Old School for the New Age

Classic Arts Features   Old School for the New Age
Michael White talks to conductor Jonathan Nott, who makes his New York Philharmonic debut on January 12.

"I've never been too concerned with being seen in the right place, doing the right thing," says Jonathan Nott, who is making his New York Philharmonic debut this month. When asked why it has taken a while to get his name known in the United States, he adds, tellingly, "It's the kapellmeister in me I guess"‹a comment that explains a lot about this 43-year-old conductor, who has risen to the top of the German musical world while keeping a lower profile elsewhere.

The old established German kapellmeister system, which Mr. Nott chose to enter after studies in his native Britain, is a sort of musical civil service in which you work your way up through an ascending hierarchy of local opera houses and associated orchestras. "It wasn't the most glamorous way to build a career, or the fastest," he admits, "but these places churn out repertoire night after night, and there's no better way to learn your craft, hands on. You learn to think on the hoof, and deal with whatever gets thrown at you, which is particularly useful if, like me, you spend half your life interpreting the core German classics and the other half trying to get your head around the complexities of contemporary scores."

Those two halves of Mr. Nott's life are neatly summarized by his two most recent jobs: music director of the august Bamberg Symphony (which, under his leadership, has reclaimed its ranking among the most celebrated orchestras in Germany), and chief conductor of the Paris-based elite corps for new music, the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

The contrasting demands of those positions are thoroughly consistent with his Philharmonic program, which pairs John Corigliano's Violin Concerto, "The Red Violin," with Richard Strauss's An Alpine Symphony. It's the kind of old-new mix on which he's built his European reputation. Now it promises to do the same here in New York.

Michael White is a journalist, broadcaster, and former chief music critic of The Independent in the United Kingdom.

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