Conductor Kent Nagano Invigorates OSM

"It is important as a performer never to underestimate humanity, and therefore never to underestimate audiences," Kent Nagano was saying. "It is a natural human phenomenon to respond to quality.

Conductor Kent Nagano Invigorates OSM

"It is important as a performer never to underestimate humanity, and therefore never to underestimate audiences," Kent Nagano was saying. "It is a natural human phenomenon to respond to quality. Given the choice between something of exceptional quality and something of low quality, I think it would be fair to say that most people would choose something of exceptional quality. It's just human nature to appreciate that which is extraordinarily refined."

Perhaps by now you're thinking: what a pill. And yet it's not so. There is something deeply engaging in just about everything the new music director of the ORCHESTRE SYMPHONIQUE DE MONTRÉAL chooses to say. But "chooses" is the right word for it. Nagano does not stand on ceremony - it is the difference his musicians often cite between the Californian newcomer and his magisterial Swiss predecessor, Charles Dutoit - but neither does he leave much to chance. His replies in an interview, like his concert programs and the renaissance he has planned for a great and troubled orchestra, are meticulously plotted and executed. He does not chat. He replies in little essays. And he has a lot to say.

Last September, Nagano began a six-year term as the driving creative force behind Canada's foremost orchestra. He has had a busy seven months. He is about to demonstrate his handiwork by taking the band on its first coast-to-coast Canadian tour, from Yellowknife on April 16 to St. John's on April 28. "I thought it was important to do that tour of Canada," he said, "before we went to New York, before we went to Japan, before we went to the United States of America." It is perhaps a reflection of Montreal's odd place in Canada that none of Nagano's predecessors ever thought to do the same.

Besides, the comeback trail has to start somewhere. The OSM has had a raucous five years, beginning with the stormy departure in 2002 of Dutoit, the man who built the ensemble, over nearly a quarter-century, from a pretty good regional orchestra into one of the world's finest and most frequently recorded. Dutoit got into a feud with the local musicians' union and quit. A downward spiral ensued: the OSM lost its recording contract and went through four leaderless years, culminating in one of the longest strikes any North American orchestra has survived.

"The orchestra was - I don't know how you want to call this - a little wounded at the end of the Dutoit era," Brian Robinson, a veteran OSM double bassist, said. The long interregnum made matters worse. "It's impossible without a leader to maintain standards," said Richard Roberts, the orchestra's principal concertmaster. "It's 100 people and if you leave them to their own devices, they have their own opinion, their own way of doing things."

So Nagano's first job was to calm frazzled nerves. This he managed with his very manner. "He's an extreme gentleman to work with at all times," Robinson said. "He's very hard-working, he demands a lot from people, but his way of doing things is very polite, respectful at all times."

There is something of Nagano's California roots in this. He was born in Berkeley to Japanese-American parents who had spent the Second World War in internment camps. His career, like any front-rank conductor's, has been global - Opéra de Lyon, Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin - but his manner is North American, more collegial than a European maestro's. You see it onstage, too. Nagano is a gorgeous man with an unruly mane of black hair, but what's surprising when he conducts is how little attention he draws to himself. He is the orchestra's advocate, not its master.

His second job is to give the orchestra a personality. He did this from the first night of his tenure, last September's season opener, an immense mass-culture spectacle of the sort only Montreal among Canadian cities can pull off. While thousands watched outside the city's downtown Place des Arts on huge video screens and tens of thousands more watched live at home on Radio-Canada television, Nagano conducted the OSM symphony and chorus in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

But in what would turn out to be a representative bit of Nagano programming, he was not satisfied merely to offer an all-hands-on-deck recital of one of the classical repertoire's most dependable warhorses. The concert opened with Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, an early-20th-century bit of experimentalism in which a lone trumpeter wandered around the stage, playing a quizzical figure that was repeatedly mocked by the flute section.

That alone would be an unusual twist to the celebrity-studded night. But Nagano also had his charges play the Fourth Symphony by Galina Ustvolskaya, a reclusive Russian associate of Dimitri Shostakovich's. The Fourth Symphony is a kind of pun: though the full orchestra of 100 musicians stays onstage, only four of the musicians actually play anything. The piece - and the night, and by extension, Nagano's whole tenure with the OSM - became a question that, while it won't go unanswered, will take many years to answer: what is a symphony for? What is each musician's role? What are we all gathered here to do, wherever "here" might be, when we convene under a sloping roof to participate through our presence in the ancient and bracing rituals of symphonic performance?

More than just about any conductor you can name, Nagano really gets off on questions like that. "For me, it's very important to do anything possible to avoid a routine, or a pattern, or the expected," he said. "Because to have a knowledge of what's going to happen, to have a routine - these, you could say, are the enemies of creativity and spontaneity.

"And unless you have creativity and spontaneity in a concert hall, in my opinion it somehow will be less than a fulfilling experience. In order to receive the content of what lies within these works, you need to not be saddled with the cynicism of feeling you know what's going to happen."

Which is not the same as saying Nagano simply likes to confuse his audiences. If anything, the repertoire he has programmed so far - including Schumann, Schubert, Mahler, Mozart and half of Beethoven's symphonies, with the rest to follow next season - represents a return to the Germanic core of the symphonic repertoire. Dutoit preferred late-19th-century French and Russian music, a little fizzier, a little more airily virtuosic in spirit.

That sturdy German spine is no dreary obligation for Nagano, who requires that his string sections play in historically authentic ways when they play that repertoire. This can mean a different manner of bowing or even a different seating plan for the first and second violins or the double basses. These changes to technique and geometry make the Nagano orchestra more mutable in sound than the consistently lush Dutoit approach, Robinson says. But that fidelity to the classical motherlode is at the heart of the OSM's new mission, which is why the orchestra's leisurely, extraordinarily powerful rendition of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony will be a feature of each concert on the Canadian tour.

"For the past eight years I've made my home in Germany," Nagano said. "And the richness that comes from being able to immerse yourself in the rhythm of a culture, out of which comes your greatest repertoire, is indescribable. Beethoven, as one of the most universal voices that was born out of that culture, remains one of the most relevant composers today. He's one of my favourite contemporary composers, so to speak."

But neither is Nagano content to haul a packing crate of hardy German perennials with him to his new gig. The tour program will also include a premiere, a newly commissioned composition by Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic. Nagano inaugurated, with his first season, an annual composition contest with $50,000 in prizes. (While much of the new music Nagano champions is fascinating and accessible, I attended the finals of the composition contest and found the works almost uniformly excruciating. Nagano chuckled when I told him. "I very much sympathize. Some of those performances were really confrontational, I must admit.")

Most remarkably, for a man who has never performed in Canada outside Montreal, Nagano has injected a rich vein of Canadiana into his programming. Concerts this season featured tributes to runner Terry Fox and, in an all-Beethoven program with a twist, to retired general Roméo Dallaire's travails in Rwanda. Nagano had actor Colm Feore portray Dallaire in a newly written libretto to accompany Beethoven's incidental music from Egmont. The result was a study of often-tragic heroism that spanned centuries and continents. Concerts next season will tip a hat to animator Norman McLaren - and the Montreal Canadiens.

Canadian audiences aren't used to such local resonance in the concert hall, I told Nagano. Perhaps it's time, he said. "It's very limiting - and I would even go further, it could be disrespectful - to simply repeat for an audience a program you've played in another city and with another orchestra."

Taken together, these lines of inquiry and exposition - serious exploration of the Germanic repertoire; unflagging commitment to 20th-century works and new commissions; and a newcomer's fascination for Canadiana - have made the OSM the hottest high-culture ticket in Montreal. Nagano has grown the orchestra's audience at a time when orchestras in too many cities are struggling, and he has managed to do it by raising, not lowering, the aesthetic stakes.

This is excellent news for Lucien Bouchard - yes, that Lucien Bouchard - who arrived as chairman of the OSM's board shortly before Nagano reached its podium, with a mandate to reverse a long-term trend of sluggish fundraising. At the end of a long discussion of the OSM's challenges and rocky history, I asked Bouchard what Canadian audiences can expect on this long-overdue get-acquainted tour, under Nagano's baton.

Bouchard paused, then chuckled. "They'll be seduced. They'll be seduced!"

Maclean's April 23, 2007