Backstage at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall — one of the world’s less-inviting concert venues — the usual day-before-the-concert chaos reigns on a Monday night in late April. The critics and the connoisseurs have come to town for the premiere of the Violin Concerto by the young Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who is currently, as they say, “hot”; now it is not going to happen. As conductor Kent Nagano will explain to a sellout crowd at tomorrow’s Berkeley Symphony Orchestra concert with his well-known soft-spoken humor, only one violinist on the planet is capable of confronting Ms. Chin’s fiendish technical demands, and that violinist, Tibor Kovac, had called in over the weekend to report the onslaught of tendinitis. Finding a proper substitute for a major new work is no easy matter — as the Los Angeles Philharmonic has also discovered several times this past season. Nagano, with a sizable assist from UC Berkeley’s electronic guru David Wessel, has concocted a reasonable substitute, a tape-only composition by Ms. Chin that will fill Zellerbach’s vast space with four-channel ersatz percussion.
The crisis properly dispatched, Nagano has a few — but only a few — minutes to chat. He is just in town from concerts with his European anchor, Berlin’s Deutsches-Symphonie, which he had brought to Los Angeles last season for the memorable performance of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. After the Berkeley concert he will drop in on the Los Angeles Opera to prepare for the performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that opens this weekend and runs through June 20. By then it will be time to get to work on Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, which Nagano will conduct at the L.A. Opera’s season opener next September. Oh, and by the way, during his stay in Los Angeles this month he will be anointed the company’s music director, the first possessor of that important title. Strong hands on the podium were not always the top priority of the company’s founder, Peter Hemmings; they have become more so under Plácido Domingo’s hegemony — even though Domingo’s own occasional podium stints have not exactly lit lights.
Berlin, Los Angeles, London, Lyons, Paris: The 51-year-old Nagano certainly moves among the major gigs, yet he has also been conductor of the Berkeley Symphony for 25 years and has no plans to stop. The BSO, as it is lovingly referred to by the natives, was founded in 1969 (as the “Berkeley Promenade Orchestra”) by a hopeful maestro, Brit-trained, named Thomas Rarick; the L.A. Times’ Mark Swed was one of the first conductors. The “Prom”’s stock-in-trade was an easygoing performing style in street clothes and a passion for overreaching. (In a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the percussionist made up for the absence of the prescribed sleigh bells by banging his keys against a music stand.) Nagano, fresh from music studies at UC Santa Cruz, came on as conductor in 1978. He put the players in matching socks, and adopted the more formal name and a more serious programming. The first concerts were in the 750-seat First Congregational Church; in 1989 the orchestra moved to the 2,015-seat Zellerbach. (Tom Rarick, by the way, went on to become lieutenant governor of the state of Indiana.)
Over takeout and iced tea in his dressing room, Nagano tries to define the ties that bind him to underdog Berkeley as well as top-dog Berlin and Los Angeles. “Actually, I regard working here as a privilege, and that’s because the players also feel that way. A