Mar 18th 2016

Nagano’s Quebec orchestra triumphs in Boston

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Kent Nagano made a triumphal return to Boston Wednesday evening (March 16) with his Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, conducting there for the first time in many years before a wildly enthusiastic audience. Amid the seven curtain calls and two full-orchestra encores, he stopped to pay homage to Montreal, where he has served as music director for ten years, and addressed the audience in French:

“Merci beaucoup.”

Nagano spent his formative years in Boston as assistant to the late Sarah Caldwell in opera production, then later worked as assistant conductor under Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Now among his European activities he serves as general music director and principal conductor of the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra, and principal guest conductor and artistic advisor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

His return to Boston this week revealed him as a fully mature world-class conductor with the requisite charisma and authority over the 100-plus Montreal players. His podium demeanor avoids all excess.

Boston was the third stop on a ten-city U.S. tour, the first undertaking of such an extent in 25 years.

The orchestra played a relatively safe program of Debussy, Prokofiev and Stravinsky but there was nothing safe about the sparkling, edgy performance. The atmosphere in Symphony Hall was electric.

Following the concert I found Nagano backstage and asked him how the felt about the tumultuous reception. “We got this tremendous energy from the audience,” he said in disbelief, “and that in turn energized the players.” I questioned him on the near-surgical precision of his musicians, one quality that sets the Montreal orchestra apart. “Detail,” he said. “It’s all about detail. We analyze every note, every phrase and we put it all together.”

The program was intelligently set up to provide a steady crescendo throughout the more than two hours of music.  He eased into the evening with Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, a ten-minute exercise in sensual, sumptuous orchestration that showed off the players’ mastery of tone and color. This animation of the score gives a sense of the impact Debussy created and Nagano produced.


Polite applause greeted the quiet climax of the Debussy, and stage hands then rolled out the Steinway for Prokoviev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C-major Op.26. Russian pianist Danill Trifonov, first-prize laureate of the Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein piano competitions in 2011, made his entry with a stiff bow. Seattle critic Melinda Bargreen has written that Trifonov’s playing can “lift listeners our of their seats.” A YouTube clip shows his extraordinary technique:

 

The concerto is perhaps the most melodic, the most exciting and arguably the most demanding of Prokofiev’s five works in this genre. Trifonov is already an artist of surpassing quality with emphasis on Chopin and Rachmaninov, and judging by his Wednesday performance Prokofiev may be his next focus. He displayed total involvement in the task before him, and seemed at home with Nagano and his blistering pace.  Already known for eccentric body language, Trifonov gave Boston the full range of hair-flicks, bench-bouncing and body spasms. I was reminded of the late Charles Rosen’s description of pianists’ physicality. “The heartbeat quickens and the body tenses during passages of raging fury: the body imitates the music.”

Trifonov brought the audience along with him, eliciting spontaneous applause between movements and producing a roar of approval and standing ovation at the end. He obliged with multiple curtain calls and a light encore.

Following the intermission, Nagano delivered the evening’s greatest treat, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Conducting from memory, he turned the once-scandalous – now standard – Stravinsky masterpiece into a kaleidoscope of powerfully punctuated segments and dissonant harmonies.  Complex rhythms of the pah-oom variety posed no problem for the confident Montreal players. During the curtain calls Nagano singled out the percussion section which had hammered the Stravinsky score with such verve. Even without the Nijinsky choreography the music has carried on for 103 years, ever more popular with modern audiences.

Nagano offered two additional orchestral encores, a delightful rarity at this level of performance.

 

Interview with Kent Nagano

Nagano is known in Montreal as a workaholic who keeps to a tight schedule. He agreed to a 15-minute interview by telephone with me as a prelude to his Boston appearance. Here is an edited transcript of our interview:


Kent Nagano by the author, Michael Johnson

Your return to Boston must be nostalgic for you.

