Classical Music Interview: Conductor Kent Nagano’s Emotional Return to Boston

The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal programs a lot of new music but that is not the point. It’s only a demonstration of the love of the repertoire.

Conductor Kent Nagano. Sketch by Michael Johnson.

Conductor Kent Nagano. Sketch by Michael Johnson.

By Michael Johnson

Conductor Kent Nagano will bring his Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) to Symphony Hall on March 16 with a lively program of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. It will be his first appearance in Boston since his early career as assistant to Opera Company of Boston conductor Sarah Caldwell and later with Seiji Ozawa.

Boston is the third stop on the orchestra’s ten-city coast-to-coast tour. A highlight of the program will be Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 with pianist Daniil Trifonov, an acclaimed young Russian talent. Trifonov’s playing can “lift listeners our of their seats,” wrote one critic.

Also on the program is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun.

Nagano, approaching his tenth anniversary as OSM music director, is known in Montreal as a workaholic who keeps to a tight schedule. In a telephone interview with the Arts Fuse he answered a few questions about his Boston appearance.

Arts Fuse: Your return to Boston must be nostalgic for you.

Kent Nagano: Yes this is my first stop in Boston with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and it will be an emotional experience for me. Boston is a city with a great orchestra and a great musical tradition dating back to the early 1900s. I first worked with opera conductor Sarah Caldwell, then maestro Seiji Ozawa invited me back and work with him and the BSO. It was the worst winter since Valley Forge, 1976-1977. I arrived in California loafers and a pullover sweater and I wondered what is this white stuff everywhere?

AF: Serge Koussevitzky, while music director of the BSO, had a mission to bring contemporary music to Boston audiences. Do Montrealers accept new music as readily as Boston audiences did – and continue to do?

Nagano: From my experience the OSM is very, very fortunate to have the public that we have. Compared to audiences around the world, they are among the most sophisticated open-minded and adventurous that I have ever encountered – and that’s a wonderful fertile context for the OSM to perform. Yes, we do program a lot of new music but that is not the point. It’s only a demonstration of the love of the repertoire. One of our main concerns is seeing that the repertoire continues to grow.

AF: Wasn’t the 20th century a time of great upheaval, sometimes controversial?

Nagano: It’s interesting to look back 16 years and see that the 20th century — far from being a dangerous century – was probably one of the richest periods we have seen in terms of adding to the list of great standard masterpieces. Debussy, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich … the list goes on and on. If we want our great tradition to continue, then of course it means engaging with composers of exceptional quality who are going to keep our art form progressing and going forward. Even works that today are considered some of the anchors or foundations for young composers — I’m thinking of the Turangalila-symphonie and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. They have enormous impact on how composers today think about going forward.

AF: You are known for outdoor celebrations and crossover concerts. Are these activities bringing in new music-lovers? What’s happening in audience makeup?

Nagano: Here in Montreal our audience is now statistically among the youngest in North America. We sell out every concert, and the OSM has become a meeting point for sharing values and esthetic discussions. That’s at the core of what the identity and definition of a symphony orchestra is and should be. From that point of view it is very exciting here.

AF: Your are something of a Messiaen specialist. How is he doing with your audiences.

Nagano: Yes, I studied with him and lived with him for a year. He is already established as one of the great composers of the 20th century. When Turangalila is played, it’s no longer an isolated event. Not all of Messiaen’s works are met with immediate enthusiasm from the audience but the great works, if they are performed well, always, in my experience, elicit enormous sympathy and enthusiasm.

AF: What Messiaen is in your repertoire besides Turangalila?

Nagano: I conduct the entire Messiaen canon. All of the works are active in my repertoire. I am doing a complete recording cycle with the Bayerische Rundfunk of the great Messiaen symphonic works.

AF: When is that due to be completed?

Nagano: Oh in about a hundred years (laughs). We just started this year and were doing one or two works a year so it will take a while.

AF: Do you approach composers an ask them to write something for you, like Koussevitzky used to do?

Nagano: Oh yes, actively. You know we’re living in a special time. I see a generation of very, very young composers coming up now who are extraordinary. An amazing group of exceptional talent is coming up. It’s very exciting, and yes, I am asking them to write for me and for my orchestras. I’m following very carefully their development. It bodes well for the repertoire of the 21st century.

AF: Where do you find these promising youngsters?

Nagano: Funnily enough, you find them everywhere. I have commissioned the New Yorker Sean Shepherd, our own Canadians Samy Moussa and Matthew Ricketts. These are young composers – in their 20s and early 30s. At least from my point of view, they are showing enormous potential with highly refined compositional voices. They are artists to watch.

Michael Johnson is a Franco-American music writer and failed pianist. He has contributed articles on music to International Piano, the International New York Times, The Washington Times, Clavier Companion,, and Facts & He divides his time between Brookline and Bordeaux.

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