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The unifying power of music: The American conductor Kent Nagano and his dream by Winfried Pogorzelski

Music awakens and inspires the inex- haustible creativity of man. It creates mo- ments of happiness, brings people togeth- er, and enables them to better cope with life. Across all continents and cultures classical music does this the most. To a lesser extent, folk music does the same.

Classical music, generally highly sub- sidised by the state, is under increasing economic pressure and must therefore ac- cept a certain loss of status. The Ameri- can conductor Kent Nagano is tirelessly committed to its preservation, cultivation, and dissemination. He dreams of a world in which every person has the chance to find access to classical music. Nagano also encourages and cultivates exchang- es between musicaltraditions of different cultures.

‘The sounding fishing village’

An American with Japanese roots, Kent Nagano studied music and sociology in Santa Cruz and San Francisco under the tutelage of Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bern- stein, and Olivier Messiaen, with whom he became friends. His work has taken him to the most important concert halls and opera houses in the world, includ- ing Montreal, Boston, New York, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Salzburg, Zurich, and Milan. He is one of the most sought-after representatives of his profession.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Nagano grew up in a fishing village called Morro Bay on the West Coast of California, where immigrants of different ethnic origins – including Swiss – had settled. At the local school, Wachtang Korisheli, a dedicat- ed Georgian musician, was working as a pianist and music teacher. Korisheli had ended up there after escaping the turmoil of the Second World War. His goal was to create an orchestra. In the morning hours before school, and in the afternoons after school, every pupil received instrumental lessons. The evenings ended with an or- chestra rehearsal.

Under the guidance of their dedicated teacher the students learned to read music. Importantly, they also learned to listen to each other. At the beginning, the pupils were able to play a few marches quite passably. With his ever-improving orches- tra, the community of Morro Bay trans- formed into a “village of sound”1 (p. 15). The many conflicts between people from different backgrounds subsided. “Music held us together,installed a sense of com- munity, was a place to encounter. And it set a common goal: the next concert, to- ward which all of us worked togetherin

order to give the audience a unique expe- rience.” (p. 22)

The nature and effect of classical music

For Kent Nagano, the classical music of the last 1000 years is “a universe that ex- pands as soon as you enter it” (p. ix). It contains “our entireWestern tradition, the great concept of development up to the modern age and the canon with its works from the various epochs. The never-end- ing human creativity is lying in it, produc- ing incessantly new musical works in this art”. In music – as in all fine arts – there is an infinity; for one is never finished with a work of art, it is never fully realised, grasped, understood.

Playing music always goes hand in hand with human encounters, with a shared experience of all those involved, in classical music just as infolk music. Eve- ryone involved – on the podium as well as in the auditorium – is deeply touched. Their social skills, their ability to con- centrate, and their aptitude for life are strengthened. In this context, Nagano re- fers to Friedrich Schiller and his words about the “aesthetic education of the human being”, because the “fine arts” are a “necessary condition for humanness”.

Coping with extreme human situations through music

There are many examples of how people, with the help of music, are able to main- tain courage in extreme situations and get through theemergency. Thus, Nagano also states that serious music or other artistic activities play an important role “when we are confronted with almostunbearable sit- uations in life […]. Why did prisoners in Hitler’s concentration camps draw, sing, if they had the opportunity make music in their inhumane barracks?” (p. 24)

Or why, he asks, did French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) succeed in 1940 in composing the masterpiece Quat- uor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time) in the German prison camp, which he premiered there in 1941 togeth- er with prisoners of war?

We know of other examples of this phe- nomenon: during the Leningrad blockade (1941–1944), the population – including 400,000 children –was exposed to the vi- olence of war, hunger, and extreme cold. Over one million civilians fell victim to it, with 90 % of them starving to death.In 1942, the will of the inhabitants to resist was decisively strengthened by the fact that the 7th Symphony by Dmitri Shostak-

“The unifying power of music”

man must once again be thoughtful, val- ue-oriented, disciplined, and capable of judgment in human and ethical aspects. This opportunity is given to him in the “confrontation with the arts, with music, literature, philosophy, painting” (p. 87). This path is best initiated with children who are the most receptive, especially in elementary school, where music lessons are increasingly neglected.

