Classical Crisis

Bach to the Future

Concentrating, not letting disturbances in – one of the Kent Nagano's mantras.

Handelsblatt: Mr. Nagano, you have just come from a rehearsal of Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis.” Do you think there will be a few young people at the concert?

Mr. Nagano: The audience is getting older at least in Europe and North America. This is causing me a lot of worry. Classical music is no longer part of everyday reality for young people. But in China that is different, or in Russia. In these countries the concert halls are full of young people.

Why is classical music in danger of being something only for the elite?

It’s not the music’s fault, it is all about how we present it. The great masterpieces are timeless. It is my challange to open this door to everybody.

One reason is surely austerity measures when it comes to culture…

Naturally, an event such as the financial and government debt crisis had a direct effect on our budgets. Yes, our world is threatening the arts. Serious art always costs something, and will never sell as well as mere entertainment, even though nobody disputes that it brings added value to a society. The problem is, we can never put an exact number on its value. That’s why artists have it so hard in a world dominated by economic interests.

How do you see your role as conductor?

When one leads an institution, it is tempting to do it the way it has always been done. We artists must always endeavor to break out of our routine. Music is called the international language and when one shares musical experiences, the differences between nationalities, ethnic background and social class disappear. We all live in very difficult and turbulent times. If the world were to lose music as a form of communication, then it would lose public spirit, wit and creativity. Music is more than the moment of the performance. But I will not compromise classical music for the sake of popularity – a compromise diminishes everything, and one loses his integrity.

You performed music from Frank Zappa. How does that fit?

His music was banned in my house, I only had contact with him much later. I was very curious, and wrote to Zappa’s management and said I would like to see some of his scores. He invited me to one of his concerts and I met him backstage. I found some of his compositions fascinating. We recorded them in London and were in close contact until his death.

“It would be good to see an abstract representation of the financial crisis on stage in order to overcome our joint trauma. ”

Kent Nagano, General music director and conductor of the state opera in Hamburg from 2015

How important is discipline in your job?

It is a paradox: only through discipline does one gain freedom. By that I mean concentrating, not letting disturbances in. That also applies to the audience members, who leave their hectic daily lives and come into the concert hall at the last minute. They also are disciplined. They are still. It takes a few minutes until they arrive in the wonderful world that art offers them.

 And what happens once they arrive?

They enter a self-contained experience – beyond everyday life, in which they experience something that is greater than themselves. Music counteracts the overconfidence, that “anything is possible” hubris of feasibility, it shows us that there are no final answers. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach shows us that very well.

How does Bach achieve that?

Bach is technically perfect as a composer and unbelievably creative, for example in the toccatas and fugues. His music conveys an aesthetic balance and sets creativity free, compelling one to think abstractly, to deal with solutions to problems. And if one asks the questions, then one is obliged to look for answers with creativity. His music was and is a source of enormous inspiration for me and my musical growth.

You said that Bach’s music goes “through the heart to the head”…

It is so important to experience this today where everything has a technical solution. That’s why the arts are so meaningful. Society also needs people who know that there are things that are bigger than oneself. Music enables one to empathize. That is why it is also so important that children have access to this world in today’s society that is shaped so much by consumerism and the delusion that everything is possible.

 Isn’t Bach’s music too complicated for children?

Oh no. Bach was always part of the repertoire of a young musician, and he remains so. He was an extraordinary teacher and wrote music with a pedagogical purpose.

Next year you will be general music director in Hamburg and appear in the Elbe Philharmonic Hall. How are preparations going?

The work is beginning now with rehearsing the compositions, which have been commissioned.

Would it be tempting for you to translate, for example, the day of the Lehman crash into music?

I think it would be interesting to develop an opera libretto out of that. It would be good to see an abstract representation of the financial crisis on stage in order to overcome our joint trauma. Art permits that.

 Mr. Nagano, thank you very much for the interview.


The author has been covering literature and music at Handelsblatt. She plays the violin in the Schlosskirche Orchestra at Bonn University, where Beethoven played the organ as a teenager. Contact the author:

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