World citizens of classical music: Kent Nagano turns 70

Shortly before his 70th birthday on November 22nd, the conductor Kent Nagano traveled from concert hall to concert hall again. First the season opening at the Hamburg State Opera with Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”, then Britten’s “War Requiem” in the Tonhalle Zurich, the world premiere of Bruneau-Boulmier’s piano concerto “Terra Nostra” in Berlin, Messiaen’s “Turangalîla” symphony in the new Isarphilharmonie and Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” in Cologne Cathedral.

How does he manage all of this? “Music is a special art form. It lives from energy and it gives energy. Energy does not disappear, but comes back again and again,” reveals Nagano in an interview with the German press agency. The American with Japanese roots used the Corona time to practice, read and recharge his batteries. “Mountains of books that I wanted to read at some point were piled on my piano. Now there are no more books there,” laughs Nagano, who always appears gentle and friendly. For the first time, he had seen his wife, the pianist Mari Kodama, so often because they were both unable to give concerts and were stuck in their Paris apartment. “Usually we don’t see each other that often. It was a very nice experience: spending breakfast, lunch and dinner together.” Her daughter Karin Kei Nagano was also stranded in Paris by chance.

Nagano has been General Music Director of the Hamburg State Opera and Chief Conductor of the Philharmonic State Orchestra since 2015. Together with opera director Georges Delnon he started a new era, critics praised the high profile new start and Nagano for having brought the Hamburg opera forward again musically. From day one he fell in love with the Hanseatic city, says Nagano: “The society, the culture, the musical tradition.” And of course the Elbphilharmonie – for him one of the best concert halls in the world. “I love the hall. It’s very honest. You can hear everything. It’s also a very big challenge, you have to play really well.”

Nagano grew up in Morro Bay, a small fishing village on the California coast – without a television, cinema or stereo system. A committed music teacher awakened his passion for music – he learned to play the piano, clarinet and viola at an early age. At the age of eight he conducted the church choir in his village. “For us, music was simply life. We also played house music. What else could you do in the middle of the country?” Recalls the enthusiastic surfer. Since then, Nagano has believed in the unifying power of music and has repeatedly emphasized how important music is for everyone.

After his training in the USA, the conductor, who is known for his quiet tones and his unorthodox selection of programs, continued his career in Europe. He conducted works by the French composer Olivier Messiaen or played orchestral works by the anarchic rock musician Frank Zappa with the London Symphony Orchestra. After studying with Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein, Nagano became chief conductor of the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin in 2000. The American then took over the post of music director at the Orchester symphonique de Montréal and general music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

Nagano also used the Corona time to teach his daughter to surf in his Californian homeland. “It was a return to my roots for me when I was a boy. I always surf. Every year. It’s an ideal sport to keep fit.” On his 70th birthday he wishes “that our music will reach as many people as possible”. Today classical music is no longer as present as it was in his youth. “Many young adults don’t even know who Mozart, Bach or Beethoven are anymore.”