On January 19, Kent Nagano announced that he will leave his post as Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2008-2009 season after 30 years. The San Francisco Chronicle music critic, Joshua Kosman's analysis is titled "Nagano Showed that Rule Breaking Can Make a Career." During three decades while he rose to stardom, and to greater stardom, he amazed Bay Area music lovers by remaining with the local Berkeley Symphony, allowing it to become a successful regional symphony where he could sometimes explore risky creative potential.
The first time I saw Kent Nagano conduct, I had volunteered to sing in an extended chorus for a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony with the BSO, years ago when they performed in a Congregational church south of the university campus. It was not long after the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, and earthquake damage was still visible inside the church. The following season, I sang with the same extended chorus for Berlioz's Romeo and Juliette in the same place, but this time performing soon after he completed a very successful performance with the Los Angeles Opera -- an opera company he would more recently direct. Then came his first great award winning recording with the Opéra de Lyon and offers to direct increasingly prominent opera companies. The Berkeley Symphony became a place where he returned home. However, as Kosman wrote, everyone must have wondered how long it would really last.
Since then, I have always enjoyed thinking back to those days, an opportunity for someone like me who is not, after all, an exceptional singer, to sing with a conductor who is both a remarkable conductor and a remarkable human being. Several years ago, I heard him conduct Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Metropolitan Opera and, true to form, he added the unexpected. Most recently, I heard him conduct Hindemith's Cardillac at the Opéra de Paris. Yet, this spring, BSO's season includes a concert at that same Congregationalist church where I first encountered Kent Nagano nearly 20 years ago.
Everything is always alive in his conducting. There is a responsiveness to the audience, to the chorus and orchestra on a particular night, a liveliness that is a sort of dialogue, never quite the same from one night to the next. There is an excitement in watching him conduct, whether from the stage or from the audience. At the same time, he places a great value on precision, accuracy, and tradition: values that further the pursuit of perfection.
Now, as director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and Bavarian State Opera of Berlin, both at the same time, he has announced that he will be leaving Berkeley. He will, of course, leave a legacy. Other people who performed with him over those 30 years will also remember this remarkable conductor who let people in a university town symphony have the opportunity to work with him, and to learn from him, long after he was successful enough to have stopped.
Among the recordings that may be of particular interest to Catholics are these: