In Tune

By Terry Hawkins

East Bay Express, June 15, 1984

This weekend, the Berkeley Symphony tackles the world premiere of Frank Zappa’s latest work for orchestra—only one more indication of the distance this community ensemble has traveled under the baton of its gifted young maestro, Kent Nagano.

Conductor Kent Nagano taps his baton on the metal music stand, bringing the orchestra to a raggedly diminishing stop in mid-phrase.

“Second violins, one, two, three ... four bars before letter G, three short notes in every group of four. First part of the bar is behind, then more detached on the second half. I’d like a feeling of almost double-dot on the pick-up. Winds, I have you crescendoing until three bars before letter H, do you have that? Diminuendo right after the modulation.”

To non-musicians or even to musicians without orchestral experience, these instructions sound like pure Greek. Yet the players of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra note them down quickly and get set to play the passage once again.

“Strings only this time,” Nagano calls out, his baton poised and set for the downbeat. Only the strings play, and the effect is something akin to removing one piece of a jigsaw puzzle and considering it in isolation—symphonic music being, among other things, a study of contrasting instrumental groups that fit together tightly and precisely to form a pleasing whole.

The Berkeley Symphony may be the best kept secret in the East Bay. Community symphonies with small budgets are usually expected to serve as bargain basement discount versions of better endowed professional orchestras, such as the San Francisco and Oakland Symphonies. No doubt the traditional approach of managing such an ensemble would have produced just that. Yet the Berkeley Symphony on most nights puts the Oakland Symphony to shame—and on a particularly good night (such as last spring’s performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, a reading so intense and fiery as to nearly burn a hole through the stage in Zellerbach it even rivals the San Francisco Symphony. Certainly the esprit de corps is far better.

“Alright, tutti from six bars before letter N,” the conductor calls to the orchestra. With one hand he smoothes back his shoulder-length hair, which on anyone else would look anachronistic but which suits him perfectly. A wave of his other hand, and the music begins. This time the phrase comes out not only rhythmically tight but accented and drawn out just the way Nagano insists it should be. A conductor’s responsibility is to know precisely what he wants from each instrument at any given point in the score—the bowing of the strings, the accents of the clarinets, the precise volume of the trombones as they enter. This means understanding the music inside out.

Quickly Nagano voices his approval and prepares the ensemble for the next passage, making the most of every precious second of rehearsal time.

“I need to hear the section after letter M, seventeen bars after M.” Occasional alterations to the printed score are made. “Just cross out the crescendo, keep the diminuendo. Violas, cellos and double basses, not quite a full quarter-note here, but not staccato either—somewhere between. At the piu mosso please.”

Amidst a passage of sweet Romanticism, someone in the viola section gestures in a manner hidden to me seated behind the orchestra. Nagano breaks out in a broad smile which lasts some fifteen bars.

A ten-minute break is announced and musical chaos sets in. Horns play the main theme of the first movement of the work, while a flutist rehearses a theme in a different key from another movement. A cellist continues to work on another piece altogether. Several musicians come up to the handful of observers and ask us how it sounds.

“The double basses sound splendid,” I reply as I’m sitting only a few feet from those noble beasts.

The exceptional improvement in the quality of the Berkeley Symphony over the past five years has been due primarily to the skills of Kent Nagano—and to his methodical and unorthodox programming. Works have been chosen not only for their value to the audience, but also to improve both the scope and playing ability of the orchestra. In a very short time the ensemble has taken a quantum leap from a kind of “pops” orchestra to a symphony orchestra capable of playing the most complex symphonic works written to date.

A native of the Bay Area, Kent Nagano began his musical training not only with a variety of Western instruments, but also in traditional Japanese koto. After attending Oxford, he completed undergraduate work at the University of California at Santa Cruz, his original field of study being sociology (he intended eventually to go into law).

“I make no boast about my musical ability,” he remarks, “but as a sociologist, I was a genuine virtuoso.” But during the early ’70s, particularly during the US invasion of Cambodia, his attitudes began to change. “When I saw what people in the field were doing in the name of the ‘propagation of peace’ I turned more toward a field in which I could more comfortably make a contribution. There seemed to be more important things than winning $1000 in a tort case.”