Yes this is my first stop in Boston with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and it will be an emotional experience for me. Boston is a city with a great orchestra and a great musical tradition dating back to the early 1900s. I first worked with Sarah Caldwell, then maestro Seiji Ozawa invited me back and work with him and the BSO. It was the worst winter since Valley Forge, 1976-1977. I arrived in California loafers and a pullover sweater and I wondered what is this white stuff everywhere?

Serge Koussevitzky, while music director of the BSO, had a mission to bring contemporary music to the Boston audience.  Do Montrealers accept new music as readily as Boston audiences did – and continue to do?

From my experience the OSM is very, very fortunate to have the public that we have. Compared to audiences around the world, they are among the most sophisticated open-minded and adventurous that I have ever encountered – and that’ s a wonderful fertile context for the OSM to perform. Yes we do program a lot of new music but that is not the point. It’s only a demonstration of the love of the repertoire. One of our main concerns is seeing that the repertoire continues to grow.


Wasn’t the 20th century a time of great upheaval, sometimes controversial?

It’s interesting to look back 16 years and see that 20th century – far from being a dangerous century – it was probably one of the richest periods we have seen in terms of adding to the list of great standard masterpieces.  Debussy, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev Shostakovich … the list goes on and on. If we want our great tradition to continue, then of course it means engaging with composers of exceptional quality who are going to keep our art form progressing and going forward. Even works that today are considered some of the anchors or foundations for young composers  -- I’m thinking of the Turangalila Symphony and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. They have enormous impact on how composers today think about going forward.

You are known for outdoor celebrations and crossover concerts. Are these activities bringing in new music-lovers? What’s happening in audience makeup?

Here in Montreal our audience is now statistically among the youngest in North America. We sell out every concert, and the OSM has become a meeting point for sharing values and esthetic discussions. That’s at the core of what the identity and definition of a symphony orchestra is and should be. From that point of view it is very exciting here.

Your are something of a Messiaen specialist. How is he doing with your audiences.

Yes, I studied with him and lived with him and his wife Yvonne Loriod for a year. He is already established as one of the great composers of the 20th century.  When Turangalila is played, it’s no longer an isolated event. Not all of Messiaen’s works are met with immediate enthusiasm from the audience but the great works, if they are performed well, always, in my experience, elicit enormous sympathy and enthusiasm.

What Messiaen is in your repertoire besides Turangalila?

I conduct the entire Messiaen canon. All of the works are active in my repertoire. I am doing a complete recording cycle with the Bayerische Rundfunk of the great Messiaen symphonic works.

When is that due to be completed?

Oh in about a hundred years (laughs). We just started this year and were doing one or two works a year so it will take a while.

Do you approach composers and ask them to write something for you, like Koussevitzky used to do?

Oh yes, actively. You know we’re living in a special time. I see a generation of very, very young composers coming up now who are extraordinary. An amazing group of exceptional talent is coming up. It’s very exciting, and yes, I am asking them to write for me and for my orchestras. I’m following very carefully their development. It bodes well for the repertoire of the 21st century.

Where do you find these promising youngsters?

Funnily enough, you find them everywhere. I have commissioned the New Yorker Sean Shepherd, our own Canadian Samy Moussa, another Canadian Matthew Ricketts. These are young composers – in their 20s and early 30s. At least from my point of view, they are showing enormous potential with highly refined compositional voices. They are artists to watch.

The concert review and interview with Kent Nagano first appeared on The Arts Fuse, artsfuse.org


