Kent Nagano leads the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in an ambitious program that traces the arc of the symphonic tradition. Felix Broede/Montreal Symphony Orchestra hide caption

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Felix Broede/Montreal Symphony Orchestra

Classics in Concert

Spring For Music: Montreal SymphonyWQXR-APM

When Kent Nagano, the music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, put together his Spring for Music program, he went back to basics, posing these essential questions: "Why is a symphony relevant today? Or is it relevant in the 21st century?"

Nagano also wonders what exactly would be the role of classical music in the future. Is it only for an elite, educated, sophisticated audience? Or is it something that's equally meaningful to the general population?

An answer to these questions will be heard tonight as Nagano, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and pianist Angela Hewitt close out the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall. Exploring his brand of symphonic diversity, the California-born music director assembled a wide-ranging program in which each piece is "so different."

In the first half of his program, Nagano traces a historical journey through short works by Gabrieli, Webern and Stravinsky, with Hewitt sprinkling J.S. Bach's solo sinfonias, or three-part inventions, between the pieces. Gabrieli's elaborate Sacrae Symphoniae for brass is rooted in the grand Venetian polychoral style of the high Renaissance. Webern's Symphony, Opus 21, by contrast, is a stark work of early 20th-century modernism, revealing what Nagano describes as "its absolute bare-bones nature."

The word symphony stems from the Greek word symphonos, which draws together the concepts "together" (syn) and "voice" or "sound" (phone). Haydn's work helped usher the word to its current meaning: a sonata for full orchestra. The term had been used previously to refer to a prelude, postlude, interlude or other shorter instrumental work.

Yet in his Spring for Music presentation, Nagano is going for an even richer exploration of the meaning behind the word. The bottom line? "Symphonic music belongs to everyone," Nagano says, "and it embodies the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, even the physical sense of what we feel today, in the most humanistic expression."

After more Bach sinfonias, the program rounds out with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a resounding finishing touch in this broader examination of what symphonies are and can be. "It's a work that somehow elevates itself above time," Nagano says. "It floats above and separate and independent from time. That's when we know that a work is a masterpiece."


Kent Nagano, music director


The Evolution of the Symphony

  • Giovanni Gabrieli: Excerpts from Symphonia Sacrae for brass
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonias 1 to 5 (for keyboard)
  • Anton Webern: Symphony, Op. 21
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonias 8 & 9 (for keyboard)
  • Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920)
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonias 11, 12 & 15 (for keyboard) (Angela Hewitt, piano)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
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