How Kent Nagano got a French accent

With the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on a farewell European tour, the star conductor explains to DW why his America no longer exists, why Quebec belongs to Europe and what he's looking forward to now.

At age 67, the Californian-born maestro has been a fixture in the musical landscape in Europe for decades. Having occupied important positions in Berlin and Munich, Nagano is now the general music director at the Staatsoper opera house in Hamburg. Always maintaining a bicontinental existence, he went from the Los Angeles Opera to the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, where he will have served as music director from 2006 until 2020. DW caught up with the jet-setting maestro during his final European tour with the musicians from Canada from March 11-25.

Deutsche Welle: After nearly two decades of working with the Montreal Symphony and 13 years as music director, what have you accomplished with them, and what stands out most in your memory?

Having such a long relationship is really a privilege because some things can only develop with time and substantial depth. Yet our relationship today remains as fresh as it was nearly 20 years ago. We're still discovering things about each other and are still inspiring each other. Playing in the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg for instance: Rather than being intimidated by this very modern concert hall with different acoustics, the orchestra embraced the experience. It was wonderful to see their joy and energy.

The Maison Symphonique de Montreal concert hall was inaugurated in 2011

But of course, we've accomplished many things together. We built a new concert hall with an exceptionally good organ and founded a chorus. And established a music school. Last year we toured the Arctic Circle for the second time.

Music | 04.03.2019

What are this orchestra's particular qualities?

As you might expect from a typical North American orchestra, they play with great ease and facility. But the culture is different. Quebec is the one region of North America that never really separated from Europe in a cultural sense. There was never a revolution. In the United States, we had a very famous revolt and a clear rupture from Europe.

Quebec is almost the opposite, having nourished economic, cultural and social ties to Europe all along. That distinctly impacts the sound of this orchestra. It's been exciting to see how we can focus and refine our particular and unique musical language that reflects the culture of Quebec yet is very much tied to the sensibilities of the European repertoire.

French music is prominent on the program of your farewell tour. Do Montrealers have a special connection to France's culture?

In my opinion, yes. You can't really separate language from aesthetics. A language is rooted in a certain culture. It has a certain rhythm, color, nuances, subtleties and vocabulary. And the language impacts how one makes music: the breathing, phrasing, intensity and color. So I do feel that there is a relationship between the French language and the particular, refined colors that we use when we play.

When you work with orchestral musicians, do you communicate more on a practical or a philosophical level?

With music, there are no boundaries. Within a single minute we might quickly drift from a very practical suggestion to an image or a painting, or nature or an aspect of philosophy or a historical reference. We'll use whatever comes to mind to try to describe what it is that we would like to do together.

You were born in California and are third-generation US American but have set in some very deep professional roots in the Europe. Do you still feel American?

My passport is American of course. We keep a home in San Francisco. But that said, it's obvious that cultures change. They're born, they develop, they go through various phases, and eventually many of them come to an end. And certainly the United States which I grew up in is no longer there. It's disappeared and evolved into something else.

Even the way Californians speak today is very different from how Californians spoke in 1966. The same thing could be said of New York or Boston. People in Germany or France would most likely say the same. This is natural and normal, and it would be futile to try to hang on to something that has already drifted or gone away.

So the notion of feeling American is a little ephemeral. The important question, I think, is whether or not you can remain open to the fact that classical music is beyond time — above fashion and not really tied to a specific era — but only if we allow it to be. That means that as performers, we have to constantly restudy, research, re-examine and regenerate inspiration by any means possible. Simply repeating what we thought we heard isn't enough for this great tradition. So to me, music is more than simply the USA in 2019, or any other country and time. When you're playing a great masterpiece, you're not really thinking much about where you happened to be born.

Flash-Galerie Grammy Dirigent Kent Nagano Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

No detail is to small, no issue too big for this conductor

At age 67 and a near septuagenarian — and for many conductors, 70 is something like adolescence as it's a career whose effectiveness is not really limited by age — what are your goals now?

There's the proverb: the more you know, the more you realize how little you know about anything. And it's true. At this point I've decided to step away from a model that I've had for several years, working with both a full-time symphony orchestra and a full-time opera house, essentially two full-time positions. I've chosen to remain in Hamburg. It's a very important time for the development of the Staatsoper.

But I want to pursue other activities that require a lot of study and research time. One has already begun: investigating Richard Wagner's music in historic performance practice with the period instrument ensemble Concerto Köln, a six- to seven-year commitment of musicological study and performance. The music of Johannes Ockgehem is also of great interest to me, and I'll be devoting a lot of study to music of the Renaissance era as well.

So the most important change will be rather than having so much time blocked into official institutional responsibilities and obligations, I'll have much more flexibility.