 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Feb 27th 2024
EXTRACT: "Question: Some pianophiles say the CD could be useful for meditation, therapy or even healing. ---- Answer: Indeed, that is the kind of feedback I am getting. But this music doesn’t belong to me any more, therefore I cannot label it with any purpose. It has taken on a life of its own. I can’t say how it affects the life of other people. Will it be therapeutic or will it have another effect? Time will tell."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACT: "Seated in a quiet corner of a Bordeaux hotel last week, we had an interview – more a casual chat – about her life, her Soviet Russian origins, her career, her future."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Schiff creates an atmosphere that we 'seniors' remember from the old days. No clowning, no bouncing on the bench, no outlandish clothing. He dresses in a black smock, black trousers, black shoes, topped off with a mane of pure white hair. His manners, his grateful bowing, are très Old Europe. ---- Schiff keeps control of his two hours onstage. He believes that dignity goes with the great music on the program and he scarcely moves as he plays."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "  Boston-based guitarist, band leader and composer Phil Sargent is not about churning out endless CDs. In fact his ten-year recording gap, just ended, had his fans wondering where he was. But in New York and Boston, he tells me, he has never stopped working with other groups while composing and actively teaching young and mature talent. Although not always visible, he seems to be a confirmed workaholic, even practicing five hours a day. Yes, virtuosos also need to practice. ---- And now he is back. His new CD, 'Sons'....."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "There is a renewed fascination with the memory-stimulating and healing powers of music. This resurgence can primarily be attributed to recent breakthroughs in neuroscientific research, which have substantiated music’s therapeutic properties such as emotional regulation and brain re-engagement. This has led to a growing integration of music therapy with conventional mental health treatments."
Sep 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "British psychotherapist, Michael Lawson, who has worked with several prodigies and former prodigies, calculates there may be as many as 200,000 piano prodigies active in the world today. “In a sense, they are not that rare,” he says in our interview below. Lawson is author of International Acclaim: The Steinfeld Legacy a new novel of the great pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries in which the prodigy phenomenon is described in some detail."
Sep 17th 2023
EXTRACT: "Like so many stories about relationships told over an extended time, Past Lives uncovers the twists and turns, the “what ifs” and the manifold choices that lead to two people wondering whether they were meant to be together."
Sep 12th 2023
EXTRACT: " OrpheusPDX, a new company founded by Christopher Mattaliano in Portland, Oregon, concluded its second season with a brilliant and thought-provoking production of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters,” at Lincoln Hall (August 24), exploring and exposing relationships in a polygamous sect and the courage of one sister-wife to leave it. With Stephen Karam’s libretto inspired by memoirs of women who have left the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) and the 2008 raid of the YFZ Ranch by the FBI, “Dark Sisters” was delivered with spot-on directing by Kristine McIntyre and riveting performances by an exceptional cast."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Wagner’s operas are well known to be budget busters, and lack of funds is probably one of the main reasons that Seattle Opera has not mounted the Ring Cycle in since 2013. After Speight Jenkins retired from his post as General Director in 2014, the company delivered The Flying Dutchman (2016) and Tristan und Isolde (2022), the latter under its current General Director, Christina Scheppelmann. Now starting its 60th season, Seattle Opera celebrated with Das Rheingold, but that can be seen as a bittersweet moment since Scheppelmann is moving on to take over La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels at the end of the 2023-2024 season."
Jul 6th 2023
EXTRACT: " More than a hundred recordings have been made of his suite of 14 light pieces he called “The Carnival of the Animals”, and a range of his other works remain in the standard repertoire."
Jun 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "Conservatories and university music departments are filling up with fee-paying Asians as their parents pressure them to succeed in the West. Piano competitions around the world, now numbering about 800, are open to this new wave of Asian players. They are winning top prizes and they are building careers in Europe and the U.S.  Too often, according to some teachers, young Americans prefer computer games, the latest movies, rock bands, sports, or other less-demanding activities. The Asians are happy to fill the vacuum."
