On April 22, Kent Nagano will bring his Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra to Carnegie Hall for a performance of Beethoven, Brahms, and a new work by composer Sean Shepherd, “On a Clear Day” (featuring cellist Jan Vogler and an international youth choir and set to poetry by writer Ulla Hahn). I spoke with Nagano recently over Zoom, where he remained serene despite connection issues. We discussed the challenges of leading orchestral musicians in the contemporary repertoire, whether the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg was worth the money, and the elusive notion of quality. 

VAN: On April 22, you’re premiering a new piece by Sean Shepherd at Carnegie Hall, then Salvatore Sciarrino’s opera “Venere e Adone” at the Staatsoper Hamburg on May 28. A challenge with performing new music is that it can be difficult to get orchestral musicians on board with doing extended techniques like, say, multiphonics. Do you have strategies for getting them to give contemporary music their full energy, attention and care?

Kent Nagano: The short answer is no, I don’t have any particular techniques. However: It’s been my experience that most musicians really love music, and they are especially sensitive to the quality of music that we’re playing. So it depends completely on how multiphonics are being used, for example. If they’re being used in a highly refined, highest quality possible [way], so that [the techniques have] a profound aesthetic and artistic meaning underlying their usage—in my experience, there’s never been an orchestra that will not understand that, and it will invest entirely in trying to make that beauty come through. 

On the other side, if a piece is using multiphonics imprecisely or—perhaps even worse—simply for effect, then it’s quite difficult to convince an ensemble to go through the exercise of trying to produce a sound that can seem very technical and unnatural. As in most things—and most music—it depends what, how, and especially of what quality those advanced compositional techniques are. 

That being said, one of the most interesting things to benefit from now, being 23 years into the 21st century, is how that which used to feel strange in terms of sound production has become completely accepted. They are a part of our sound spectrum, of our Klangraum. If you think of sul tasto or sul ponticello, or only breathing through an instrument—it’s not at all unusual [anymore]. These used to be quite provocative effects, but so many composers used them in a highly refined artistic way that they’ve become accepted over time. In my experience, it’s tied to quality. If there is a technique, it’s: Try to simply play the best music possible. 

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I’ve encountered situations where I think a piece is of the highest artistic quality and the techniques in it deserve attention, but the musicians completely disagree. So how do you define that quality? I know it’s a huge question, but I’m curious in this context.

It depends. Normally we recognize pieces as masterpieces because it’s a result of consensus: meaning the interpreters, the critics, the public, who for a long period of time agree that a piece is something that is exceptional in quality—to the point where it’s not tied to fashion or time, it simply is. It takes on universal dimensions. That’s how we define a masterpiece. 

In a funny way, it’s always our responsibility as interpreters to try to communicate why a work is a masterpiece, even 200 or 300 years after it’s been composed. The phenomenon you’re describing does occur. There are many colleagues who simply don’t appreciate masterpieces. On the other side, when you’re creating a new work for the first time, you don’t know if it has the endurance and the depth to become a masterpiece. You can have feelings through extensive study. You can have an instinct, which has certainly happened to me on many occasions. Not just as a performer, but also as a member of the public, where I’ve left a performance or studied a work with a feeling that this is not going away—this is going to speak to us, not only in the current time, but to future generations. 

That’s what you’re trying to do. If you’re honest and sincere and if you’ve done the research, if you’ve memorized the score, and if you’ve understood why and how a piece has the potential to have a universal relevance, it’s been my experience that then your colleagues will follow your honesty and sincerity. It’s when you’re not absolutely sure, when it’s open to discussion or—even worse—if you willingly perform a piece that is of dubious quality, that you can really have lively discussions. 

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What do you see in Sean Shepherd’s music that shows you the quality that you’re looking for?

I’ve known Sean Shepherd’s music for many years now. I’ve been following his music since he was just a kid, basically. I really am an advocate of Sean’s music because like all great composers, you can hear the past tradition when you hear Sean’s music, yet you also hear the future. At the same time, you hear a uniqueness; you hear an individual. That is really one of the pivotal traits of an exceptional composer: If you can be aware of traditions, but it does not sound derivative, it sounds original.

Sean has gone through various phases in his composition [career] and right now is an interesting one because he hasn’t composed recently, it’s actually been quite a while. That can mean a number of things for a creative artist. But when other composers have had similar moments—where the creative output is not quite at the same level as it was in the past—sometimes we see that a fallow period results in a sudden burst of creativity. Just like a farm field will go through an enriching process if you let it go fallow for a while. Don’t constantly harvest it; just let the soil enrichen. 

