Kent Nagano: Hopelessly Californian

Ken Bullock on May 17, 2010
Kent Nagano

Kent Nagano, who stepped down as musical director of the Berkeley Symphony, returns, as conductor laureate, to lead the Berkeley Akademie on May 20. Currently, Nagano is music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and of the Bavarian State Opera, as well as serving with the Russian National Orchestra's Conductor Collegium.  At the end of 2008, he was decorated by the Japanese government with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosettes, in San Francisco. Yet, with all his peregrinations, Nagano remains a Californian — he graduated from UC Santa Cruz, studied composition at San Francisco State, and has a home San Francisco that he shares with his wife, pianist Mari Kodama, and their daughter Karin, also a student of piano.  


Born in Berkeley, you grew up near Morro Bay when it was a fairly remote area. How did you come to study and work in music — and often very challenging contemporary music — from growing up in a rural scene?

It was a very, very rich upbringing.

That area of the California central coast was fairly isolated in the 1950s and ’60s, and had limited contact with the metropolitan areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles. And it was about as far away from Europe as you can get, except maybe parts of the southern end of South America, or Australia. Some people say that once you get beyond the West Coast, you’re just on the way back to Europe!

We did have television, but with poor reception. Between all the static, we could get a station or two. And we had a movie theater, where the films changed about once every three months. There was limited mobility, and our nearest neighbors were literally miles away.

When I was young, I complained about it. I probably wanted to go to a city that had a traffic light with three lights on it.

Looking back, all that didn’t make for a deprived childhood. We had a close relationship with the land. And where I grew up there was a complex culture.

My parents both had UC degrees: my father in architectural engineering and mathematics, my mother in microbiology. And they played cello and piano.

Much of our entertainment was self-produced family entertainment. We’d play music, recite literature. 

So you began to absorb culture at home?

Our neighbors were Swiss, French, Spanish, Mexican, people who had immigrated from Portugal, Germany. We all knew each other, as rural families, and would visit and exchange gifts during the holidays. I remember experiencing a Dutch Christmas, then driving to the next dairy farm, and within an hour, the family there would be in Swiss traditional attire, doing their native ceremony. Next, we would be eating German holiday food. It was a surprisingly cosmopolitan, multilayered experience.

In Morro Bay, Wachtang Korisheli, who had been at the Georgian conservatory and had to flee from Stalin, then was at the conservatory in Munich — and to flee Hitler — was very active and effective as an orchestra leader. The orchestra became so big, we ended up having three orchestras. Cowboys, the children of bakers, doctors, teachers, would all sit down together to play Beethoven. A very organic, natural way to be introduced to the European classical arts. None of the kids realized how lucky we were!

Korisheli was also the piano teacher. He’d reminisce about Munich: “I’d really like you to see that city!” He’s still alive. Ironic that now, when we get together, we reminisce about Munich together, where I work now, with him recalling what it was like pre-War.

Parts of the California coast and the hills resemble the places in Europe where I’ve worked, and where those brave immigrants were from. Imagine what it must’ve been like for them, beginning a new life in a country where everything seemed strange, yet eerily similar.

We were visited by family members and some of my parents’ old friends from Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles — and they would complain terribly that there was nothing to do. But the thing about being close to nature in so rural a place meant there was an interaction with nature during the day, if not every hour. And that was another introduction to the arts: Almost every composer, poet, painter had a need to express their relationship with nature. And the European immigrants had carried the great poets of France, Germany, and Austria with them.

Because of all of this, when I had the opportunity to move to Europe as a student, and to meet Olivier Messaien, it was not so brusque a culture shock.

How did you first encounter Messaien’s music?

It must’ve been when I was an organ student that I got my first look. The real turning point was when I was living in Boston, working for the opera company there (a part-time company in those days), which gave me a lot of free time, which I spent in the library reading. I became so intrigued with his piano music, with his Catalogue des oiseaux, an enormous collection, that it was a natural extension to explore his orchestral works. When I came to Berkeley, I began with a cycle of his orchestral pieces. I turned to Messaien himself, began to correspond with him. I became a student of his. He and his wife came to Berkeley. When he finished an opera cycle, he invited me to Paris, to debut at the Paris Opera. I was able to live and work for a year and a half with Messaien and his wife.

What interested you in Messaien’s music?

I was first attracted by the beauty of the music and the challenging complexity of Messaien’s particular style. There’s a natural tension, of the human being related to nature, of being within universal nature. Then there’s his religious thought, which he discusses quite openly. Something universal, like the great masterpieces which stand against Time, over and above Time. Most music loses relevance over a large period of time. The consensus of many generations confirms a small group of pieces as special.

Another composer you’ve worked with, Frank Zappa, is better known as a rock performer. You’ve said you didn’t listen much to pop music growing up.

By the fact of living in an isolated rural area, and that I did have a focus on more European classical music in my upbringing — and maybe because the older generation viewed groups like The Mothers of Invention with a certain amount of suspicion, so they weren’t so widely known — I didn’t discover Zappa until I was visiting Paris, where a friend of mine was working with Pierre Boulez, and I saw a project with Boulez conducting Zappa, and said, “What’s this all about?”

I found out Zappa was interested, with his ensemble, in orchestrational techniques, had studied Edgard Varèse, been in touch with him. ... I contacted his office. Zappa gave me his scores, asked me personally to be involved. We worked on three recordings. Frank offered me some of the first professional opportunities I had, bringing me into a big project.

It was funny, then, to go back and purchase his records, in preparation for that. In retrospect, Zappa’s records of the ’60s sound exotic; the band looked antisocial. But in fact, the band I got to know was unbelievably healthy. No alcohol, no drugs — they were committed to coffee and to health!

What about popular music and culture today?

