen to a lot actually.

SM I was talking to a conductor that said he liked to listen to recordings from the 70's, when they got in there and multi-miked everything. Dozens of microphones. Not because they sounded great, but because he could hear every single part and it was a good way for him to learn about someone's performance. I don't think that is so common any more.

KN Well that continued throughout the 90's; twenty-four tracks and all those microphones. It was an interesting way to create a tableau of sound.

SM And then you create it anew in the mixing stage.

KN Yes. As we know, Glen Gould became a master of that. The new formats today, interestingly a very well known recording producer said that the technology has changed, this is the producer speaking- but he's not sure if the actual sonic quality is any better.

SM If you are speaking of the digital-analog debate, which I am quite familiar with, it's gotten better. It was not so good in the early 80's.

KN Yes that's true. But the compulsion this producer was talking about, a sort of airbrushing to fix things…

SM Yes, in popular music, using Pro-Tools and all of that, you don't know what the truth is any more.

KN Beauty, the perfection of beauty, isn't superficial perfection. It's so hilarious to look at a corrected cover image of a magazine, because it's beyond beautiful- it's horrific.

(Laughter) That's what the producer was referring to I think. Definitely one hears less noise than in the past. The trends with symphonic conductors are to do more live recordings.

SM Yes, when was the last time you did an orchestral recording in a studio?

KN It's been a long time.

SM Opera recordings too, the cost factors. Your discography has certainly grown since we first met. Tell me a few that you are particularly proud of- the sonics and the performance. Or do you ever listen to them?

KN I almost never listen to a recording once it's been released. But I participate a lot in the editing and mixing process. There is a different aesthetic from preparing a recording than a concert performance. Almost a different language. The difference between a 4 by 5 camera shot, and a portrait.

SM Yes, jazz people use that metaphor, 'it's just a snapshot'. For me, my recordings are an oil painting that a lot of time and effort go into.

KN Yes, and an oil painting is an abstraction.

SM Do you do any other kinds of art, as some musicians do?

KN From a university background, for years I studied painting. I studied literature, and wrote an enormous amount, and continue to write. That was the benefit of coming up in a university situation…My daughter is interested in painting and we can do that together. I suppose the only other kind of art form I still really practice, which may sound kind of funny, are the martial arts. (Laughter)

SM I never thought of you as a tough guy Kent…

KN Well I'm not, that's why I have to stay up on that.

SM Drop-kick a musician if he plays the wrong note. (Laughter) …You have performed around the globe. Are there particular venues that you think sound great- what are your favorites?

KN Yes, the legendary halls are legendary because they merit it. But it is important to realize that acoustics are partially psychological and partially tied to physics. And if you only regard the data, the physics printout of an acoustic analysis via a computer, it doesn't necessarily result in a good acoustic.

SM Yes, every time they open a hall somewhere in the world there's a huge battle about it. Sometimes they get lucky and it works out.

KN Thank goodness that there's still an aspect of mystery, because when you do get a very special hall it's like a personality, like a real character. Many halls have excellent acoustics but are completely devoid of personality. Some recording venues are like that- broadcast studios. Wonderful acoustics, but nothing distinctive about them.

SM Ones you've enjoyed over the years?

KN Well, this hall here, (NOTE: Kent is referring to the main hall in the Place Des Arts, in Montreal), is quite problematic, like a lot of halls in North America, it's a hall that seats 3400.

SM Like Dorothy Chandler in L.A.

KN These were all part of a period of construction where the idea was to have a multi-functional hall. So good for opera, good for a convention, good for a political meeting, good for a rock concert, and good for a symphony! My favorite halls- in the U.S. it would have to be what you would expect: Boston Symphony Hall, and Carnegie Hall. These are really very special. What makes for a good opera house is not the same as for a good concert hall. You want a certain dryness (for opera) in order to hear the text.

SM When is the last time you went to a concert that you weren't involved with, just to listen?

KN Oh I go all the time. In Munich I'm in the hall watching a colleague conduct maybe three or four times a week. And as a family, we love to go to concerts.

SM You've conducted and worked alongside a number of living composers. Does this present a challenge, as opposed to interpreting works from the past? Or do you even make a differentiation?

KN With my current assignments it would be inappropriate to place out of balance an emphasis on music written in our time. Because our tradition is so important. (NOTE: Kent is referring to his post as General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera, Munich) One of our first music directors was Orlande de Lassus. Mozart. Wagner.

SM (Laughter) Those guys.

KN That is such a defining part of our tradition, and they have to be served by us. To bring it to our public; their music is above time. That music is, in a metaphorical way, contemporary music. Nevertheless, it would be equally wrong not to assume the responsibility to take care that the tradition continues. Because, as we said, at a certain given moment all music is contemporary. And if you don't keep the door open as a leader of an institution, something's terribly wrong. That would mean time has stopped and at a certain point that tradition will cease to exist. I've felt the weight of that responsibility more and more as I've had the privilege of being involved with great institutions. So, the change has been that I'm less apt to present on the main stage experimental music. It's not that I don't realize that it's a very important exercise. But invention and experimenting- there is a proper venue for that.

SM I've always had a little trouble with the term 'experimental music.' One wants to know, how did the thing go? What were the results? Not every experiment is going to have a successful outcome.

KN (Laughter) Exactly. And experiment by definition is something different than a finished product. Finished products can be music of our time, but as an artist you have to be careful before you endorse something for the public- that this is a work of the very highest possible standard.

SM Have you ever got to a point with a score and a composer, you don't have to name names- where you just have two different views of what it is?

KN Funnily enough, I have. And it's been… (long pause)… interesting. Three times I've defended what the composer has written on the score, when political pressures were being applied to change or adapt the score. The composers in these particular cases were open to changing or adapting to this intense politics. And I was taking a very strong stance that what the composer had initially printed on the score had unusual artistic merit.

SM In the classical music recording world, where do you see the future of recordings going? Is there a future for recordings per se?

KN Well, naturally Sasha if I knew the answer to that I'd be a multi-millionaire; everyone would come and take the idea and we wouldn't be in such a quandary. Everyone realizes that we are at some sort of crossroads. Because technology has developed in such a quick way that we are not really sure what the applications are.

SM (Laughter) Answering questions that haven't been asked yet.

KN Just flung wide open a doorway to a world that no one actually knows how to define. But I do feel that many of the master recording producers remain loyal to the art of recording. It is a very special art form. There always have been, and there always will be, audiophiles who are searching for that exceptional quality, and who are sensitive to the special qualities of the best recordings.

SM I call it the 're-creation' process. At its highest levels you can have an emotional experience from a recording.

KN Oh of course. Like an oil painting… and there's also something to be said for the presentation of a recording. I remember discussions of whether plastic jewel boxes were sensuous, to try and deal with the fact that this plastic jewel box had hard edges and it wasn't nearly as agreeable as an LP.

SM We've lived long enough, the two of us, that people are now getting nostalgic about CD's. (Laughter ) There was a huge blow that the industry took when they lost the visual presentation of the LP jacket. I remember going to record stores and going through bins with my friends for hours. Turn it over, oh this looks interesting. You lose that. On the internet now you get two sentences: "Beethoven. A famous classical composer."

KN (Laughter ) This flooding of the market with downloadable material is not quite the answer. There's nothing aesthetic about a recordable CD. To have in your hand a felt tip pen and write "Beethoven 6th Symphony". That's a very different aesthetic than having something that is artistically conceived and beautifully presented.

SM Thank you for your comments Kent, on all of that.