Kent Nagano conducts former collaborator Takemitsu

by Benjamin Woodward

Kent Nagano is nothing if not a very busy man. The musical director of the Los Angeles Opera, the artistic director and chief conductor of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin, and the guest director of many world-famous orchestras, the California native is in demand as one of the most popular opera and symphonic conductors currently on the music circuit, and a champion of contemporary music.

This month, Nagano is in Tokyo for a series of concerts, displaying his usual flair for intriguing programming with works by Mendelssohn, Bruckner and the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), with whom he had a great musical relationship.

Nagano chose to perform five works by Takemitsu while in Tokyo, including “November Steps,” “Requiem,” “Family Tree,” “Stanza 1″ and “My Way of Life,” “because I knew from our conversations together that these works were somehow special to him,” he said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Takemitsu was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, writing works distinctive for their delicate, sensuous and otherworldly timbre.

Although Japanese, he wrote in a Western idiom and only later came to incorporate traditional Japanese instruments and aesthetics into his work. Nagano remembers him fondly: “Mr. Takemitsu was one of those very special, extraordinary people with whom you don’t feel inhibited. He met me when I first came to Japan. I was still quite young and he came to hear my concerts and afterwards we formed a great friendship.”

Both men of few words, they communicated through music, forming a strong bond that lasted until Takemitsu’s death in 1996. Nagano had commissioned an opera by him, and a year before his death, Takemitsu called him to say it was finished. He died a little later, without leaving a manuscript copy of the music. He had apparently completed it only in his head.

“His writing leaves a deep echo in my memory,” says Nagano, referring to a kind of subliminal connection he felt with Takemitsu’s music because of his Japanese heritage.

Nagano grew up in California in the 1950s and 1960s with Japanese-American parents. His father was educated as an architectural engineer and his mother was a microbiologist and pianist. His grandparents first came to California in the late 19th century. Despite not speaking the language, Nagano says he feels an affinity with the land of his ancestors.

“It surprises me. When I come here, I feel somehow I’m home,” he said. “It’s a very deep, emotional response, abstract and mysterious.”

Soon after he was born, his family moved to rural Le Morro, five hours from San Francisco and five hours from Los Angeles. There he met with a man who formed one of the greatest influences on his musical career — Wachtage Korisheli.

Korisheli was a musically talented exile from Munich. He had fled to the United States because of World War II and he set about founding a conservatory in the small town, which Nagano attended. Nagano recalls, “Korisheli’s teaching regime was hard. We would have an exceptionally large number of hours — before school, after school, and then the students he liked would go to his house on the weekends where he would teach them art, aesthetics, philosophy. This was when I was 6. You can imagine how much it broadened the horizons of a child that age. So because of him, certain seeds were planted . . . It is a credit to him as a teacher that so many of his students became excellent musicians.”

After briefly considering a career in law, Nagano turned to music, working with the Boston opera, the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra (with which he retains very close ties), and finally getting his big break when he was signed up with the Opera Nationale de Lyon and later Manchester’s Halle Orchestra.

One notable moment in his career came in 2001 when he was flying to Los Angeles for a performance of “Lohengrin” by Wagner. It was Sept. 11 and Nagano’s plane was forced to turn back to Europe after the terrorist attacks in the United States. But he and his company were determined to have this performance, and so Nagano took an extremely circuitous route, “one of the longest journeys in my life, and not one that that I care to repeat,” eventually driving across the Mexican border by car and making it to Los Angeles. “And we didn’t know if anyone was going to come. The music center had been rumored to be a target for the terrorists. But it was a full house. There was an intimacy to that performance, between the performers and the audience, which I’ve never experienced. It was an extremely special moment.”

Nagano has always been interested in contemporary music, and has collaborated with many major musicians in the contemporary scene. He worked and lived with Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and he has enthusiastically championed the works of John Adams, whose operas “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “El Nin~o” he premiered. But he is careful to stress that he is not interested in music purely because it is contemporary — at least not as much now as he used to be.

“I am more interested in provocative programming. Contemporary music does not necessarily mean good music. In our time, we are exposed to contemporary music, and probably history will not look kindly on the vast majority of it. Yet the exceptional are exceptional and will remain so.”