Each year, a great deal of reflection, problem solving and organization go into designing any cultural organization’s new programme. The Montreal Symphony must face this challenge as its 86th season completes a 16-year journey under the leadership its music director Kent Nagano. For the renowned conductor, the guiding force in creating a program is the connection between the orchestra and the community.
“The upcoming season carries on a line of tradition we began 16 years ago, which is to say that it is completely new,” he said in a telephone interview. “Every season we think with a blank sheet of paper and discuss issues both social and international. We set programming that represents actuality. It is very important for us to make the argument that the symphony orchestra is pertinent in our century, that it has a relevance in our daily lives. In this sense, this season is completely new, like always.”
Nagano’s consuming belief in the importance of classical music is expressed in his new book (written with Inge Kloepfer) Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected.
“[Writing the book] was provoked by hearing a number of political leaders suggest that classical music was only for an elite segment of society,” Nagano said. “I heard this is many nations in a short amount of time, that classical music did not have relevance for the general public, that it was for the more educated, the privileged. This was a huge provocation for me, simply historically speaking, it is not true.”
Nagano said Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven’s symphonies were not written for the aristocracy or the church or the “so-called closed society. They were written for everyone.” Interviewed by CTV, Nagano remarked that if people don’t attend a symphony by Mozart, “it is not Mozart’s fault.”
Two years before the 2008 banking crisis, his approach to audience attrition was to raise the bar.
“There has never been an easy time, it has always been challenging,” he explained. “If the arts are not challenging, then something is wrong. Making great art is not supposed to be easy or comfortable. In principle you are trying to push the levels of quality standards higher than normal.”
Designing programs that were provocative, fresh and inspiring for the public during those first years while facing a serious budget deficit was challenging. “We needed to rely on pure creativity, everyone had to work at twice the intensity, to not accept the status quo.” In “everyone”, Nagano includes the musicians, audience, administration, the government and the community.
Asked how he would characterize his leadership style, the normally erudite Nagano, took a moment to answer. “If there is a common goal to achieve, a united vision, there is a certain amount of flexibility and imagination in most people. What we tend to have a problem with is when there is a lack of honesty and genuineness, we tend to immediately sense if there is artificiality.”
He says he was immediately inspired by the talent he encountered in the orchestra and by the culture of Montreal. “That is the force of my leadership, drawing upon inspiration and honest enthusiasm, that has led to rather ambitious creative plans with the orchestra and community. What we have accomplished together is nothing short of a miracle.”
One of the most exciting projects Nagano has overseen is the building of the Maison Symphonique, inaugurated in 2011. “To give you a context of how great this concert hall is, in Munich they are building a concert hall and they came to Montreal to study the Maison Symphonique, its brilliant acoustics, the atmosphere, how it feels like a meeting place for the community.”
Nagano’s last season with the MSO includes a complete cycle of Schubert symphonies, the songs he is so famous for and music by his contemporaries. Although the MSO plays Schubert regularly a complete cycle of his symphonies has never been performed by the orchestra.
Pianist András Schiff and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter are among the invited artists on the program, that also includes a Spanish Festival with music by Manuel de Falla among others, a screening of Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors with soundtrack by Philip Glass performed live, chamber music, solo concerts and more.
For Nagano, the orchestra reflects what is best in the world. “A symphony orchestra is a metaphor for a community that works at the highest level, where musicians who are highly educated and competent, coming from different economic, social and cultural backgrounds, speak a common language and work intensively together to accomplish what no individual can accomplish on their own.”
For complete programming of the MSO’s 86th Season, visit osm.ca