May 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Three of Europe’s longtime leaders in contemporary jazz, now in their senior years, have just launched a CD of twelve  pieces that shows what a lifetime of sharing ideas in music can really produce." “New Stories” (Frémeaux et Associés) by the French trio of pianist and composer Hervé Sellin, bassist Jean-Paul Celea and drummer Daniel Humair is remarkable for improvisations so synchronized that the listener can feel the music come together from three angles in real time. The tracks were mostly composed or improvised by Sellin."
Mar 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "The young ex-dancer from Italy first burst upon the piano scene three years ago with 20 of her hand-picked Scarlatti sonatas. Now comes her second CD (Academy Classical Music) even more original and powerful, performing six of Baldassare Galuppi’s 18th century sonatas. Margherita Torretta‘s early training as a dancer gives her playing a swaying, graceful air while she maintains Alberti bass for control of the rhythm, momentum and especially continuity. Her ornamentation is boosted with some of her own improvisations, producing a fresher feel. It’s a magic combination."
Mar 24th 2023
EXTRACT: "Driven by a sense of mission and determination over several years, French pianist Lydia Jardon has completed a rare cycle of nine piano sonatas by Nikolai Miaskovsky. Her new CD  of numbers 6, 7 and 8 completes the task and offers a particularly rich sample of Russian experience in the worst of times. Miaskovsky may be only vaguely remembered today but he was a leader in the Soviet music world until the end of World War II. He left a wide range of engaging sonatas that have been brought back to life by Mme. Jardon on her own label AR Ré-Sé (AR 2022-1)."
Mar 16th 2023
EXTRACTS: "The most ambitious application yet of Steinway’s new digital piano, Spirio r, delivers stunning levels of sound and color in the new CD release of The Richter Scale, an hour-long keyboard drama written by well-known German composer and pianist Boris Bergmann." ----- "For the first time, the Spirio has been configured on a Steinway D grand to enable four-hand pieces to be played by two hands. The secondo score is first recorded in playback mode then combined with the live primo part. Liu is the live player who has to coordinate and fuse the two."---- "I took Bergmann’s advice and listened to the full composition from start to finish to best feel the gathering emotional turbulence. I was gripped by the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and percussive explosions along the way."
Feb 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The piano music of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen is rapidly emerging from obscurity where it has reposed since his death in 1953. One of the champions of this rebirth is the Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilic who acknowledges he discovered Jongen only by accident. Researching early 20th century music, he recalls, “somehow Jongen appeared on my radar.” He quickly dived into archives in Belgium and became immersed in Jongen’s prolific output."
Jan 5th 2023
EXTRACTS: "One duo of special interest today is the pairing of brother-and-sister pianists of Slovenian origin,  Zala and Val Kravos. Both are veterans of solo performances and joint four-hand playing internationally. Their new CD offers....... The musicality and the technical perfection achieved by this team sets it apart from others in the same category."
Dec 23rd 2022
EXTRACT: "One of the festival’s best surprises was the glamorous Russian-born Irina Lankova. Her evening was dominated by Rachmaninov and perfectly suited her origins. She has invented a program of music and fireside chats, creating a quick and pleasant connection with her audience. At ease between numbers, she chatted in relaxed manner notable for her erudition. Dressed in a modest ankle-length gown, she was all about music, not showboating. Contrary to several other women headliners in the piano world today, she says “I do not need to eroticize my looks”. ---- Her opening Rachmaninov  Elegie No. 1 cast a silent spell over the Femina Concert Hall and she carried her charm through nearly two hours of graceful pianism. It is not unusual, she told me in an interview, to leave members of the audience in tears. 'I also cry, at least internally, when I play,' she says."
Nov 13th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Classical guitarist Jose Manuel Lezcano breaks new ground with his first solo CD,  “Homage: Spain & Latin America”. He combines two Scarlatti sonatas and his adaptation of works by Maurice Ravel, Bill Evans and the great Paraguayan guitar virtuoso Augustin Barrios. Mood and tempo jump from the contemplative to familiar classics to dance to jazz. I found the CD so captivating I played it in loop for hours." ----- "Twice a Grammy-awarded  composer and guitarist, Lezcano lives in retirement in the U.S. northeast and teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire where he holds the title emeritus professor."
Sep 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "When I try to understand my life as a critic in the dazzling world of piano music, I am at a loss. We have inherited so much over 300 years that I feel overwhelmed. There is no obvious focal point. What is at the heart of piano world? -- Personally I could not make it through the day without the stimulation of piano performance. My home resounds with music all my waking hours, constantly renewed from the thousand-odd CDs I have accumulated." ----- Picture: The author, Michael Johnson.