Music News & Reviews

6 pianos, 4 homes, scores of followers. How he went from surfer to world-class conductor

Morro Bay High grad Kent Nagano conducts Montreal Symphony Orchestra

World-renowned conductor Kent Nagano leads the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in this trailer for the documentary “Montreal Symphony.” Nagano grew up on a farm in Morro Bay.
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World-renowned conductor Kent Nagano leads the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in this trailer for the documentary “Montreal Symphony.” Nagano grew up on a farm in Morro Bay.

Ask Grammy Award-winning conductor Kent Nagano about retirement, and his mind immediately goes to a quote from his friend, opera singer Placido Domingo.

“A reporter asked, ‘Gee, Mr. Domingo, you’re of a certain age now. Do you think you’re going to start slowing down and relaxing?’ Placido said, ‘Oh no. If I slow down, I’m going to rust,’ ” Nagano recalled with a hearty laugh. “I thought that was a wonderful answer.”

Nagano, who turns 66 on Nov. 21, has no intention of slowing down, either.

The Morro Bay High School graduate maintains a rigorous work schedule as music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and general music director of the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany. In addition, he serves as artistic advisor and principal guest conductor of Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

“I’m very, very fortunate that those 14-hour days are spent doing something that I not only really love and have a passion for, but I (also) deeply care about,” Nagano said. “It’s a matter of being incredibly, incredibly lucky.”

Kent Nagano, who grew in Morro Bay, is the music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the general music director of Germany’s Hamburg State Opera. Marco Campanozzi

Life as a conductor

Juggling such a demanding schedule requires extreme focus and frequent travel.

Nagano, who has homes in Hamburg, Montreal, Paris and San Francisco, still finds time to visit the Central Coast five to six times a year. His mother, Ruth Nagano, lives in San Luis Obispo.

On a typical day, Kent Nagano wakes up around 5 a.m. to focus on his musical studies and field international calls before heading to work at 9 a.m. He’ll then spend five to 10 hours in rehearsal, in addition to administrative duties and concerts. (While the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra each present about 100 concerts annually, the Hamburg State Opera performs 360 days a year.)

“Usually I’ll try to get to bed after midnight,” said Nagano, although post-performance fundraisers sometimes push his bedtime to 1 or 1:30 a.m.

Nagano, who rarely takes vacations, said he’s able to keep up with that breakneck pace thanks to half-hour naps and frequent meals. He might down a quart of freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast, with sushi or Montreal-style rotisserie chicken for lunch.

“I eat all the time,” he said with a laugh. “Three good meals a day, plus snacks, and I still can barely keep my weight up.”

Kent Nagano in July 1956
Kent Nagano poses for a picture in July 1956. The conductor, who grew in Morro Bay, is the music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the general music director of Germany’s Hamburg State Opera. Courtesy of Ruth Nagano

Surfing farm boy from Morro Bay

Born in Berkeley, Nagano grew up on a farm in Morro Bay.

“Growing up in the rural countryside, where you’re miles away from any neighbors, you develop a comfortable relationship with nature where there’s a perpetual dialogue going on,” recalled Nagano, who enjoyed hiking in the mountains and exploring the waves along the Big Sur coastline. “My sport was surfing ... because there’s no admission fee and, also, no opening hours.”

As much as he loved the outdoors, however, he sensed “an invisible hand guiding me toward music.”

One major influence was Morro Bay music educator Wachtang “Botso” Korsheli, who founded the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony. (Nagano’s daughter, pianist Karin Kei Nagano, also studied with Korsheli — as did his sister, pianist Joan Nagano, and cousin, San Luis Obispo Symphony cellist Nancy Nagano.)

“Very, very good solid training in those early years ... gave me the tools and the craft to go ahead and succeed in the professional world,” said Nagano, who graduated from Morro Bay High in 1969. He studied sociology and music at UC Santa Cruz and composition at San Francisco State University.

