By Jennifer Dix
Special to the Daily Planet
The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra may be firmly grounded in Berkeley, but that doesn’t mean conductor Kent Nagano is always easy to find.
“I think he’s in Berlin today,” said BSO director of development Jennifer Easton, reached a few days ago at the symphony offices. “Or he might be on a plane right now.”
Berlin, London, or anywhere in between: take your pick. It’s business as usual for the 50-year-old Nagano, whose international reputation continues to soar even as he maintains his dedication to the Berkeley ensemble he has headed since 1978. The California native, who counts among his mentors Frank Zappa and Olivier Messiaen, has won worldwide acclaim over the past decade as a guest conductor in some of the most famous concert halls of Europe and the U.S. The Chicago Symphony, the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, all vie for his talents. He’s been principal guest conductor for the London Symphony since 1990 and was director of England’s famed Halle Orchestra from 1991 to 2000. Currently he serves as principal conductor for the Los Angeles Opera and music director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, in addition to his Berkeley post.
His admirers often wonder how long Nagano will continue to stay in the Bay Area. As one observer noted, “It's like a top-notch professional painter choosing to teach at Crossroads School instead of UCLA.” Every time a major American orchestra announces the search for a new conductor, Nagano’s local fans watch nervously to see if their native son will be wooed away.
But Nagano, who lives in San Francisco with his pianist wife, Mari Kodama, and their young daughter, has repeatedly said publicly that the Bay Area is where he wants to be. And Berkeley’s orchestra, while not on the radar screen of most major classical musicians, offers something that many conductors might envy: a forum for experimentation.
“The thing about Berkeley is it allows [Nagano] to do things he can’t do elsewhere,” says Easton. “He can try new things he can’t try elsewhere; this town is more open to creativity.”
Nagano is known for varied programs that offer a sampling of styles old and new. Next Wednesday’s season opener at Zellerbach Hall is typical. It features works by Beethoven, Messiaen, and Gyorgy Ligeti, and a symphony by Galina Ustvolskaya, a Russian composer little known in the west. Each of the works has a spiritual theme or text. While some are familiar, others are little known.
The Pacific Mozart Ensemble, a choral group directed by Richard Dick, once again joins the BSO for this innovative program. First up is Ligeti’s choral work “Lux
Aeterna,” a haunting, shimmering piece based on the Latin Mass for the Dead. Stanley Kubrick borrowed this music for the soundtrack of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The choral ensemble is also heard in “Christ on the Mount of Olives,” Beethoven’s only oratorio. This rarely heard work is a dramatic, emotional piece that depicts Christ’s inner struggle at the Garden of Gethsemane. Soloists include soprano Pamela Coburn, tenor Bruce Sledge, and bass Christopher Robinson.
It is not surprising that Nagano would choose a piece by Messiaen, a composer who is a personal friend and for whose work Nagano has been a leading interpreter. “L’Ascension,” written in 1933, is a four-part instrumental work inspired by Christian scripture. It remains one of Messiaen’s most popular pieces.
Of particular interest is a short orchestral piece by octogenarian Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya which will almost certainly be new to local audiences. Her Symphony No. 4 (“The Prayer”), described as a one-movement “pocket” symphony, is packed with dramatic force despite its brevity. Ustvolskaya, born in 1919, spent most of her life living under the Communist regime. While she was sometimes honored for her music, she frequently ran afoul of the Soviet authorities for exploring themes considered inappropriate to Communist life.
Still living today in her native St. Petersburg, Ustvolskaya shows an independent spirit born of long years of resistance. When Nagano telephoned her to request permission to perform “The Prayer,” her first reaction was to hang up on him. He persisted, and now Berkeley concert goers will be able to enjoy this work for themselves.