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The baton is packed and ready

British-born Jonathan Nott has conducted his way through France and all over Germany. New York is coming up, but first he has an assignment in Los Angeles.

October 16, 2005|Michael White | Special to The Times

London — ORCHESTRAL life in Germany has long been dominated by what happens in Berlin, Munich and Dresden, with Cologne and Leipzig to complete the picture. But more recently another city has made a case for being considered alongside them: Bamberg, famous for its medieval waterways and great cathedral, has become increasingly well known for its resident Bamberg Symphony, which has, over the past five years, emerged as what one newspaper has called "the model for what modern orchestras should be."

It's no coincidence that those five years began with the arrival of a new, dynamic young conductor, Jonathan Nott, who in a short while has steered his band into the world league. Last spring the symphony was at Carnegie Hall. During the summer it was resident at the Edinburgh Festival, playing five concerts (including a blockbuster "Tristan und Isolde") in six days. And this week Nott returns to the United States, alone this time, for his conducting debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. An event that, judging by his current form, deserves a capital E.

If his name means nothing to you, don't worry. Until recently it meant little to European concert-goers, either, and even less to those in Nott's native England, which he left when he was still a student, 16 years ago, to work in Germany. As he said when we met recently in London (he was passing through to stock up on peculiarly English groceries), "I sometimes have to make a conscious effort to remind myself what nationality I am: I've been away from Britain for so long and so immersed in the German way of doing things."

Being "immersed" in Germany is why it has taken him until now to make his wider mark. Conductors build careers in various ways: Some leap to fame through competitions, some create their own performing platforms. But a few, in Germany, still tread the time-honored route of the Kapellmeister system: a sort of musical civil service in which you work your way methodically from job to job through an ascending hierarchy of local opera houses and associated local orchestras. This was the route chosen by Nott.

"It wasn't the most glamorous way to build a career, or the fastest," says Knott, a youthful, wiry, slightly built and terrier-like 42. "But there's no better way to learn, hands on, and to make your mistakes without anyone noticing -- as they don't in a country where there are 90 or so opera houses, a lot of them fairly obscure and churning out their 'Freischutzes' and 'Zauberflotes' night after night in a relentless rollover. In those circumstances you learn to think on the hoof, to be flexible and deal with whatever gets thrown at you as it happens."

His unusual decision to insert himself into this old-time German system resulted from a sudden shift in career intentions. Born in 1962 and raised in the exquisitely English precincts of Worcester Cathedral, where his father was a priest, the young Nott was steeped in Anglican choral tradition. He seemed destined for a future as a singer before deciding that, as he says, "I couldn't make the voice work, so the next best thing was to be a repetiteur" -- the chorus master of an opera house.

He got his first coaching job at the Frankfurt Opera, where he also took conducting lessons and persuaded music director Gary Bertini to let him loose on the odd performance.

Bamberg makes its move

FROM Frankfurt he moved to Wiesbaden as first Kapellmeister, rising to acting music director when his boss, Oleg Caetani, resigned. Then he became music director of the Lucerne Opera and associated symphony. In 1999 he was approached by Bamberg, a surprise because he had never before conducted the orchestra or had any involvement with it.

But by then he had acquired a reputation as a live wire with a gift for clarifying problems, energizing morale and raising the aspirations of players with the cultural equivalent of low self-esteem. Which was the very problem Bamberg suffered.

Strictly speaking, Bamberg is a new-ish orchestra, founded in 1946 in the picturesque city on the far northern edge of Bavaria. But its origins date to the 18th century pit band that played for the premiere of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." In the decades after World War II, it did distinguished work under conductors of the caliber of Joseph Keilberth and Eugen Jochum.

Then the orchestral fell into artistic and financial decline, approaching almost terminal disaster. Through the later 1990s, it survived without a chief conductor at all. And when Nott arrived in 2000 it was in dire need.

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