Although he originally planned to become a concert pianist, “One day I just realized that I was doing an awful lot of conducting,” he said.

In 1978, Nagano became music director of the Berkeley Symphony. He spent 31 years at the helm, stepping down in 2009.

Music is something that is your companion for your whole life. You never retire from it.

Kent Nagano, conductor and Morro Bay High School graduate

Over the years, the three-time Grammy winner has led classical musical ensembles across the globe — including symphony orchestras in Berlin, Manchester, England, and Lyon, France, as well as opera companies in Los Angeles and Munich, Germany — while racking up an impressive list of honors.

The recepient of two honorary doctorates, he’s a grand officer of the Order of Québec, a commander of the Order of Montreal and a recipient of Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun.

In May, the International Society for the Performing Arts gave Nagano its distinguished artist of the year award. He received Germany’s Echo Klassik award for conductor of the year on Oct. 29.

“To be recognized by your peers is so profoundly moving,” Nagano said. “(These awards) all go so far beyond what I could ever dream of.”

He’s equally awed by the fact he’s following in the footsteps of famed composers.

“Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler ... they are all my predecessors” at the Hamburg State Opera, which he’s led since 2015, Nagano said.

“To study Brahms and then realize I sit right now on the chair that Brahms sat on does leave a big impression in the mind,” added the conductor, who’s helmed the Montreal Symphony since 2006 and worked with the Gothenburg Symphony since 2013. “So you feel a sense of responsibility to keep this great tradition not only alive but (also) relevant and moving forward into the 21st century.”

Kent Nagano family
Conductor Kent Nagano poses for a photo with his daughter, pianist Karin Kei Nagano, and wife, pianist Mari Kodama. Kent Nagano and Karin Kei Nagano will participate in a benefit concert on June 8, 2018, in Morro Bay. Courtesy photo

Family time

Aware that his packed schedule can be “really very rough on personal relationships” — “That’s probably one of the main reasons in the performing arts (that) you see so many broken families,” he said — Nagano tries to make the most of the limited time he has with his wife, pianist Mari Kodama, and their daughter.

“Strangely enough, we use our free time to make music together,” said Nagano, who sometimes records with Kodama or accompanies her in concert. Collectively, the Nagano family has six pianos — three in San Francisco and three in Paris.

When they’re not playing or brainstorming projects, the Naganos enjoy swimming, hiking and bicycling to local farmers markets to buy ingredients for home-cooked meals that blend European flavors with traditional Japanese cuisine. Nagano, who tries to get in surf sessions whenever he’s in California, also likes flipping through Surfer magazine.

“We don’t own a TV and we don’t own a stereo, so those aren’t options for us,” Nagano said. “It’s not because of any sort of philosophical (reason) or profound religious belief. We find if we start watching television, we can’t stop. It’s really addictive.”

Besides, Nagano said, he gets more than enough mental stimulation from conducting.

“It intellectually keeps your mind very sharp, very active,” he explained, and there are physical benefits, too. Conductors run through an array of aerobic movements while standing at the podium for hours on end.

“The upper-body workout is very real,” Nagano said with a chuckle.

_MG_3324 (c) Felix Broede_kleiner JPEG
Kent Nagano, who grew in Morro Bay, is the music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the general music director of Germany’s Hamburg State Opera. Felix Broede

Unlike musicians or singers who might find their careers cut short by the natural changes that come with aging, “Conductors can really have a prolonged career if they take care of themselves,” Nagano said.

Although he’ll part ways with the Gothenburg Symphony in summer 2018 and step down as Montreal Symphony music director in 2020, Nagano has no plans to lay down his baton permanently at this point.

“You might adapt your lifestyle or your working habits, but music is something that is your companion for your whole life,” he said. “You never retire from it.”

Note: A previous version of this article said that the Nagano family has eight pianos. They have a total of six pianos in their homes in Paris and San Francisco; in addition, pianos are kept in Nagano's offices in Montreal and Hamburg.