A scholarship to study conducting with Laslo Varga gave him the final push into music. Nagano’s master’s degree from San Francisco State involved the reconstruction of an early opera by Cavallo, complete with an authentic baroque performance practice. In the audience of that performance was John Reeves White, conductor of the New York Pro Musica, who promptly asked Nagano to join him as guest conductor at the International Music Festival of Brazil in 1977.

But Nagano’s most intense musical training came when Sarah Caldwell asked him to become her conducting apprentice at the Opera Company of Boston. “I was called upon to do everything—from conducting to reconstructing whole arias where only the melody line had been preserved.” At the same time he was engaged in further graduate studies in the music of Messiaen and Janacek at the University of Toronto. During this period Nagano recalls the exhaustion of commuting, as it were, along a triangle formed by Boston, Toronto, and the Bay Area. After several years as assistant and eventually associate conductor to Sarah Caldwell, Nagano felt ready to take on an ensemble on his own. When offered the leadership of the Berkeley Symphony in 1979, he promptly set about to turn what was then called the “Promenade Orchestra”—a kind of local version of the Boston Pops—into a genuine symphony orchestra. The novelty of the informal “prom” concerts, where audiences had often been seated on pillows on the floor, had passed; it had become clear to everyone that the organization needed a new direction.

Improving the performance of a large performing ensemble can be accomplished in one of only two ways: you can examine an orchestra, find out where the weak places are, and little by little bring in stronger players to replace those who can’t keep up; or you can teach those already in the orchestra how to play better. Since the Berkeley Symphony hadn’t the funds to hire more experienced players, the latter method prevailed.

At the outset of his conductorship, Nagano chose to produce a series of works by the 20th Century composer Olivier Messiaen. Each work, Nagano felt, focused on aspects of orchestral technique which needed to be improved. Messiaen’s music served as a series of graduated lessons, developing and expanding the capabilities of each individual player—and of Nagano himself. At the same time concertgoers were given the rare opportunity to hear music by an outstanding 20th Century composer—a distinct alternative to the standard repertoires of the major orchestras. The choice has proved ideal.

The Messiaen “cycle” culminated with a performance of Des Canyons Aux Etoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) in Davies Hall last spring, a performance Olivier Messiaen himself attended. It was the second time in as many years that the 75-year-old composer (who rarely leaves his home in Paris) had come to hear the Berkeley Symphony perform his music. The piece, a genuine concerto for orchestra, features continual passages of exposed solo playing—which for the players means that mistakes are difficult to hide—yet the group performed the work to a standing ovation, and moreover, to the delight of Messiaen himself. All this from a modestly endowed semiprofessional orchestra.

Nagano resolutely continues to program music by contemporary composers; he regards the widening gap between “modern” composers and their audiences as a potentially destructive situation. Contrary to contemporary composer Milton Babbitt, who in an essay entitled “Who Cares If You Listen?” has advocated the veritable exclusion of the general public from contemporary music, Nagano feels that “It could become very dangerous, having only a small group of people creating for its own indulgence. An artist has a job to do within a culture. Which is not to say that a composer should write what the public already wants to hear. They are in fact employing you to lead them, to show them a direction.

“The whole purpose of writing music, which is an art form, is to serve the public in a way that other forms of communication can’t. Art can give meaning to our lives. It can help us see things in a way we didn’t see before. It can help us feel emotional things that we might not otherwise feel. It can give us an understanding of a natural phenomenon—like when you hear an operatic soprano execute a beautiful rubato, just as she shapes that gravity to the line with her voice, you may better understand how gravity works the next time you take your car around a ninety-mile-an-hour turn.

“Art should teach us something about ourselves. That’s what makes it profound and meaningful. That’s why the general public takes the time and care to make sure art forms exist. During much of this century the general public has perceived a growing distance between composer and audience. And when you get too big a distance, logic dictates that the time will come when the artist is no longer useful, because art will have become so far removed as to be incapable of any sort of social intercourse.”