Up until five or six years ago, I made it a point at least to be aware of trends in popular culture. If one calls oneself a music director, one should know what people are listening to, have an emotional connection with. 

I’ve become involved, with the opera in Munich, with an important traditional musical point of view. The amount of preparation needed is not to be underestimated. I’m in constant study and research, which meant a real shift in my style.

It’s a very personal thing. Sometimes you just have to make choices, make a priority, if some things are going to attain meaning, if worth is going to be attached to them.

What’s your philosophy of programming?

It depends upon — literally — whom you are serving. And the institutions you’re serving. Berkeley is different from Salzberg, Berlin is different from L.A. ... Happily, we’re not all the same. We have different roots, traditions, beliefs — what we value. That has a bearing on what’s appropriate to play, and at what time. There’s no standard form to programming.

You brought Jörg Widmann’s music here in 2004 with the Berkeley Symphony, then Joana Carneiro led Symphony in his Con brio. ... Now you’re bringing him here, with the Akademie, as both composer and clarinetist.

This particular program is designed around him as an artist — and trying to show something historical about music, too. About the personal training and structural thinking behind the early days of our tradition, of ensembles, music in cappella, when such groups were led by some sort of capellmeister; there was no conductor. It was very multidimensional work. Beethoven, Mozart mastered several instruments, performed at court and in church, composed — and were also instrumentalists, both soloists and supporting instrumentalists, maybe a producer. ... We tend to overlook, forget these roots in the specialized world these days. ...

Jörg Widmann is one of the most visible, respected composers in Europe today. He was a professor at an early age, and has been nurturing and preparing the next generation. He’s also an admired concert performer, a brilliant clarinetist, comfortable as a soloist, sitting with an orchestra or playing chamber music. He was born and raised in Munich, where Mozart and Beethoven visited and played — and represents a tie to them, to that aesthetic he was born and raised with.

This is the world where I now live, which has given me different impulses, a different perspective on the repertoire. So it’s the collaboration of two Munichers, who speak the same language.

The idea is to explore the dynamics of this, to expose it in one concert. Akademies are the only place where you can do this kind of exploration.

You spoke earlier about your family entertaining itself at home. Were there nonmusical activities you enjoyed then? And now, with your own, very cosmopolitan family, what do you do together?

I have a long-term contract with Sony, for two big cycles of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies. One of the detours came about when my wife wanted our daughter to learn the songs she knew growing up, which are like folk songs, told generation to generation in Japan since the mid-19th century, about the time Japan began to open to the West.

They’re usually simple songs, sung by mothers to their daughters — though boys would sing them, too. When I would come down to breakfast, my wife would be playing CDs for my daughter. My Japanese is so poor, I had no idea what they were about! So I asked my daughter to explain them to me, what her favorite story is, from them. ...

One was a simple song, but what it means seems excluded. I asked my wife, Is there some misunderstanding? About a doll, with celluloid blonde hair and blue eyes, with no place for her in the doll collection, didn’t fit in. ... Remarkably melancholic, but with a cheerful melody.

Another is about a girl who comes to school wearing beautiful red shoes. One day she’s gone; [the song] asks why. It’s set in a port town; the answer is, she was sold to foreigners, went off on a big ship. Very poetic, with profound sadness, about the world changing.

There are similar things in Quebec, Irish immigrant songs that have taken on French formation, get added to oral tradition; even strophes in French get added on to them.

These days, family leisure time gets filled with other activities. Things like these songs that have been carried on from generation to generation have broken down, got bottlenecked. ...

So my idea is to have it adapted and recorded for orchestra, sung in a concert format. Maybe someday there’ll be a revival, of how it was played originally. On the other hand, at least this way, the song won’t disappear completely.

There have been revivals like that, like in Quebec, outside Montreal — La Baudiere, the Madeleine Islands — where they’ve rediscovered, activated, and pass on folk songs. It’s fantastic. Young people have a passion for them. Thirteen and 14-year-olds, reviving tradition through these traditional building blocks.

As for my hobbies, I had what most kids did growing up. I love surfing; I still surf. That seems glamorous in the context of today, what surfing’s gone through. But at that moment, the surfer was, like, part of a counterculture. The whole pop phenomenon of the Beach Boys, the “California Sound” in pop music — I was too young, missed it. It had been abandoned as a fad. But surfing was something you could do on your own, with no team. With no source of income, if you want entertainment; the ocean doesn’t charge admission. In those days, you could pick up an old surfboard for a few dollars. If you were hardy, no wet suit. You’d brave that current coming down from Alaska. The Pacific Ocean was wide open. You could surf up and down the coast. You’d interact with nature. It didn’t hurt anybody. And you would be entertained all day.

A funny thing about living in Montreal, Bavaria. ... It’s the first time in my life I’ve lived away from the sea. Both are completely landlocked. And yet there’s a surfing club in Montreal on the St. Lawrence River — and in Munich, on the Eisbach, the “ice river.” It’s not the same idea as my experience with the ocean, where waves have an organic form, an entire life cycle, a living rhythm of their own. On the rivers, they’re kind of inanimate, kicked up by a reef. I’ve never done it. I’m afraid of pollution! I was spoiled, growing up on the West Coast, when it was relatively unpolluted.

My family shares my enthusiasm for the West Coast. Our home is in San Francisco. We spend time in Marin, Bolinas up to Point Reyes — a very special geographical beauty. That’s where we go for that California esprit. Nature is most dramatic when it meets the sea, theatrical and spiritual at once. It reminds me of Beethoven and Mozart, who had those forests and mountains outside of Vienna.

The more time I spend in Montreal, Munich, all these marvelous cities, where I feel very comfortable — the more I realize I’m a hopeless Californian!

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday