Where in the world is Kent Nagano? For starters, he is very much in Montreal, where, at the (OSM), he has inspired what many in the city have called "Nagano-mania." Of course, he can also be found in Munich, at the Bavarian State Opera, in Berkeley, leading his hometown orchestra, and indeed all over the world.
Montreal music fans have had a thing for Nagano since he made his OSM debut in 1999 with a memorable performance of Mahler's Ninth (the very same work with which he made a Bernstein-like leap into the spotlight in 1984 when, with no rehearsal, he stepped in for his mentor Seiji Ozawa in Boston), and they are clearly overjoyed that the conductor will be spending more time with them. After Nagano was introduced as Music Director, OSM ticket sales rose a staggering fifteen percent!
Montrealers have taken Nagano further into their hearts as the conductor has been making OSM a vital part of the community at large. Nagano believes that it is essential to make the concert experience more "open" and less tied to "convention or routine," and that is exactly what he did when he opened the current OSM season by leading an outdoor performance by student musicians in front of thousands; he then moved into Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier to lead the OSM in a concert projected on video screens for an audience outside and broadcast live on TV and the internet across Canada. In December, Nagano and the orchestra performed in the cafeteria of the Montreal Children's Hospital and stayed afterward to visit with some of the young patients.
With the quiet charm that has made him such a favorite in Montreal, Nagano took the OSM on a high-profile coast-to-coast tour of Canada in his first year, playing concerts not just in the big cities but in smaller communities as well‹and even the Arctic. He also brought the Montreal-based, Serbian-born composer Ana Sokolovic along, introducing her and her Concerto for Orchestra to the rest of the country.
This promotion of a young composer and her work is part of Nagano's larger plan to make new music an important part of the OSM's artistic life. Marianne Perron, the OSM's chief director of contemporary music, says that since Nagano's tenure began, "there has been an intensification of interest in new music‹also in the way we introduce and present new works." In Nagano's first season, the OSM launched a biannual International Composition Prize to encourage composers under 40. Nagano will often juxtapose recently-composed works, such as a commission by the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, alongside such well-known staples as the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; New Yorkers will get to hear both pieces on March 8 when the OSM and Nagano appear together for the first time at Carnegie Hall.
Nagano has also been finding ways to invigorate the OSM's presentation of core repertory, often making intriguing thematic connections between familiar works. The OSM's ongoing concert cycle of Beethoven symphonies has inspired the orchestra's first announced recording with Nagano which offers Beethoven's music for Egmont, as well as selections from King Stephen, interspersed with new texts by author Paul Griffiths on the heroic efforts of the Canadian general Rom_o Dallaire to forestall genocide in Rwanda.
Asked how he defines the qualities unique to the OSM, Nagano clearly feels at home with what he describes as a balance between "an exceptionally strong identity with European sensibilities" as well as "flexibility, lyricism, transparency, and an organic precision in playing." On March 8, when Nagano touches down at Carnegie Hall with his new orchestra, audiences will have a chance to savor this much-heralded musical match.
Thomas May writes frequently about music and theater.