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, he has 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.
Nagano's farm childhood might at first glance suggest
limitations, as far as music is concerned, but his mother, a
trained microbiologist, was also an accomplished pianist.
His parents were among the tens of thousands of
Japanese-Americans interned as potential enemy aliens during World War
II — an experience that spelled financial and social ruin for
many but for the Naganos had an unexpected upside.
Not only did neighbors look after the farm while the Naganos
were interned, but Nagano's mother, singled out for "scholastic
acumen", won a scholarship to study near Boston.
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"So yes, it was and remains a stain on American history," Nagano
said. "But even within the horrendous blunders and terrible,
terrible abuse, I think you can find a positive. At least in our
family, we were lucky to have some positive."
Nagano went to a top-notch music academy in Morro Bay, then studied
sociology and music at the University of Santa Cruz and later music
at San Francisco State University.
He made his way to Boston as assistant conductor to Seiji Ozawa at
the Boston Symphony Orchestra and played a key role assisting Ozawa
in the world premiere of French composer Olivier Messiaen's opera
"Saint Francois d'Assise" in Paris in 1983.
That led to an internship with Messiaen, living in the home of the
mystically religious composer who used birdsong in his music and
taking piano lessons from the composer's wife, Yvonne Loriod.
Messiaen later bequeathed Nagano his piano.
"He really opened up the world for me — and an artist needs to have
doors, at least philosophical and aesthetic doors, opened," Nagano
said. He credits Messiaen with getting him out of his American
mindset and making him feel at home with European music, which is
the core of Nagano's repertoire.
Another eye-opener was a trip Nagano made to Japan, with Ozawa and
the BSO, in his 20s. Nagano and a blonde-haired friend found
themselves crushed into the Tokyo subway and he had a feeling of
people staring. But when he looked around, he realized they were all
staring at his blonde friend, not at him.
Nagano, a third-generation Japanese-American, says that ever since,
he has felt an inexplicable attachment to the country, despite his
poor command of the Japanese language that used to upset his
grandmother "with good reason".
"So why is it that when I go to Japan there is definitely some
inexplicable relationship?," said Nagano, whose wife is the
Osaka-born pianist Mari Kodama.
"It's mysterious. Why is it that when I go, there are parts of me
that feel I can exhale for the first time, that I feel there is a
sense of peace that — can you imagine — never occurred before in my
(Editing by Gareth Jones)
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