Kent Nagano: “It’s because of what we did together.”

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“It’s probably the most comfortable quarantine that I’ve ever experienced,” Kent Nagano said, via Zoom, from an undisclosed location on the island of Montreal.

Also the most stringent. An international traveller even in the age of COVID, the American conductor has followed the rules in France, Germany, Italy and the United States. Canada is tops in the tough department. The federal authorities call every day.

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“We’re not allowed to leave the room,” he said, referring also to his wife, the pianist Mari Kodama. “It’s very strict, as it should be.”

Next week, however, Nagano will be released from his not-quite-solitary confinement to make his debut as conductor emeritus of the orchestra he led as music director from 2006 until last August. There will be three webcasts from the Maison symphonique, on March 9, 16 and 23. Beethoven, Haydn, Hindemith, Mozart, Poulenc, Schubert and Stravinsky are the composers to be dealt with. 

“It was a surprise,” Nagano said of the appointment, announced on Thursday morning. “And I was profoundly moved. Such an honour doesn’t come very often.”

Well, maybe twice a century. Nagano joins Wilfrid Pelletier (1896-1982) and Zubin Mehta (b. 1936) on the roster as OSM conductors emeriti. 

The honorary title is open to interpretation. There is no written-down undertaking as to how regular or frequent return visits need to be.

But by connecting the announcement to a series of webcasts, the orchestra invites the inference that Nagano will be a relatively active conductor emeritus. “Everyone would like the relationship to continue and to grow,” was how the incorrigibly diplomatic maestro put it. 

“Emeritus” implies a record of achievement. There can be no doubt of Nagano’s success in reviving and maintaining public interest in the OSM, which was in something of a doldrums after the 2002 resignation of Charles Dutoit. 

“It’s not because of Kent Nagano,” the 69-year-old conductor said of whatever we might wish to think about his tenure in Montreal. “It’s because of what we did together. And I really mean that.

“The orchestra came together, the administration, the board of directors, the Quebec government, the community, we all came together, and we all went in the same direction. It’s not something that happens every day. This is a huge accomplishment.”

Nagano held other offices during his OSM years, including the post of general music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, then, from 2015, the parallel position in another major German house, the Hamburg State Opera. His contract there runs to 2025.

Nagano also has a steady association – honorary conductor is his official title – with the Cologne-based early music ensemble Concerto Köln. A plan to present Wagner’s Ring on period instruments is on hold, there being no way of knowing right now whether a tour next season is feasible. One possibility is restarting the project with a 19th-century reduction.  

Of course the pandemic has wreaked havoc in the music world. Concerts with a live public have virtually disappeared. Internet consumption has increased in inverse proportion. Is the online option a good or bad thing?  

“There is a lot of discussion – it has become a political topic – on the use of the internet for the arts,” Nagano said. “The arguments are going on and on.

“At times like this it’s good to look back in history. If you look back, you can see that advances in technology are almost always connected with huge advances in the arts.

 “I think of the great industrial revolution of the 19th century and what happened to the piano. It underwent change year by year, it became bigger, stronger more powerful.

“Think of Beethoven and the concerto. The difference between the “Nullte” (the early and noncanonical Piano Concerto WoO 4 of 1784) and the “Emperor” is incredible. And you cannot divorce this difference from what was happening to the instrument.  

“Some people call what is happening now a technological revolution. You can just see from just one year ago, from those first attempts to use the internet for a concert, it was pretty primitive. If you are objective about it, a lot of those online performances were compromised by quality issues. Now what we see is much more refined. 

“We all accept that communication is essential. And when it’s not possible to do it directly – and now it is forbidden to communicate directly – it is important to find other ways. The internet is a tool that has developed over the past year in way that we couldn’t have imagined.

“So I think whether the internet is good or bad is not really the issue right now. It’s what we do with it, how we realize what is possible on the internet and how the internet itself as a technological tool is developing.” 

How has the pandemic affected him personally? “It’s a complex experience, and global,” Nagano began. “Everybody I know has been touched by personal tragedy. 

“[But] all of us have been gifted with extended periods of confinement, imposed calm, a suspension of time. Our hectic schedules have been taken away from us. And the ability to control exactly what the structural world around us is going to do, from the next day, month and to the next years. All of that has been taken away from us.

“In its place has come the need to be patient, which is a positive thing, and the need to figure out exactly what to do with this moment of silence, this moment of calm. Many friends have had stressful moments trying to deal with this. 

“For me, as an artist, it has been a great gift. An unexpected, wonderful gift. To have unlimited time, to go much deeper into study, reflection, conception and imagination, without being interrupted. To have more time to practice, more time to prepare, more time to nourish the mind. 

“The big joke that I tell everyone is that when I entered into confinement, I had a mountain of books sitting on my piano. Now it’s a tiny pile. All these books and scores that I promised myself that one day I would get around to – I’ve made my way through [them]. 

“Ordinarily, when your day is scheduled from 6:30 in the morning to midnight every day, seven days a week, yes, you still squeeze in the time for study. But to have the luxury of being able to go so profoundly into subjects, to practice a passage over many hours rather than just a single hour – I haven’t had that since conservatory days. It’s a luxury.”

There was time for one more question. Did Nagano take his Montreal Canadiens jersey with him to his home in Paris or leave it for his successor as OSM music director, Rafael Payare?

“I have three of them!” the maestro clarified. “They are all in places of high visibility.  

“I thought you were going to ask me what my biggest disappointment was during my time in Montreal. I can only say that my biggest disappointment is that I didn’t see the Stanley Cup come home to Montreal. I’m still waiting.”

For information on OSM webcasts, go to


This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. From 2019-2021, Arthur was co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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