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As he turns 70, the classical music maestro discusses how Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein, but also Frank Zappa and Björk, were influential in his life.
When asked whether he thinks more carefully about how he uses his energy these days, Kent Nagano refers to the late non-conformist musician Frank Zappa and says that like him, he feels that making music is a privilege.
"If you think about it, my life is just a constant vacation. I'm doing exactly what I love to do," the conductor told DW.
He may have to prioritize more than when he was younger, but he still has many dreams and ideas and is planning numerous orchestra projects, he says, adding that not everyone is lucky enough to make a living from their passion. "In that sense, I feel very fortunate."
Born in the US, the musician with Japanese roots grew up in the small Californian fishing town of Morro Bay.
Thanks to his mother, who was a microbiologist and a pianist, he grew up listening to classical music at home.
As a student of classical music and sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he barely took notice of the rock and pop music of his generation.
He was not into Frank Zappa's music, either, but the rock and jazz musician would end up being part of Kent Nagano's musical journey: Zappa is one of the 10 people Kent Nagano names as influential in his life, as quoted in his biography 10 Lessons of my Life, written by Inge Kloepfer.
Nagano recalls that his parents, in particular his mom, had a problem with rock music. "She thought it was not interesting, she thought it was really the wrong direction to go," he told DW, adding that his mother was, after all, his first piano teacher. "Pop and rock music were simply forbidden in the house."
It wasn't until French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, with whom Nagano had studied, wanted to conduct Zappa's music that Nagano became aware of the iconoclastic musician — and went to one of his rock concerts. He remember he was 28 or 29, but had "never been to a rock concert, never had that experience."
Nagano was thrilled, and ultimately recorded three albums with Frank Zappa and the London Symphony Orchestra. He and Frank Zappa became close friends.
From Frank Zappa, Nagano learned the pursuit of perfection. Zappa felt free when the sound and the technical environment were perfect — free to put his energy into musical expression, giving him a higher level of quality in performance than in preparation, Nagano said. "That's something that not only serves you in the world of music but actually serves you in your life, that you should not be satisfied just with the ordinary, you should really be looking for and searching for and insisting on exceptional quality."
Kent Nagano has learned various lessons from the influential individuals he has met in his lifetime.
For example, from the Icelandic singer Björk, he understood that perfection is not everything either; What equally matters is what an artist has to say to the audience.
Pierre Boulez awakened Nagano's interest in new music, and Leonard Bernstein would often ask him thought-provoking questions.
There are things he learned from Bernstein's conducting lessons "that became apparent many, many years later," Nagano said. Even today, sometimes I will realize something and think, 'Ah, this is what Leonard Bernstein was talking about!'"
A conductor and composer, a scholar of the humanities and a humanist, Leonard Bernstein looked at music from different perspectives.
Once, he took Nagano to the Guggenheim Museum during a conducting lesson. The men looked at and talked about different works of art. "When we make music, we paint pictures with an infinite array of textures, colors, articulations," Nagano said, adding that Bernstein sharpened his senses.
Nagano conducts many of the world's leading orchestras.
After studying with Boulez and Bernstein, in 2000 Kent Nagano joined the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin as principal conductor. In 2006, he became general music director at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and also worked as music director at the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, Canada.
In 2015, he took on the position of general music director of the Hamburg State Opera and chief conductor of the Philharmonic State Orchestra.
Kent Nagano is appreciated for his openness and joy of discovery. He opened up to popular music, and he is interested in historical performance practice. Usingperiod instruments, he and the Concerto Köln original sound ensemble have been working on Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs since 2017.
The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin was his introduction to Germany. "If I speak German today, it's largely because of the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra," he said.
When he first arrived in Germany, he only knew the German he had learned at school. "But that's not the same as speaking, so I would say at least 85% of my vocabulary just came from my colleagues in the orchestra."
Nagano still has many plans and long-term musical projects for the future. Windsurfing in his native California gives him the energy he needs. It's an ideal sport to keep fit, he says — even at 70.
This article has been translated from German.