In a world of overwhelming complexity, music – and that means classical music – can provide structure, orientation, self-discovery and social cohesion, says the renowned American conductor, who recently spoke with DW.
Hamburg's general music director has recently been on a farewell tour of Europe with the orchestra he has led for the past 13 years, the Montreal Symphony. Widely acclaimed for his clear and cohesive orchestral performances, he also demonstrates a thoughtfulness about social, historical and philosophical issues that is not often observed with conductors.
Kent Nagano takes the broader view also in Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected. Compiled in conversations with the journalist Inge Kloepfer and first published in German in 2014, the book was released in the English version in 2019.
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In it, Nagano reflects on his life in and with music, from his childhood days in the fishing village of Morro Bay, California to his encounters with the rock musician Frank Zappa, with the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, his lessons with the French composer Olivier Messiaen – to his life as maestro seemingly present on multiple continents at once.
Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected touches on the thoughts of major philosophers on music down through history but also addresses current issues such as runaway capitalism, the breakdown of social norms and a crisis of meaning in Europe and the US, war and migration. In short: a world in general disarray.
To which Nagano offers a solution — classical music, an art form that requires concentration and self-discipline as a performer or a listener, yet one that can paradoxically also open new horizons and perspectives.
"And because of this power it can enrich us immensely, especially today in these troubled, accelerating times,” writes Nagano, who in the book, backs up his conviction in his own conversations with the cognitive science researchers Daniel Levitin and David Huron.
The effectiveness of classical music, however, requires an openness to it, which in turn requires exposure to the art at childhood age. With its ageing audiences and with music absent from school curricula, classical music is a discipline that, says Nagano, is "in danger of disappearing from the fabric of modern society” and being only "a hobby for the social elite.”
Yet, on an upbeat note on the classics, he says "I am convinced that they can support us in our search for meaning” and that they can shape character and foster individual spiritual awareness.
"Maybe this period of upheaval is music's biggest opportunity,” adds Kent Nagano, a recent guest on DW's "Arts & Culture." Click on the video above for more.