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Nagano serves notice

Overextended Los Angeles Opera music director will leave in 2006.

September 16, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Opera music director Kent Nagano told the company's board of directors Wednesday that he would leave his post when his contract expires at the end of the 2005-06 season.

Although the announcement was a blow to L.A. Opera, given Nagano's crucial influence on the company's rapid musical growth, it came as no surprise. In 2003, around the time Nagano signed a three-year contract to become the first music director in the company's history, he also accepted an appointment as music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany.

The Munich position included an exclusivity clause that would not allow Nagano to be music director of any other opera company. Still, Nagano said Wednesday, "it was our hope that we could find some kind of flexibility contractually and in scheduling for me to continue in some capacity in Los Angeles."

But in March, when Nagano accepted a job as music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, also to begin in 2006, it became clear that his scheduling commitments would be overwhelming.

As it is, the conductor is already one of the busiest in the business, and he will also be forced to give up his position as music director of Berlin's Deutsche Symphony. He has agreed to stay on in Berlin for at least two additional years in a lesser capacity yet to be fully worked out. And he will continue to honor his long-term commitment to the Berkeley Symphony, which he has headed for 25 years.

"I'm very sad that circumstances don't allow me to accept an extension in Los Angeles," Nagano said after meeting with the L.A. Opera board. "I feel that things are just starting to click and that opera is really beginning to take root here and has already become very, very sophisticated.

"Personally, as a Californian, spending so much time on the West Coast has been a dream."

L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo acknowledged Wednesday that he realized all along that Nagano's commitments in Munich would ultimately limit his time in Los Angeles.

"But we thought that it was much better to have Kent for three years than not to have him," Domingo said.

"In the back of mind, I was also hoping that something could change, but it didn't. He has already given us a phenomenal amount of quality time. The growth of the orchestra has been amazing. And still we have six more operas with him."

Although Nagano has been closely associated with the artistic vision of Los Angeles Opera -- he was principal conductor of the company for three years before accepting the post of music director -- his most notable achievement has been his efforts to improve the orchestra. For the current season, which opened last week, he has conducted both of the first two productions, Mozart's "Idomeneo" and Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos."

But the building of the orchestra proved an additional stumbling block for an ongoing commitment in Los Angeles for Nagano. According to Edgar Baitzel, L.A. Opera's artistic director, the only way Nagano could be given the contractual power to hire and fire musicians in order to make the changes needed in the orchestra was for him to have the title of music director. So even if Nagano could find room in his schedule to continue in L.A. with a different title, that would hold back the company.

"A growing institution needs a music director," Baitzel said Wednesday.

Domingo and Baitzel expressed gratitude to Nagano for announcing his departure a year earlier than he was required to contractually, giving the company time for a search.

"The better the conductors, the longer the contracts are in advance," Baitzel said, and competition is fierce in advance of 2006. Two major American symphonies -- Chicago and Baltimore -- have music directorships to fill that year. Esa-Pekka Salonen's contract with the Los Angeles Philharmonic also expires then, and no announcement has been made about an extension.

In fact, according to Baitzel, a formal search for a new music director at L.A. Opera has been quietly going on throughout the summer, and Domingo said the company is "quite close" to making an announcement.

In the meantime, Domingo, who stars in the current "Idomeneo" and recently recorded Beethoven's "Christ on the Mount of Olives" with Nagano, said that his working relationship with the conductor had been particularly rewarding and that Nagano had promised to return to L.A. Opera after 2006 to guest conduct. He speculated that Nagano might even grow tired of Germany one day and return home.

"He's a California boy, you know," the ever-hopeful Domingo said.

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