The unifying power of music

The American conductor Kent Nagano and his dream

by Winfried Pogorzelski

Music awakens and inspires the inexhaustible creativity of man. It creates moments of happiness, brings people together, and enables them to better cope with life. Across all continents and cultures classical music does this the most. To a lesser extent, folk music does the same.
  Classical music, generally highly subsidised by the state, is under increasing economic pressure and must therefore accept a certain loss of status. The American conductor Kent Nagano is tirelessly committed to its preservation, cultivation, and dissemination. He dreams of a world in which every person has the chance to find access to classical music. Nagano also encourages and cultivates exchanges between musical traditions of different cultures.

‘The sounding fishing village’

An American with Japanese roots, Kent Nagano studied music and sociology in Santa Cruz and San Francisco under the tutelage of Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein, and Olivier Messiaen, with whom he became friends. His work has taken him to the most important concert halls and opera houses in the world, including Montreal, Boston, New York, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Salzburg, Zurich, and Milan. He is one of the most sought-after representatives of his profession.
  In the 1950s and 1960s, Nagano grew up in a fishing village called Morro Bay on the West Coast of California, where immigrants of different ethnic origins – including Swiss – had settled. At the local school, Wachtang Korisheli, a dedicated Georgian musician, was working as a pianist and music teacher. Korisheli had ended up there after escaping the turmoil of the Second World War. His goal was to create an orchestra. In the morning hours before school, and in the afternoons after school, every pupil received instrumental lessons. The evenings ended with an orchestra rehearsal.
  Under the guidance of their dedicated teacher the students learned to read music. Importantly, they also learned to listen to each other. At the beginning, the pupils were able to play a few marches quite passably. With his ever-improving orchestra, the community of Morro Bay transformed into a “village of sound”1 (p. 15). The many conflicts between people from different backgrounds subsided. “Music held us together, installed a sense of community, was a place to encounter. And it set a common goal: the next concert, toward which all of us worked together in order to give the audience a unique experience.” (p. 22)

The nature and
effect of classical music

For Kent Nagano, the classical music of the last 1000 years is “a universe that expands as soon as you enter it” (p. ix). It contains “our entire Western tradition, the great concept of development up to the modern age and the canon with its works from the various epochs. The never-ending human creativity is lying in it, producing incessantly new musical works in this art”. In music – as in all fine arts – there is an infinity; for one is never finished with a work of art, it is never fully realised, grasped, understood.
  Playing music always goes hand in hand with human encounters, with a shared experience of all those involved, in classical music just as in folk music. Everyone involved – on the podium as well as in the auditorium – is deeply touched. Their social skills, their ability to concentrate, and their aptitude for life are strengthened. In this context, Nagano refers to Friedrich Schiller and his words about the “aesthetic education of the human being”, because the “fine arts” are a “necessary condition for humanness”.

Coping with extreme
human situations through music

There are many examples of how people, with the help of music, are able to maintain courage in extreme situations and get through the emergency. Thus, Nagano also states that serious music or other artistic activities play an important role “when we are confronted with almost unbearable situations in life […]. Why did prisoners in Hitler’s concentration camps draw, sing, if they had the opportunity make music in their inhumane barracks?” (p. 24)
  Or why, he asks, did French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) succeed in 1940 in composing the masterpiece Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time) in the German prison camp, which he premiered there in 1941 together with prisoners of war?
  We know of other examples of this phenomenon: during the Leningrad blockade (1941–1944), the population – including 400,000 children – was exposed to the violence of war, hunger, and extreme cold. Over one million civilians fell victim to it, with 90 % of them starving to death. In 1942, the will of the inhabitants to resist was decisively strengthened by the fact that the 7th Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich – composed especially for this purpose – could be heard in the whole city by use of loudspeakers. Even the German soldiers could not escape the effect of this music.
  There is the impressive example of the Austrian pianist Alice Herz-Sommer (1903–2014) from Prague, who gave concerts in the ghetto of Theresienstadt. It is no coincidence that she chose the 24 etudes for piano by Frederic Chopin, because they all express the basic patterns of human feelings and are among the most important and virtuoso works of the piano musical literature. They present exceptionally high technical, psychological, and physical demands on the performer. For Alice Herz-Sommer, they were the perfect choice to help her deal with the despair caused by the deportation of her elderly mother to a concentration camp. Overcoming the artistic challenge gave her the strength to get through this difficult phase of her life, and this strength was conveyed to the inhabitants of the ghetto.

With music against
a meaningless society

According to Nagano, highly developed societies are in a crisis of meaning and identity. This was shown, for example, by the financial crisis of 2008, followed by the global recession.  It can be traced back to the fact that man had lost his grip on reality and fallen prey to utilitarianism. In order to be immune to such developments, man must once again be thoughtful, value-oriented, disciplined, and capable of judgment in human and ethical aspects. This opportunity is given to him in the “confrontation with the arts, with music, literature, philosophy, painting” (p. 87). This path is best initiated with children who are the most receptive, especially in elementary school, where music lessons are increasingly neglected.
  The masterpieces of great composers are complex. They have a lot of substance and depth, like life itself, and convey positive attitudes and values. Beethoven’s nine symphonies, for example, stands for the confrontation with the great humanistic ideas.2 Contrary to widespread opinion, classical music was not only created solely for educated enthusiasts, but for everyone.
  If young people do not come to the music, then the music must come to them. This is Nagano’s motto. So he came up with the idea of bringing music to the people, regardless of their age or country of origin. If people cannot come to the concert hall or to the opera house, he takes great works of classical music to them. In Montreal, where people are poor and lacking education, Nagano founded the project “La musique aux enfants” (music for children), a music program for prekindergarten and kindergarten, which he attends regularly.
  [In this program children receive a minimum of one lesson in rhythm and choral singing per week putting them in contact with music and musicians. (Editor’s note)]
  Nagano performed Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony in the local ice hockey stadium. The audience – including the ice hockey players of the Montreal Canadiens – thanked him with thunderous applause. He visited the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic to get to know their traditional music and to incorporate it in joint performances with Central European classical music. In Hamburg and Berlin, he included young musicians and singers in an opera production. At Potsdamer Platz, he repeatedly organised open-air classical music concerts with young people, which enchanted both actors and passers-by alike.
  Kent Nagano will not run out of ideas when it comes to musical performances and venues. In 2015, he conducted the Hornroh Modern Alphorn Quartet in the Zurich Tonhalle with a contemporary piece by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas. He will undoubtedly continue to organise many moving events, providing listening pleasure for his audiences and thus continue to make important contribution to the humanisation of society.  •

1 Kent Nagano with Inge Kloepfer. “Classical Music – Expect the Unexpected”, McGill Queens University Press, 2019 
2 Salathé, Nicole. Klassik gegen Krise: Stardirigent Kent Nagano verspricht Wunder (Classical music against the crisis: star conductor Kent Nagano promises miracles).


Ehrhardt, Bettina. Kent Nagano – Montréal Symphony. Documentation 63, DVD. Frankfurt am Main: Zweitausendeins, 2010
Franz, Nadja; Kloepfer, Inge. The dream of Kent Nagano. Film, NDR/Arte 2017
Freitag, Annette. “Vier Alphörner und Kent Nagano” (Four alphorns. And Kent Nagano)
Müller, Melissa; Piechocki, Reinhard. Alice Herz-Sommer. “A Garden of Eden in the Midst of Hell” A Century of Life. Munich: Droemer, ISBN 978-3-426-27389-0
Pogorzelski, Winfried. “Triumph of art over barbarism, On the Documentary Film ‘The Miracle of Leningrad’ and its historical background”.

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