Conductor Kent Nagano: The surfer wields a wicked baton

Thu Mar 20, 2014 10:28am EDT
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By Michael Roddy

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.S. conductor Kent Nagano feels he lives in three worlds - his native California, his ancestral Japan and the Europe of the music he conducts. But his spirit is on a surfboard in the Pacific Ocean.

Nagano, 62, is not alone among prominent musicians in having a passion that seems at odds with metronomes and music scores: the late Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan loved fast cars and opera composer Giacomo Puccini kept a blunderbuss at his Italian country villa that could damage a whole flock of ducks.

Nagano, who grew up on a farm in California, near the beaches of Morro Bay south of San Francisco, says surfing is a bit like music, keeping him in touch with nature and the cosmos. And in the era when he started out, surfing was still free.

"Today when you use that word it comes with a lot of connotations, usually phosphorescent wetsuits, fancy sports cars and expensive surfboards," said Nagano, whose trim build and long hair mark him not only as a surfer but also, he told Reuters, prompts people inevitably to spot him as a Californian.

"Nearly every child I knew surfed because there's no admission to the sea," he said over coffee in Geneva where, as music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, which is on a tour of Europe, he conducted a program of Liszt and Berlioz.

"And at least for children the interaction with nature is vital ... Unless you have a constant, active and direct dialogue with nature, some people will end up being very limited."

In 2015 Nagano will become general music director of the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra, after a career that has included similar posts in Lyon, Los Angeles and, most recently, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

In Munich he oversaw the world premieres of Unsuk Chin's "Alice in Wonderland," Jorg Widmann's "Babylon" and Peter Eotvos's "The Tragedy of the Devil", putting on cutting-edge new works for what he proudly said were sold-out houses.   Continued...

File photograph shows Kent Nagano, the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal 's music director designate, conducting at his debut at his first of four concerts in Montreal, March 30, 2005. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/Files