In these days when most symphony orchestras are programmed with the same inflexible “efficiency” and conservatism as format radio stations, it is refreshing that one never knows quite what to expect next from the Berkeley Symphony. “The general link for all of my. programming,” Nagano explains, “is that if it happens to be unusual, great, but the primary idea is to put together a program which makes an artistic statement. Yes, I program a lot of new music with the Berkeley Symphony, in fact more new music than anything. But it’s taken five years to establish a level of trust with our regular audience. Whatever I play for them, they will be able at some level to extract a personal meaning—they’ll be touched in either an emotional, physical, intellectual, or spiritual way. In one of those four ways the audience will be able to find meaning in every piece I program, be it classical or contemporary. That’s why it takes so much time to set up a program, because most of the music written today, just as in any other time, is less than profound. It takes an effort to dig out the profound works.”

When offered the leadership of the Berkeley Symphony in 1979, Nagano promptly set about to turn what was then called the “Promenade Orchestra”—a kind of local version of the Boston Pops—into a genuine symphony orchestra, The novelty of the informal prom” concerts, where audiences had often been seated on pillows on the floor, bad passed; it bad become clear to everyone that the organization needed a new direction.

 Ironically (or possibly not), in his continual search for good contemporary music, Nagano has become associated with a number of rock stars over the past several years, an association that will come to a major fruition this weekend when the Berkeley Symphony presents a concert devoted to the serious orchestral music of Frank Zappa. Nagano’s “rock connections” first surfaced last season when he conducted a concerto which he had commissioned especially for Ronnie Montrose, who appeared as an electric guitar soloist. The work, unfortunately, was a disaster. But the intent was noble—a repayment in kind to Montrose, who had loaned the symphony an obscure piece of musical equipment for a performance the year before.

Nagano recalls the unlikely chain of events leading up to that concert. “I first heard of Ronnie Montrose one day while walking past a record store in Boston on my way to the opera house. An album display was plastered all over the window. It was a picture of a woman’s genital area, and the title of the album was ‘Jump on It.’ And I looked at that album cover and thought, ‘God, what is the world coming to—this is sick. I gotta see who wrote this.’ It turned out to be some guy called Ronnie Montrose. The album was apparently a bestseller.

“Anyway, I never thought about it again until several years later after having moved to Berkeley. I was in the process of preparing the second work of our Messiaen cycle, the Turangalila Symphony. The work requires a rather rare electric/acoustic instrument known as the [ondes Martenot]. I went to Maurice Martinot, the inventor of the instrument, and told him I needed one for the performance. But he’s very eccentric and the only people who are eligible to own an [ondes Martenot] are graduates of his school. He told me that there was only one [ondes Martenot] in North America, owned by one of his prize students living in Montreal. I contacted this person only to find out that he wanted $3,000 for the performance plus $2,000 for expenses and insurance, which was clearly out of the question for us.

“So I went to Mills College and had them research the possibility of programming a Minimoog to get the sound of the [ondes Martenot].

That was what I eventually decided to use. But on a lark I called an instrument rental house in Los Angeles to see if they had ever heard of an [ondes Martenot]. The guy told me that as a matter of fact they had just auctioned one off from one of their estate holdings. I asked who bought it and they told me Ronnie Montrose. I said, ‘Who’s he?’ and they said incredulously, ‘You don’t know who Ronnie Montrose is?’ Unfortunately, he was touring just then. I spent several weeks trying to track him down, from Chicago to Philadelphia to New York, just tracking him on the telephone. Finally I was referred to his attorneys, who were right here in San Francisco. They told me Ronnie wouldn’t be in off the road for a couple of months, but they would pass along the message.

“More than a month went by, long enough for me to have forgotten the whole thing. Finally Ronnie called me from out of the blue. He said he’d let me borrow it, but that I’d have to wait until he got back to the Bay Area where he lives so that he could drop it off personally. When he brought it by I asked him how much he’d charge to rent the instrument. ‘Oh, no, man,’ he said, ‘it’s enough just to have the pleasure of knowing that it’s being used.’ I told him the symphony could pay up to a thousand dollars for it, but he refused, asking if he could just have a couple of free tickets to the concert. So he lent us this Ondes-Martinon for just a couple of complimentary tickets.”

