A symphony conductor staying at the helm of one orchestra for 25 years is pretty remarkable, but in the case of Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conductor Kent Nagano it’s a labor of love.
Now 51, Nagano cut his teeth with BSO when he took over in 1978.
His presence was immediately felt.
Originally known as the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra, the group didn’t take itself too seriously, and it showed—from their playing to their casual dress.
Nagano pushed through a name change, and imposed a strict practice discipline. It wasn’t long before he had them wearing tuxes.
While whipping his Berkeley group into shape, in the 80s Nagano also embarked on a conducting juggernaut. He continues to garner rave reviews for his work in Paris, Munich, London and throughout Europe as well as Los Angeles.
Nagano isn’t your typical conductor. He surfs, drives a Ferrari and practices martial arts to hone his mind and body.
But don’t let this fool you. Beneath the cool exterior is a very serious and demanding musician who gets the most out of his players.
This Monday BSO launches into its 25th season under Nagano’s baton with a special program celebrating his career. The program begins at 8 p.m. at UC’s Zellerbach Hall and features a performance by Alameda opera star Frederica von Stade.
Reached at his Los Angeles hotel room recently, Nagano left little doubt that while he may live in San Francisco, he left his heart in Berkeley.
Daily Planet: “You’ve said your commitment to BSO is all about the players’ commitment to your musical challenges, but are there other non-musical reasons? Is there something about Berkeley itself?”
Kent Nagano: “I suppose one can always find secondary reasons. For me the primary reason is musical. It’s a privilege to work with such a group of talented musicians who share this dedication and commitment to trying to explore music so that it remains as an absolute priority.
“Of course, I am a Californian. I come from Northern California. Born in Berkeley’s Alta Bates hospital. My folks are both UC Berkeley graduates. Having seen many extraordinary places in the world it only underscores what a spectacularly beautiful place the Bay Area is.
“The whole combination of the culture and nature in the Bay Area combines to give the region just a very special ambiance to it. I love California, so certainly that has some bearing, but it’s really not the primary reason. The primary reason is the musical reason.”
Daily Planet: “It’s hard to imagine the BSO without you. Will it thrive in your absence?”
KN: “Oh sure, of course. No one person is ever so indispensable that the group becomes artificially limited somehow.
“That to me would be a goal that I don’t think would be helpful in the long term for the Berkeley Symphony at all. Certainly the day will come when it’s time to have a transition.
“In the first year I remember there was an enormous amount of speculation of whether or not I would maintain the commitment to the orchestra and I guess every year when we approach the season there is at least a period of discussion whether or not I can still maintain that commitment. But we decided early on that as long as the relationship was bearing fruit then it shouldn’t be artificially ended.”
Daily Planet: “What is the reaction in Europe and elsewhere where you conduct to your commitment to Berkeley?”
KN: “To have a long-term partnership is not without precedent. There have been long collaborations that have lasted for many years.
“I’m thinking of Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra or Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Or Herbert von Karajan. Or more recently Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I suppose that in this day and age it’s more the exception rather than the rule.”
Daily Planet: “What about the possibility of the symphony making the now vacant UC Theater its permanent home -- do you think that’s going to happen?”
KN: “At this point it’s hard to tell. We did do quite a bit of research on the UC Theater to see whether or not it could be successfully transformed into a performance space for a symphony orchestra. And the results came back positive.
“What is appealing about the space is that it seems to enhance what is a very important artistic core to the city. I’m thinking of the important role that the Berkeley Repertory Theater holds and it’s expansion in downtown. I do feel very passionately that it is a natural step for the Berkeley SymphonyOrchestra.
“Since its inception, the Orchestra, like many part-time professional groups, has had an itinerant home moving from concert hall to concert hall. To have a home which is really the symbol of the Berkeley Symphony I think is an important step that some day really should happen. Whether it’s right now with the UC Theater is a question that needs to be debated between many people. But I think someday it’s important to let this step happen.”
Daily Planet: “A lot has been said recently about Berkeley having a thriving downtown live theater district—could it really happen?”
KN: “I think it is happening. And to me it’s consistent with the tradition of Berkeley. The city has always been such a strong and visible community in terms of its pioneering spirit. Its cultural richness. Its intellectual richness. The intersection of cultural influences, national influences, and trends has created a historic environment in which invention and forward-looking esprit can take place.
“This has all been a part of our long-term history since the very early days of the Spanish land grants. The nourishment for the soul of the community is somehow reflected through the arts and the arts truly do belong to everyone. A theater belongs to everyone.”
Daily Planet: “What do think of the gutting of music education today in California’s public schools considering your early music training in Morro Bay, CA where the music teacher was classically trained?”
KN: “It is alarming. I think many people in the field however detect a swinging of the pendulum coming back. For example I’ve heard of a number of school districts that have voluntarily taken very strong moves to reestablish arts programs within the public school system. Sometimes remarkably so.
“Creations of orchestras, creations of bands or visual art classes simply because of pressure being brought upon the school district by the parents of the children. A few years ago several of us put together a concert to honor our very influential music professor in Morro Bay.
“It was a great symbolic gesture towards this professor, but it also gave a chance for many of us to look and see what in fact he really did accomplish through his nearly 50 years involvement in public education.
“And it was clear that of all of the hundreds and hundreds of children that he worked with, his point was not to turn out scores of professional musicians. His goal was a relationship with the arts.
“That evening the people who came back were mechanics, engineers, architects, bakers, tailors, teachers, farmers, cattle ranchers. The variety of the walks of life was just as I’d remembered it growing up. What was really impressive was no matter what the vocation people chose—heavy machinery or running a cattle ranch—the piece of Beethoven that we played had a deep relationship with every person who was there because they had grown up with it.”