Kent Nagano, with Inge Kloepfer: Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected
Tr. from the German by Hans-Christian Oeser
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019
ISBN 9780773556348 pp. 248 read 5/28/19
MORRO BAY, the early 1950s. A fishing village and farm town, relatively isolated on California's central coast, far from the nearest city. An aging Japanese immigrant is in poor health and his young son returns from Berkeley, where he has been studying architecture, to take over the family farm. With him, his wife, a promising pianist, and their infant son.
Another immigrant appears: a Russian, passionately musical, who has survived Stalinist terror in the 1930s and the German front in World War II. Determined to encourage music, he asks for a teaching position in an elementary school far from musical centers. He soon has young children playing in ensembles, even an orchestra, and singing in choruses.
This is the inspiring story of Kent Nagano's introduction to music: small town; rural surroundings; a quietly firm family; music as natural as speech, as social as play.
Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected reads like a conversation, or one side of a conversation — perhaps that's how it was written, in conversation with the German journalist Inge Kloepfer, listed as co-author. (The book appeared first, in 2014, in German, published by Piper Verlag. The subtitle is interesting: in German it was Erwarten Sie Wunder! In French — the book is translated by Isabelle Gabolde — Sonnez, merveilles!)
I am not writing a review of the book: a good one, written for the Montreal Gazette by Arthur Kaptainis, is available online. I want only to direct attention to the book, an unusual combination of authorial modesty and self-introduction, of cultural optimism in a critical moment.
I met Nagano in 1980 or so, when he became assistant conductor at the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. In that position he was also conductor of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, and he offered to program an orchestral piece I'd written a dozen years earlier, Nightmusic. He studied the difficult score carefully, rehearsing its six instrumental units separately through the fall of 1981, premiering it at the Paramount Theater in January 1982 and releasing a recording soon afterward. (1750 Arch S1792, with Daniel Kobialka's Echoes Of Secret Silence, perhaps the first of Nagano's commercially released recordings.)
I retired from daily music criticism (in the Oakland Tribune) at the beginning of 1988, and Kent asked me for a new piece for him to schedule with Beethoven's Ninth on a subscription concert of the Berkeley Symphony, which he had developed out of the former Berkeley Promenade Orchestra. This turned out to be my Symphony in Three Movements, a title he gave to the work. Here too he analyzed the score carefully, and though we disagreed about tempi — he led the second movement much slower than I'd intended it — our collaboration was pleasant and businesslike.
(I remember a conference we had on the piece in Monaco, in the lobby of his hotel; Lindsey and I were vacationing in Nice, he was working with the Ballet de Monte Carlo, I think. Please, he said, let's not discuss anything but the score. I think he knew we had many enthusiasms in common, and his schedule never permitted distractions.)
Perhaps the most unusual thing Nagano ever did with my music: he borrowed the full score of my opera The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, sat down with it at the piano — which instrument he plays very well — and played the orchestral material only, more or less at sight, recording it so that the singers would have a tape with which to learn their roles. I did not ask him to do this; I don't know whose idea it was. I was surprised when he gave me the cassette tape. He asked me never to listen to it, and I have always respected his request.
(He was not otherwise involved with the production, at Mills College in 1984; but he did get in touch with me years later to ask if I were interested in pursuing a production in France, I suppose at Lyon, where he was music director of the Opéra National de Lyon from 1988–1998. He did not want to retain my original choice of stage director, the dancer-choreographer (and, since, scholar) Margaret Fisher, suggesting a better-known name would be important to the venture, and what did I think of Salvador Dali? Unwisely, perhaps, I retained loyalty to Margaret, and the offer was dropped.)
All these experiences fall into place, in a newly understood context, after reading Nagano's book. He emerges from it as a unique mind, disciplined and focussed, sensitive to politics, literature, philosophy, and languages but overwhelmingly dedicated to — consumed by — music. Music fills the world, the universe he lives in. There are other important components of his life, of course; he is married to the pianist Mari Kodama and they have a daughter, also a pianist, Karin Kei Nagano; he loves fast cars (or did, when I knew him); he loves San Francisco and Paris. But all these, judging by his book and his career, are contained in a transcendent fixation on music.
He returns frequently, in his book, to a small number of Big Questions: Why is music so powerful? Is it not indispensable to the human experience? Is "classical music" in danger of losing all audience? Will the primacy of quantitativeness, and particularly of dollar value, displace it utterly?
Nagano's contemplations touch on politics, philosophy, marketing, education… he converses with a retired Chancellor of Germany, an astronaut, a basketball star, a psychologist, a neurologist (and is not shy about their disagreements with him). He discusses Bach, Messiaen, Schoenberg, Bernstein, Ives. He is realistic about the crisis "classical music" seems to confront — but optimistic that it will survive. The crisis is general, far bigger than the problems of the orchestras. What's needed, Nagano argues, is music for a world in crisis, and he believes strongly that it stands ready.