With “On a Clear Day”—Sean has had quite strong ties to Europe in his formation as a composer. He’s also very thoroughly American. That’s why I thought it might be an interesting impulse to see what he felt about Ulla Hahn’s poetry. Now, Ulla Hahn is of a completely different generation than Sean, she is an established icon of German literature. You would still consider Sean a young composer. I thought it would be interesting to bring the two together with the idea of the Hamburg-New York historical [connection through immigration].

Asking Ulla to write a text together with Sean Shepherd, a young American composer, the idea was to bring these themes together: Hamburg-New York, the Earth, the future. Ulla responded in a way that, it seems to me, really provoked Sean’s imagination. I call the piece a 21st-century “Das Lied von der Erde.” But instead of six movements there are 12. And 12 is an important number: 12 tones, 12 months. Through Sean’s portrayal of these various texts, we have an actual contact with the earth, our environment. [He] explores how urgent it is to take the right steps in going forward. 

The second theme is hope. Through the pandemic, we really saw what something so overwhelming does to collective psychology. That’s why I chose [a poem by] Friederich Hölderlin, set to music by Brahms, the “Schicksalslied.” It deals with hope in the future in the face of what might be possible. That is really a very simplistic [description] of the content of Hölderlin, but in some ways, it really ties together the two themes. Time has something to do with the future. That’s why Beethoven is there, in the Symphony No. 8. It’s an abstract way of dealing with different levels of the sense of time, including politics of time. 

I want to go back to a quote from an interview you gave to German newspaper Die Welt about 10 years ago. You said, “Why do we fund things like the arts and the Elbphilharmonie, although there’s unemployment, money missing for schools, roads and hospitals? Difficult question. It’s very, very brave.” Have you thought about that question in the intervening time? Have you come to an answer? 

It’s always a bit difficult to take something completely out of context. As you know, the Elbphilharmonie had a very difficult birthing process. Or maybe you don’t remember. 

I do, for sure.

The budget went many times over the initial cost estimation and became a major point of discussion. With the discussion came polarization and quite a bit of emotion. I came to Hamburg right at the time when the Elbphilharmonie was blocked; there was no construction taking place. I was referring to how the state of Hamburg took the decision to go ahead and realize the full Elbphilharmonie, rather than any number of other options. The fact that the state of Hamburg decided to complete the Elbphilharmonie was a strong statement. And that statement was, We’ve decided to see this new concert hall through to the end, despite its difficult birth, because we feel that this is especially important to the next generation of Hamburgers

That was a strong statement of belief in culture and its relevance for the future generations. It’s something that we don’t take for granted because there are so many, arguably very legitimate different ways that you might invest in the future. But we have seen—especially if you look through anthropological lenses—that what’s left, after a chapter, an era, or even after a civilization disappears, are the remnants of its culture. That’s what lives, what is always going to go on into the future. So the state of Hamburg invested in the future of its young generations through the Elbphilharmonie.

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So with hindsight, you feel like it was the right decision? 

Yes, and I’m not alone. The building has become one of the most photographed images of the city of Hamburg. It led the way for the renewal of an entire Quartier. It’s an enormous success. Hamburg has now become a destination, not only for tourism, but also for virtually all of the major symphony orchestras of the world. It’s become a major source of identity for those of us who live in Hamburg.

In a recent interview with VAN, Riccardo Muti mentioned how conductors these days often have two or three orchestras at the same time. He argued that then they’re not really music directors, but more like principal guest conductors, because they’re not completely responsible for the house. Do you see it in the same way?

It depends on the person and it depends on the context. Looking carefully at music history, I see that to divide operatic literature from symphonic literature is not organic in some ways. One was born out of the other and [both] represent one wonderful, rich, long, and deep history of music. To divide the two of them is a little bit like dividing a family. 

The way that contemporary structures work, a lot of symphony orchestras—I would say for at least 160–180 years—have specialized in symphonic literature, while many opera houses then have continued with a main focus on opera. I fully understand, and I would say I agree with Maestro Muti, but in my personal case, the organizations that I’ve held in parallel are usually two organizations that are focusing mainly on different parts of the literature, so that they aren’t really overlapping. For many years I’ve held a post at an opera house and at the same time with a symphony orchestra. That allows the entire repertoire to be organically tied together. 

Have you seen “Tár”? 

No, I’ve been a little bit too busy unfortunately, but I’ve heard a lot about it and I can’t say I’ve come up with a general consensus of people’s opinions—that makes me want to watch the movie even more. ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...