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MUSIC ‣ Interview: Maestro Kent Nagano - Cultural Education and the Universality of Classical Music

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

Phil Cartwright, Founder

Maestro Kent Nagano

Photo Credit: Antoine Saito

My colleague Yasmina Kashouh and I recently had the honor of meeting Maestro Kent Nagano. The Maestro is now in Paris directing the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth opera A Quiet Place for the Opera National de Paris.

Maestro Nagano Kent Nagano is a prominent conductor who performs across the world. He was born in the United States and grew up in Morro Bay, a fishing community on California's west coast. After achieving prominence as a conductor in the United States, he was named music director of the Opéra National de Lyon in 1988, a position he held until 1998. He led the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester from 1991 to 2000 and was named inaugural music director of the Los Angeles Opera in 2003. He served as principal conductor and creative artistic director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin from 2000 to 2006 before taking on the roles of general music director at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (until July 2013) and music director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. In 2015, he began his tenure as the Hamburg State Opera's general music director and main conductor.

The Maestro is a calm, thoughtful, and eloquent gentleman. A summary or synthesis of our debate just cannot do the justice to the discourse and emerging ideas. The Maestro offers intelligent and thought-provoking perspectives on a wide variety of subjects, from music and historical performance to technology. We discussed two related subjects that are of considerable importance to me: education and the relevance of classical music. I have done my best to paraphrase that discussion in the paragraphs that follow.

We send a heartfelt thanks to Maestro Nagano for his time and willingness to share his views. For persons in the performing arts or anyone interested in Maestro Nagano’s insights we strongly recommend reading his first book, Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected (McGill-Queen's University Press; Translation edition (February 25, 2019)).

We considered whether or not social significance has a role in the performance practice of classical music. Today's performing arts organizations confront several obstacles, and there are numerous perspectives about how classical music institutions should position themselves in the future in order to "remain relevant."

The Maestro contends that if one struggles to find relevance in the music of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, for example, the issue is not with the artists' masterpieces. For us in the twenty-first century, the difficulty is to comprehend the context in which masterpieces are presented. In the United States, it has been over three generations since arts and music are no longer mandated as part of the curriculum in some public-school curricula.

Historically, cultural education was not only available to pupils; it was actively encouraged as a means of gaining access to the world around us. It served as a catalyst for the mind to go beyond our immediate surroundings.

In terms of education, one can inquire whether Beethoven is relevant to a certain town or community. Is Mozart connected to who we are or what we are? Yes. Consider participation in youth orchestras or attendance symphonic performances. These activities place master composers within the framework of educational programs and community life. Our quality of life and identities can evolve as a result of these titans of the classical music repertoire.

Relevance does not mean that classical music should be more entertaining. It is dangerous to connect universal communication with entertainment. Forms of entertainment are transient and are intended to be replaced, providing for the thrill of novelty and divertissement. Nor, is it accurate to see classical music as belonging to the elite. Bach was a well-regarded educator, musician, and composer. Bach's music benefited communities and it has influenced subsequent generations. Everyone should be able to access the music of the great composers. Classical music is universal , and the risk of entertainment is that it reduces humanism to a form that will be forgotten.


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