The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and its Boston / Ozawa-linked music director Kent Nagano bring two blockbusters and a sumptuous tone poem to Symphony Hall on the third stop of a bicoastal US tour. The March 16th program will start at 8 pm with Debussy’s sensual Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and will conclude with Stravinsky’s never de trop Rite of Spring. Piano sensation Daniil Trifonov will play Prokofiev’s blistering Piano Concerto No. 3. Able to “lift listeners out of their seats,” wrote Melinda Bargreen from the Seattle Times, and his only visit to Boston this year lets us enjoy the young charger.
BMInt had a pleasant encounter with conductor Kent Nagano.
FLE: Touring 10 cities in 10 days represents a huge logistical undertaking whether for Barnum & Bailey or a major orchestra. Are you glad you just have to show up and wave your wand, or do you miss the elephants?
KN: [laughter] Touring has become, ironically, more complicated because of all of the modern kinds of transportation that we have, and it is a very full tour. Fortunately, since we do tour quite a bit, we’re used to the routine, and thankfully until now we’ve been working with really very well-organized presenters, so I think if a tour is carefully thought out and organized it really does minimize the ‘circus’ aspect and maximizes the intensity when musicians have a chance to play the same repertoire. Because although we’re bringing three programs, we’re not rotating them that often. So it is fascinating and stimulating to play the same repertoire in a different acoustics for a different public every night.
Absent the Third Beethoven Piano Concerto, which you play once, everything you’re doing falls within a 19-year compositional window: La Valse, Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, Firebird, Rite of Spring…. That’s a narrow period. This is your 10th anniversary, the orchestra’s something like 40th time on the road since its founding in 1934: why such a narrow time span for the works on this tour?
It’s a very good question. There are a couple of reasons. One, that narrow time span occurred about 100 years ago. Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Debussy were all in the very intense Parisian crucible of creativity, where major steps were coming not only in the arts but also in the sciences, and in literature. The whole movement or opening up of society seemed to be nearly fueled by a kind of industrial revolution. Of course [it occurred with] the horrors of the First World War, the systematic mechanical destruction that we then seemed to open up in a very dynamic and violent way, the doorway all the way into the 20th century. Consider that huge transition: if you count Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School at the same time, and if you remember that this was just coming on shortly after Gustav Mahler passed away , and if you think of the emergence and the opening up of the new world in Canada and the United States, and if you take historically this huge transitional energy and look at our time today, then there are a lot of parallels.
We thought a lot about what we should bring on the tour. All of the pieces are part of the orchestra’s tradition—very much tied to our performance romance past, not only with Charles Dutoit more recently but even from the very beginning. Wilfred Pelletier founded the orchestra right around this period we’re speaking about. This has been a part of the orchestra’s language. Quebec is French-speaking but also we’re German-speaking, we’re Italian-speaking, English-speaking. We’re open and cosmopolitan as we witness things changing so rapidly, and so radically, particularly on the technical side. This has a profound impact on how we experience the arts—we felt it would be a very provocative program.
And you don’t really have to, at this stage in the history of the orchestra, provide an encyclopedic program showing you can play music of every period, because people already know that. So showing that you can program interestingly probably makes more of an impression now.
Well, of course for us we always try to program interestingly. For us here in Quebec, that’s how we built our full houses, that’s how we argued that we should build a new hall. In Boston of course you have one of the great concert halls of the world: it must be said Symphony Hall is just one of the leading acoustics of Western civilization. But we in Quebec needed to make an artistic, an aesthetic, and a social argument why we needed a hall, and we were able to build one just a few years ago. Part of it was because we felt that music should be felt interesting by people who live in the 21st century; it should be felt as pertinent; it should be felt as relevant. And for us that meant that the status quo has no meaning. And it’s true that in addition to one of most recent recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies we’ve recorded much French repertoire and other discs of even earlier repertoire. We approach every program as a clean slate and try to ask ourselves what is the most pertinent program for this particular time and this particular place. This was the program that we came up with as a team to bring to the United States.
I don’t know Maison symphonique de Montréal. Is it democratic in seating like the Berlin Philharmonie, with audience surrounding the players?
It’s very similar to KKL Lucerne. Also it’s similar in terms of architecture to Suntory Hall in Tokyo, but fundamentally it’s a return to the shoebox shape. In that sense it’s quite similar to Symphony Hall. It’s about the same dimensions, and the only difference is that our hall goes a little bit taller and we have designated chorus seats behind the orchestra which we open up to the public in a kind of a surround.
…back to your placement in Quebec and talking about the French language—if you were putting a sign on your building it would have to be in French and English, but is anyone telling you you have to play as much British music as you play French music? Perhaps there isn’t as much British music from which to draw.
[laughter] That’s a pretty good question! No, no. All of Canada is bilingual: there are two official languages of Canada, and in Quebec, of course, from a historical and a traditional point of view, the French language occupies a very important place in the community, so everyone speaks French. That said, the public and the orchestra are much more cosmopolitan than one might think. There are places in Montreal where only Italian is spoken, for example. There is a very serious and profound German community here, where you only hear German being spoken, and the orchestra is very fortunate to have a sophisticated, curious, aware public. And so one never feels pushed to do a certain kind of repertoire. Rather than insisting on equal time for British and French and whatever else, the only thing that one really feels here is an expectation and insistence that we play great repertoire.
So there are no repertoire police?
