Nagano first started working with the Berkeley Symphony in 1978, when it was a modest community orchestra and he was fresh out of the University of California at Santa Cruz and San Francisco State University.
Since then, Nagano, now 55, has become an increasingly sought-after symphonic and operatic conductor. Last year he became music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich; he previously held music director or chief conductor positions with the Hall_ Orchestra in Manchester, the Op_ra national de Lyon, Los Angeles Opera and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin.
But he always retained his ties with the Berkeley Symphony, even as his stature as a conductor grew elsewhere. The San Francisco Chronicle writes that Nagano has previously attributed this dedication to loyalty he felt towards the organization that launched his career, and because the post has offered the chance to perform challenging repertoire. During Nagano's tenure, the Berkeley Symphony has given the U.S. and world premieres of works by Olivier Messiaen, Elliott Carter, George Benjamin, Thomas Ads and Unsuk Chin.
But with his increasing international commitments, it is becoming ever more difficult for Nagano to find enough time for the Berkeley Symphony, even though he reportedly considers the Bay Area (he has a home in San Francisco) his base.
The Chronicle quotes him as saying, "It's important for the director of any arts organization to be closely involved in the community, and until a few years ago I didn't feel this was a problem for me. I had relationships with a number of community leaders, political leaders, leaders at the university, and through the '70s, '80s and '90s I felt I could keep my hand on the pulse of things. But since about 2001, with the pull of my other responsibilities, I've sensed the risk that I could lose touch with that pulse."
Having dedicated much of his time with the orchestra to contemporary music, Nagano plans to hop back a few centuries with the new Berkeley Academy Ensemble, a chamber group he helped found with handpicked musicians from the Berkeley Symphony. The ensemble will concentrate on 18th-century music in its two concerts per season; Nagano will lead its debut performances during the 2007-08 season. According to a press release from the orchestra, the BAC "will serve as a center for research on the latest musicological approaches to the selected repertoire." Asked if the players would use period or modern instruments, a Berkeley Symphony spokesperson told PlaybillArts that "the ensemble will focus on approaches to performance informed by recent musicological research, but to my knowledge there has been no discussion that the ensemble would perform on anything other than modern instruments."
For the next two seasons, Nagano will conduct one program annually with the Berkeley Symphony; other concerts will be led by candidates for the music director's job.
According to the Chronicle, the Berkeley Symphony, which was founded in 1969 as the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra, has an operating budget of about $1 million and gives around four or five concerts a season.