Nagano’s working relationship with Frank Zappa also came about through the young conductor’s persistence—in this case his attempt to secure a performance of one of Zappa’s early orchestral scores for the Berkeley Symphony.

“This was an orchestra I’d never worked with before and Frank Zappa was sitting right behind me.... When we did the performance in London someone described it as a Rite of Spring, because the whole audience was screaming. I’ve never been to a symphony concert where people were screaming afterwards. Not young people, but serious musicians and critics. I don’t even know exactly why they were screaming.”

“I was in IRCAM in the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, the Boulez Institute for Contemporary Music. I was talking to someone about the upcoming commissions, and I found out that Boulez had asked for a piece from, of all people, Frank Zappa,” Nagano recalls. “I was really dumbfounded because Boulez can demand the very best. That was the first time I had thought of Zappa since listening to his early albums in my adolescence. So the next time Frank came through to play at the Berkeley Community Theater, I called up his management in LA and asked to talk to Zappa about his orchestral piece. Frank called me here later, much to my surprise. He told me to drop by backstage between shows; I came and he showed me a score. It was nothing like I ever could have expected. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect to see a work of the difficulty of an Elliott Carter score, the complexity of a Boulez work, the sincerity of Takemitsu, and the driving intensity of Varèse. I expected maybe Rogers and Hammerstein, some insipid sort of thing. I was knocked out of my boots sitting there in this seedy dressing room watching Frank directing people about in his own inimitable way.

“I brought the score home and spent several weeks very carefully going through it, and finally concluded that this is really important stuff. It’s got to be performed. And this is after coming to it with a great deal of cynicism. So I contacted his office requesting to perform the score with the Berkeley Symphony. And the response was, ‘What makes you think you can perform it?’ because the piece is really, really difficult. Frank invited me to come down and talk with him more seriously. What he wanted was an assurance that the necessary amount of rehearsals could be scheduled. If so, he might consider allowing the piece to be performed. None of these real orchestral scores that he’d been writing since he was fourteen had ever been performed, because if they were going to be heard, he wanted them done right, the same way he wants his rock pieces done right. He’d rather just hear it in his head, than have it massacred and taken advantage of. So the meeting was not what I would call successful.

“Then, a few weeks later out of the blue, Frank called me saying he wanted to record some of his music. He was going to hire the London Symphony Orchestra and would I consider conducting. For me it was both an honor and a privilege to be selected to conduct the works of a composer I highly respect with an orchestra I highly respect. But when the pile of scores came, it became apparent that I was going to have to work my tail off. There was a period of nearly two months that I stayed up and got about three hours worth of sleep. That’s a long time to go without sleep, but those scores were stretching my personal technique. I had only a short amount of time to learn the music, working from raw, unheard manuscripts. I grew an unbelievable amount just from learning the scores.

“Then when we went to London, I knew what the orchestra members were going to think: music by some rock musician; this is going to be an easy day. We had booked ten rehearsals and a whole series of recording sessions, and bear in mind this is with a world class orchestra that can rehearse and record a piece in one session. So we began with the most difficult score, and you could just see the panic set in when the players opened the parts.

“And there really was pressure. This was an orchestra I’d never worked with before and Frank Zappa was sitting right behind me. But he was a wonderful composer to work with because he stayed out of the way when he needed to be out of the way, yet he was always there to answer any question. When you’re working with someone of that caliber it just gets so exciting, because you know you’ll be working at the highest standard and you won’t have to compromise because of time.

“When we did the performance in London someone described it as a Rite of Spring, because the whole audience was screaming. I’ve never been to a symphony concert where people were screaming afterwards. Not young people, but serious musicians and critics. I don’t even know exactly why they were screaming.”

