Kent Nagano, after a meeting with the musicians of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra to discuss his plans, announced Friday that he will step down as music director of the symphony at the end of the 2008-09 season.
He will continue to work with the orchestra as conductor laureate and as founding music director for Berkeley Academy Ensemble, a small orchestra created to explore new musicological approaches to a repertoire drawn from 18th and early 19th century composers, debuting this coming season with two performances.
“This is consistent with my 30-year relationship with Berkeley Symphony,” Nagano said. “It was my first orchestra, and I still maintain that relationship with it.”
Nagano cited difficulties in scheduling and in finding the time to dedicate to community involvement over the past few years. Last year, he became music director of both the Montreal Symphony and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.
Nagano, 55, who attended UC Santa Cruz and San Francisco State University, was appointed as musical director to Berkeley Symphony in 1978. He was born at Alta Bates when his parents were graduate students at UC Berkeley.
“It was funny to them that my first important position brought me back here. I’ve always considered the Bay Area my home,” said Nagano, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, Mari Kodama, and their daughter. After assisting Sarah Caldwell at the Opera Company of Boston, Nagano came back to Berkeley with his appointment to the symphony, when it was still officially known as the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra.
Nine years later, Nagano took the reins of the Opera National de Lyon, and rumors began to fly in earnest that he would leave Berkeley. But, though leadership positions later came with Manchester’s Halle’ Orchestra, Los Angeles Opera and the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester in Berlin, Nagano continued to guide the Berkeley Symphony, premiering many new works, including those by Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter, and collecting three Grammy awards, as well as steadily increasing international recognition.
A search committee, drawn from the symphony board, staff, musicians and the community, is being formed to find a successor for Nagano. Candidates for the musical directorship will be selected to lead subscription programs over the next two years, with Nagano conducting the remaining programs, as well as directing the Academy Ensemble.
Of the new project orchestra, Nagano said he was excited “to explore a specific repetoire” drawn “from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert ...”
“It’s a rare chance to hear what isn’t heard so often with full orchestras,” said the symphony’s Kevin Shuck. “There are few mid-size ensembles like the Academy Ensemble will be.”
With musicians mainly drawn from the Symphony, the Academy Ensemble will debut with two concerts in April and May, both shows already “essentially sold out,” though each is accruing a waiting list for tickets that become available.
Shuck also commented that the subscription shows at Zellerbach, including the premiere of Berkeley composer Olly Wilson’s Hold On symphony two weekends ago, had been running “up to 95 percent sold out, with the balcony opened up for seating.”
Nagano returned to Montreal after the meeting and announcement, where last week he was made an honorary citizen by the mayor.