The masterpieces of great composers are complex. They have a lot of substance and depth, like life itself, and convey posi- tive attitudes andvalues. Beethoven’s nine symphonies, for example, stands for the confrontation with the great humanistic ideas.2 Contrary to widespreadopinion, classical music was not only created solely for educated enthusiasts, but for everyone. If young people do not come to the music, thenthe music must come to them. This is Nagano’s motto. So he came up with the idea of bringing music to the peo- ple, regardless of their age or country of origin. If people cannot come to the con- cert hall or to the opera house, he takes great works of classical music to them. In Montreal,where people are poor and lack-


ing education, Nagano founded the project “La musique aux enfants” (music for chil- dren), a music program for prekindergar- ten andkindergarten, which he attends reg- ularly.

[In this program children receive a min- imum of one lesson in rhythm and choral singing per week putting them in contact with music andmusicians. (Editor’s note)] Nagano performed Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony in the local ice hockey sta- dium. The audience – including the ice hockey players of the Montreal Canadiens – thanked him with thunderous applause. He visited the Inuit in the Canadian Arc- tic to get to know their traditional music and to incorporate it in joint performances with Central European classical music. In Hamburg and Berlin, he included young musicians and singers in an opera produc- tion. At Potsdamer Platz, he repeatedly or- ganised open-air classical music concerts with young people, which enchanted both

actors and passers-by alike.

Kent Nagano will not run out of ideas when it comes to musical performanc- es and venues. In 2015, he conducted the Hornroh Modern Alphorn Quartet in the Zurich Tonhalle with a contemporary piece by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich


Haas. He will undoubtedly continue to or- ganise many moving events, providing lis- tening pleasure for his audiences and thus continue to makeimportant contribution to the humanisation of society.                      •

1 Kent Nagano with Inge Kloepfer. “Classi- cal Music – Expect the Unexpected”, McGill Queens University Press, 2019

2  Salathé, Nicole. Klassik gegen Krise: Stardi- rigent Kent Nagano verspricht Wunder (Classical music against the crisis: star conductor Kent Na- gano promises miracles). tur/musik/musik-klassik-gegen-krise-stardirigent- kent-nagano-verspricht-wunder


Ehrhardt, Bettina. Kent Nagano – Montréal Sym- phony. Documentation 63, DVD. Frankfurt am Main: Zweitausendeins, 2010

Franz, Nadja; Kloepfer, Inge. The dream of Kent Nagano. Film, NDR/Arte 2017

Freitag, Annette. “Vier Alphörner und Kent Na- gano” (Four alphorns. And Kent Nagano) https:// kent-nagano

Müller, Melissa; Piechocki, Reinhard. Alice Herz- Sommer. “A Garden of Eden in the Midst of Hell” A Century of Life. Munich: Droemer, ISBN 978-3- 426-27389-0

Pogorzelski, Winfried. “Triumph of art over bar- barism, On the Documentary Film ‘The Miracle of Leningrad’ and its historical background”. https://  april-2019






















ISBN 978-0-7735-5634-8


ovich – composed especially for this pur- pose – could be heard in the whole city by use of loudspeakers. Even the German soldiers could notescape the effect of this music.

There is the impressive example of the Austrian pianist Alice Herz-Sommer (1903–2014) from Prague, who gave con- certs in the ghettoof Theresienstadt. It is no coincidence that she chose the 24 etudes for piano by Frederic Chopin, be- cause they all express the basic patternsof human feelings and are among the most important and virtuoso works of the piano musical literature. They present excep- tionally hightechnical, psychological, and physical demands on the performer. For Alice Herz-Sommer, they were the perfect choice to help her deal with the despair caused by the deportation of her elderly mother to a concentration camp. Over- coming the artistic challenge gave her the strength to getthrough this difficult phase of her life, and this strength was conveyed to the inhabitants of the ghetto.

With music against a meaningless society

According to Nagano, highly developed societies are in a crisis of meaning and identity. This was shown, for example, by the financial crisis of 2008, followed by the global recession. It can be traced back to the fact that man had lost his grip on re- ality and fallen prey to utilitarianism. In order to be immune to such developments,

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