This weekend Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony will present the US premiere of several of the Zappa works included on the recording, as well as the world premiere of Sinister Footwear. Originally the Oakland Ballet had been scheduled to dance the works. But when the ballet was forced to cancel, it was suggested that Nagano replace it with a puppet show. He admits to being a little more than piqued at the prospect of being reduced to directing a puppet show. But after actually seeing the work of puppeteer John Gilkerson and the San Francisco Miniature Theater, he quickly changed his mind. He was so impressed, in fact, that he recalls calling Zappa in the middle of the night to pour out accolades for these monumental high-tech marionettes, some of which reach a height of 36 feet. The puppets fly through the air, explode, change into strange creatures with five sets of eyeballs—all effects called for in Zappa’s scores, yet something of a difficulty for mere mortal dancers.

The first ballet, cast in two parts, Bob in Dacron and Sad Jane, tells the story of a would-be Casanova in polyester and his search for the ideally endowed woman. We find him at a singles bar getting more and more blitzed, making an ass of himself and passing out in the middle of the floor. He remains there unable to move until after closing time, when Sad Jane, the bag lady, enters. She spies Bob, wheels her Safeway cart over to him, and makes amorous advances. Bob, still unable to move, rebukes her, whereupon she retires to the bar and prepares to spend the night. As she sleeps, a cocoon forms around her, until at length she emerges as a beautiful woman and begins her dance of life. At the climax of the dance, Sad Jane explodes.

In Sinister Footwear, we meet a pair of shoes so ugly they can barely be called shoes. This story was no doubt inspired by the idiot platform shoes of a few years ago (I recall any number of cracks from Zappa aimed at people who would wear such shoes). We see illegal aliens being forced to put in long hours of overtime to produce the horrible shoes, which catch on as a fad throughout all strata of society. Because one shoe is higher than the other, people develop grotesque walks. Despite warnings from podiatrists, and misshapen feet, everyone continues wearing the shoes. The tableux of the work bear such subtitles as “When you go out, you’ve got to wear them,” “Everybody has a pair somewhere,” “They even make them for kids,” and “But you’re going to wear them anyway.”

These works, despite their cast as symphonic works, level the same biting social sarcasm we’ve come to expert from Frank Zappa over the past twenty years. Yet for all their crazy titles, these are not orchestral re-hashings of Zappa’s rock pieces. They are, as Nagano claims, genuine symphonic works that sound far more like Bartok or Varèse than Zappa the rock star.

“Frank Zappa stands along with Elliott Carter in his mastery of symphonic writing,” comments Nagano, “and yet at the same time, he establishes a rapport with young people. And for that reason, it’s so important that this music be heard. Here’s a composer who has the technique of writing compositions so well-written that they’ll sit with anybody, and he has a built-in level of communication with young people who will be the future listeners and bearers of whatever culture is left.”

One word that crops up continually in talking to Kent Nagano is “responsibility.” More than anything it is his feeling that artists have a responsibility to provide the public with work not only of the highest artistic quality but which contributes to the quality, the understanding, the enjoyment of life. In the modern era of bourgeois individualism, art for art’s sake, and “Who Cares If You Listen?” this has become a virtually radical attitude toward the arts.

“What makes an orchestra a living organization with enthusiasm and a commitment to communicate is if the musicians have some sort of inspiration themselves,” says Nagano. “Just in terms of being a responsible artistic institution it seems to me that some sort of self-improvement ought to be built into it. This is something I feel quite strongly about. The phenomenon of heavy marketing became so much a part of our society in the late ’60s—when advertising became a real profession. Then during the ’70s, it became honed down to a fine psychological art, of how to market, until for the first time we began to see marketing specifically geared to tell people what they wanted. The idea is to create a problem and then convince people that they need the product that you’ve just created, an inverse sort of thing. So what you end up with, in the long run, is people not trusting what they’re getting, or treating a symphony concert as the same kind of shallow entertainment as prime-time TV. With the Berkeley Symphony, sincerity in programming and in presentation is paramount. The money just isn’t there to do any real marketing, so instead, we’ve just got to be honest.”

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)