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Cheryl North Interviews Kent Nagano

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - August 31, 2001

The conductor of the prestigious Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin as well as the Associate Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony,and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Opera will conduct the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra when it opens its 2001-2002 season on September 24.

Just HOW did the modestly sized, and even more modestly funded, BSO land such a milestone musical coup?

The quite wonderful answer is simply that Berkeley has the fervent devotion of Kent Nagano, one of the world's leading conductors - and it is Nagano, this single individual, who holds all of the above-named positions, along with the artistic leadership of the Berkeley Symphony. Moreover, this idyllic union between Nagano and the Berkeley orchestra has endured since 1979!

A third-generation Californian, Nagano was only 27 when he first assumed leadership of the Berkeley Symphony. The son of Japanese-American parents, he grew up on a farm in Morro Bay and was educated in both Japanese and Western traditions. His architect father and pianist mother saw to it that their son was at ease in both the visual and the performing arts. He was playing the piano by the time he was four years old, and by his mid-teens, was accomplished on both the viola and the clarinet.

He attended local public schools during his early youth and went on to earn a B.A. degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz and an M.A. in music from San Francisco State University. In subsequent years he studied conducting with Seiji Ozawa, Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink, and Claudio Abbado. He also led both England's famed Halle Orchestra as well as the Opera de Lyon in France for nine years each.

His first taste of worldwide recognition came back in 1984 when he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a critically acclaimed performance of Mahler's great Symphony No. 9 on a single day's notice!

Since then he has garnered honors for three Grammy Awards and three Grand Prix du Disque awards for his recordings with leading orchestras and opera companies and has earned the admiration of the entire classical musical world. In addition, he has been happily married for a number of years to Mari Kodama, the elegantly beautiful Osaka-born, European-bred and educated concert pianist.

Years and fame have not changed Nagano's modest, easy-going nature. During an interview last week he was just as approachable as I remember him to have been more than a decade ago, when he took time from his busy schedule to meet with one of his young cousin's elementary school classes in north Fremont.

When I reminded him of that occasion, he emphasized the importance of one's early musical experiences. "When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the California school system was really exemplary," he said. "Especially in the Morro Bay schools, the education budget at that time allowed for all sorts of visionary projects."

He explained that he owed much of his love for music to a particular teacher in that district, Wachtag Korisheli. "Mr. Korisheli was born in the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union," Nagano explained. "After an extensive musical education in Georgia and later in Munich, Germany, he immigrated to the United States. He chose to be a teacher and his first teaching happened to be in the Morro Bay Elementary School."

"We as children just fell in love with him," Nagano continued. "He established a sort of conservatory system and taught each of us personally. We would begin at 7 a.m., before regular classes, and often continue with more music after school. Eventually we had three concert bands and two orchestras in our little school!"

So what keeps this powerhouse of world music coming back to lead the Berkeley Symphony year after year? "I love Berkeley," Nagano said during the telephone conversation he managed to sandwich between rehearsals of Lohengrin with Maximilian Schell for the Los Angeles Opera last week. "I feel a closeness with the orchestra as well as the whole community of Berkeley. For its size, Berkeley is especially rich in terms of intellectual and artistic achievement - and as a community, it has always been in a charismatic leadership role for social change. There's a very special collective personality and character in Berkeley."

"Many of the orchestra members have been with me since I began in '79,"he continued. "And the audience is unusually receptive to new and adventurous programming as well as in the more traditional classics. And besides, there are all sorts of Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and more - who tuck themselves quietly away, without any limelight, in the audience."

As a result, BSO has come to be known for its performances of new and/or unusual music, often presented in unique ways. During his years with the orchestra, Nagano has performed a number of masterworks from the pen of Olivier Messiaen, who on several occasions personally attended the concerts. In addition, Nagano often takes up the microphone himself to introduce and explain the music to his dependably receptive audience. "I try to invite them to participate in an atmosphere of sharing - to join with us in our moments of discovery," he said.

When asked about BSO's upcoming season, with its strong emphasis on the music of Franz Schubert, Nagano explained that he has recently been involved in performances of Schubert cycles in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. "While most musical people are familiar with Schubert's songs, his orchestral music is very under appreciated," he said. "Therefore, I've included a Schubert orchestral work, alongside a number of other classics and new works that I consider to be related, on every one of the four Berkeley Symphony Programs."

The Orchestra's opening program, scheduled for 8 p.m. Sept. 24 at Hertz Hall on the University of California campus in Berkeley, will combine Schubert's Symphony No. 6 with Beethoven's Coriolan Overture; the local premiere of Richard Felciano's Camp Songs; and the world premiere's of Regis Campo's Lumen and Daniel Brewbaker's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Jerry Kuderna as soloist.

Subsequent concerts throughout the year will include Schubert's Symphonies No. 3 and 5 and his Rosamunde Overture alongside works by Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Ichiro Nodaira, David Sheinfeld, Karen Lakey Buckwalter, Pierre Boulez, Zdzislaw Wysocki, and Anton Bruckner.

"These musical combinations invite people to make connections - to draw lines from one piece of music to another and to understand how they are related," Maestro Nagano enthusiastically explained. "And one can do this especially well in Berkeley!"

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