Funnily enough, the “police” tend to get activated if somehow the proper balance isn’t there. We’ve introduced quite a few areas of the repertoire that had been underbalanced during my time, so quite a bit of Johann Sebastian Bach, quite a bit of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and now the audiences have responded so strongly that if it’s not there, then we might hear about it.
I was reading through your promotional material, and considering the dramatic and emotional pieces that are on this tour, why do they say, “Kent Nagano is an ideal conductor to keep sentimentality and bombast down”? Won’t you be breathing fire in Firebird and getting misty-eyed during Afternoon of a Faun?
Well [laughter], everything is relative. You should talk to my wife about me being bombastic; I think she’ll give you a different point of view.
I don’t see why that characteristic was featured in the PR; it didn’t sound like a very exciting thing to brag about.
With all the great orchestras, one is keenly aware of a very strong character, and part of the Quebec character is an intensity, a very, very, highly emotionally charged way of performing, but at the same time possessing a clarity that comes from clear precision. Our Quebec language with its European sensibilities carries a very strong streak of both the Germanic and the Latin history as a part of our tradition; we also have English as a part of our tradition. They converge into a place called the New World. When you’re dealing with such a highly combustible combination, it sometimes helps to be able to guide it. We’re excited to be able to bring our very distinct and unique way of playing to Symphony Hall.
Talking about combustion brings up Firebird. When you’re conducting it in a concert version, you’re the only dancer. Is your mentor Seiji Ozawa also your choreographer?
[laughter] Yes, Mr. Ozawa remains, a very important figure for me. However, Firebird is based upon a personal exposition to Stravinsky that goes way, way before I worked with Ozawa—back to the early years when I was still studying the piano and studying composition. And anyone who studies composition of course analyzes and studies the Firebird. It’s one of the most brilliant exercises in use of the orchestra and harmony. In German we call it ein Erzählerung, which means to say using harmony to somehow underline a story. What we will be doing for our Firebird is sonically depicting a series of tableaux and a series of movements such that the audience will be able create their own choreographies. The movement comes through sound, harmony, and texture leading up to a series of brilliant and colorful tableaux as lie within this ingenious score. There’s always a risk when you do something like Firebird or Sacre du Printemps that it simply becomes an orchestral showpiece, because they are virtuoso and brilliantly orchestrated and the orchestra really shines as in instrument. On the other hand, these pieces were part of a ‘total art form.’ Bringing the drama and theatricality onto the stage at the same time as you’re playing as a burning virtuoso instrument is the central part of our mission in that piece.
Are you thinking of dancers?
I don’t think of a specific dancer, a prima ballerina or a single soloist dancer. However, the progression of the series of pictures, the progression of the series of tableaux, the confrontation among various characters, the love story, the oppression of society, the cruelty of the dominating, dictating force—all of these become a part of the general structure and the general form of the piece. They also help control the tempi and how one guides a transition from one section to another. Yet if they are character-based, that’s a little bit different from saying that have in mind a specific choreography or a specific dancer to follow.
But do you have to choose tempi that are danceable, or are you not thinking about that at all?
A waltz should be danceable, a minuet should be danceable. If not, then there’s something fundamentally uncoordinated with the context of the settings in which the piece was written. Choreography translates rhythm, far, far away from mathematical subdivisions of a beat. Rhythm is not at all only a metronome, rhythm, especially when you think of movement, has to do with color, it has to do with weight, rhythm has to do with flexibility and rubati. Rhythm means independence. It implies color and shadow and darkness; it also implies intensity. It must convey a feeling of going forward or a feeling of going backward from a regular pulse. When you think of movement, it does have an effect on how you think of rhythm, which of course has some sort of influence on what tempi you choose.
Two quick questions related to opera. Your bio says that when you were in Boston you worked in an opera house, and I wasn’t aware that we had one then.
To be honest, I’m speaking of Sarah Caldwell. I lost a bit of touch with the opera community in Boston when she passed away. Boston has always had a great opera tradition; there used to be an opera house there many, many years ago, and during the years I was there working with Miss Sarah Caldwell in a former movie theater called the Orpheum and later in a former movie theater called the Savoy [ed.: the Orpheum is within the shell of the Boston Music Hall; the Savoy, now called the Boston Opera House, was originally the Keith Memorial Theater. Eben Jordan’s 1901 Opera House was demolished by Northeastern University in 1957. Opera Place off Huntington Ave. remains as the only clue to the existence of the true opera house Boston has ever had]. They were adapted so they could be used as a theater space or as an opera performance space during the 1970s and 1980. Is opera still performed in Boston?
We have a lot of smaller companies now performing before 100 or 200 people. Our one large company, the Boston Lyric Opera, plays in the Shubert, and we have Odyssey Opera doing some concert and one staged opera each year. There’s a big opera audience, especially if one includes the Met HD in theaters, but there’s nothing like a full-season company.
But you do conduct a fair amount of opera in Europe.
At the moment, I’m fulltime general director of the Hannover Staatsoper and it’s a fulltime season there. Before that I was head of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and those are really kind of extensions of my time with Placido Domingo in Los Angeles with the opera company there. I’ve always tried to balance time in the theater with time on the symphonic stage, though somehow the repertoire, at least for me, seems to be artificially divided historically speaking. One grew out of the other, so they really shouldn’t be divided. One helps the other, so I’ve always kept both very, very active. At the moment some significant things are taking place in Hamburg.
I speak with everybody, but sure, of course, of course.
The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal at Symphony Hall
March 16 at 8 pm
Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major
Stravinsky Rite of Spring
Kent Nagano, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano