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Conductor returns to Berkeley Symphony

by Miko Sloper Daily Planet correspondent
Wednesday June 20, 2001

Kent Nagano comes back to conduct the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in a program that nicely reflects his career.  

The concert begins with a world premiere of Kurt Rohde's “Five Pieces for Orchestra,” then presents Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a difficult and introspective work from the middle of the 20th century, and concludes with Johannes Brahms’ first symphony, a workhorse from the standard repertory of Romanticism.  

When Nagano was first becoming prominent, he was considered a maverick who focused on esoteric postmodern compositions.  

He gradually moved back through compositions of the earlier decades of the 20th century and eventually developed a friendly relationship with the masters of the classical and romantic traditions.  

Now it is common for Nagano to include a mainstream work or two in a concert which showcases a world premiere by a living composer. 

Audiences have grown to trust Nagano’s taste in selecting new music, and recently they have learned to relish his interpretations of familiar works. 

Reflecting on Kurt Rohde's piece “Five Pieces for Orchestra” Maestro Nagano says “It is something extraordinary.  

He is among the finest of our young generation of composers, even from an international viewpoint. He has an individual voice. His way of expressing himself is emotional and dramatic without being melodramatic or sentimental, so the feelings of his music are deep and heartfelt.” 

Rohde writes, “Beginning with a relatively simple and direct opening movement, the piece evolves to more involved and intricate movements towards the end.  

There is a progression of intensity over the course of the piece.” 

Although Shostakovich is well-known and several of his symphonies and piano concertos are played often, this violin concerto is under-appreciated and rarely heard.  

Perhaps few soloists feel capable of such contrasting styles of gypsy indulgence and heroic strength.  

Stuart Canin is clearly capable of these extremes and enjoys rising to the requirements of this famously difficult piece.  

Nagano said, “There are lots of master violinists, but Canin shows hunger and curiosity. He is always seeking more. I have known Canin for over 25 years and he still becomes more and more fascinating to me.”  

Nagano notes that Shostakovich’s second violin concerto is “enigmatic, private, full of irony and personal reflection. It has a different character than the first concerto, which is more dramatic and more popular.”  

It is clearly a good match for Canin’s mature virtuosity. 

In the Brahms’ symphony, Nagano keeps tempos brisk and insists that the strings play with certain attacks and a crisp sense of line.  

This allows the wind and brass parts to be heard distinctly, instead of merely contributing to a hazy cluster of thick chords, as is the common fare with Brahms. This approach yields more muscle than mush. Brahms worked many years on this symphony before he considered it worthy of being performed, because of the shadow cast by Beethoven’s works in the same genre.  

Its finale is every bit as uplifting as the conclusion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as the audience is lead to a jubilant resolution of the conflicts which have been explored in the previous three movements.  

Although the vigorous concluding melody does not have a text, many listeners will be singing or humming the theme for days to come. 

Nagano’s career has taken him away from his native California for long periods of time as he has held important conducting positions for orchestras in London, Manchester, Berlin and Lyon.  

His calendar is also full of guest conducting jobs.  

It is fortunate he has remained loyal to the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, where he has been music director and conductor since 1978. Yet Nagano asserts “I never left Berkeley. I grew up and went to school in the bay area. I had the privilege of being given the music directorship of the Berkeley Symphony when I was still quite young. I love California. Berkeley is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The combination of people makes it a unique vortex of energy.”  

About his lengthy tenure with the BSO Nagano said, “Music making takes on new dimensions when you let a relationship grow with time.  

Twenty-three years is a long time, but certain aspects of the relationship need time to deepen.” The energy and enthusiasm generated by the orchestra attests to the success of this ongoing relationship. 

This will be the final performance of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra this season. Next season's schedule will be announced during the program.