Common Ground in Common Time: Kent Nagano Feels Harmonious with the Music of John Adams

By Kyle MacMillan

Kent Nagano had his first in-depth encounter with John Adams’s music in 1980/81 when he was an assistant conductor at the Oakland Symphony, becoming enamored of the audacity, originality, and craft of Common Tones in Simple Time. The now internationally renowned American maestro has since become one of the San Francisco Bay–area composer’s most ardent champions, recording more than a half dozen of Adams’s compositions and presenting the world premieres of such milestone works as The Death of Klinghoffer and El Niño. “In working through that score,” Nagano says of Common Tones, “I got very, very excited about what John had done and the directions he was going and the freshness and uniqueness of the voice.”

The 65-year-old conductor has gone on to hold such prestigious positions as music director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Los Angeles Opera, and he now serves as music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and general music director and chief conductor of the Hamburg State Opera in Germany. Given the close collaboration between him and Adams for more than a quarter-century, it was only natural that Ravinia would ask Nagano to take part in its July 25 contribution to this year’s worldwide celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday. In what will be Nagano’s festival debut, he will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program showcasing Harmonielehre (The Book of Harmony), the 50-minute masterpiece that Adams composed in 1984/85. He and the Montreal Symphony are preparing to record it later this year for the Decca label. [Common Tones will also be featured later in Ravinia’s season, in a performance by The Knights on August 17.]

Although Adams’s musical language is rooted in minimalism, an iterative style pioneered by Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, he has developed an approachable musical language all his own, drawing on a host of other influences ranging from Baroque music to rock. While he might be best known as an operatic composer, particularly because of the success of Nixon in China, one of the rare contemporary operas to become an international staple, his writing extends across the realms of symphonic, choral, and chamber music as well. Among members of the League of American Orchestras, his is far and away the most performed music of any living American composer, according to data compiled in 2012/13 by the support organization.

“I would consider John a very important composer, particularly an important American composer,” Nagano says. “How many decades ago was Nixon in China? How many decades ago was Common Tones in Simple Time? I still turn back to these pieces. And like all great pieces, each time one returns to them and restudies them, I’m able to find something more—new dimensions that I haven’t seen before, other reflections of innovation and genius.”

A native of Berkeley, Nagano grew up in Morro Bay, a city located along California’s Central Coast. After graduating from the University of California–Santa Cruz, he pursued graduate studies in composition and conducting at San Francisco State University. Although Adams was teaching there at the time, they did not meet until a few years later when Nagano was with the Oakland Symphony. Calvin Simmons, the orchestra’s music director at the time [and the first African American to achieve such a position with a major orchestra], programmed Common Tones—Adams’s first orchestral work, written in 1979—and Nagano got a copy of the score and began studying it. The composer came to some of the rehearsals, and the budding maestro was able to ask him some questions about it.

A few years later, the two became better acquainted when Nagano spoke to him again at one of the piano workshops in San Francisco for Nixon in China, which received its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 1987. “I would say that was really the beginning of a relationship that continues until today,” the conductor says.

Adams asked Nagano to conduct the 1991 world premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer, which involved librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars, who had collaborated with Adams on Nixon in China. The ripped-from-the-headlines story is based on a 1985 highjacking of an Italian cruise ship by four Palestinian terrorists. During the ordeal, they murdered one of the passengers, a 69-year-old Jewish-American, Leon Klinghoffer, and threw him overboard. The opera has provoked controversy since its debut at La Monnaie in Brussels, in part because it attempts to give equal voice to the plight of both the Jews and Palestinians. A 2014 production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera drew ardent protests and pressure from the Anti-Defamation League that led to the company canceling its scheduled broadcast of a performance to movie theaters worldwide.

Nagano said that the brouhaha surrounding the Met’s revival made him want to go back and look at the opera’s score and libretto again. “If controversy follows a piece, there is a reason,” he says. “There’s always a legitimate reason why something is so provocative, and it’s important to try to understand what that is, especially now.” The world is going through what he calls “a very intense period of evolution,” which has been accompanied by instability, unrest, and violence. “And, of course, that at its basis is what the story line of the libretto dealt with in The Death of Klinghoffer,” he says.

During the subsequent decade or so, Nagano frequently conducted Adams’s works and the two spent considerable time together, studying scores and conversing. He led a subsequent recording of Klinghoffer with the original cast and the Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon in 1995 and, a year later, the world premiere of Slonimsky’s Earbox, which is dedicated to Nagano. The Hallé Orchestra in Manchester co-commissioned the composition to help celebrate the opening of Bridgewater Hall, the orchestra’s new home. The 13-minute work pays tribute to Nicholas Slonimsky, who wrote several books on music, including The Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947), from which Adams has drawn.

Around the same time, Nagano also conducted the local debuts of Harmonielehre in such cities as Tokyo and Paris. Later, in December 2000, he led the world premiere of El Niño, a two-hour Nativity oratorio with a range of ancient and modern texts in English, Spanish, and Latin, at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet and oversaw the American premiere in San Francisco the following January. [Ravinia presented the Chicago premiere of the oratorio in 2003, with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Robert Spano.]

“At that time, John wasn’t so well known,” Nagano says. “Within opera circles, where people had been exposed to Nixon in China, there was some awareness, but I really felt his music needed to be heard on all the continents of the world. That was my goal. Even as far down as Australia. I took his music everywhere.”

Although Nagano does not see Adams as often as he would like these days, the two maintain a regular correspondence. “One of the most wonderful things about conducting music by living composers is that if you have a question, you can pick up the telephone and ask,” the conductor says. “I wish I could do that with Johannes Ockeghem, the famed Medieval composer. I wish I could do that with Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Considering the minimalist-influenced rhythmic dynamism so closely associated with Adams’s music, Nagano says, it might be surprising that one of most important other qualities related to it is his gift for melody. This lyrical knack can especially be heard in Harmonielehre, which the CSO has performed twice previously in concerts at Symphony Center in 2007 and 2015. “You feel it in other works as well,” he says, “but in Harmonielehre, these sweeping and soaring melodies are going through such unexpected harmonic development with, of course, the underlying texture of repeated rhythmic cells that are taking place underneath.”

In this work, Nagano says, Adams was able to take his distinctive compositional language and expand it into a long-form composition. “It’s not such an easy thing to do, and it remains one of the biggest challenges for all composers.” Although many other composers from Bach to Beethoven have employed repeated rhythms, Nagano says, Adams weaves an insistent pulse into the very structure of his music, giving it a strong influence over everything else. But in most other minimalist-influenced compositions, the harmonic progressions are usually simple, but that is not the case in Harmonielehre.

“What astonished me,” Nagano says, “was how John was able to take that one particular compositional tool, the idea of repetition, but liberate everything else so that suddenly harmony was no longer completely tied to that tool. Modulation was not tied to that tool. The ideas of expansion and contraction could be open to a nearly endless development. That combined with John’s wonderful gift for lyricism, for melody, enabled John to produce an overwhelmingly dramatic and emotional long-form piece—a 50-minute symphony. That was why I felt it was such a major and unique statement—John using his own language to extend a form far, far beyond what other composers were doing at the time.”

Nagano is not sure how often he has conducted Harmonielehre, but he guesses some 20–25 times. But he set it aside for about 15 years, only returning to it about five years ago when he reexamined the work anew in advance of performances with the Montreal Symphony. “For me that was an important moment,” Nagano says, “because with distance of time, one always gains a different kind of perspective. Fifteen years is long enough that when you return back to a piece, you can really have a certain objectivity. You view the piece as new again. And to rediscover the work and rediscover that it still spoke such brilliance and genius to me was a very exciting moment.”