Catching the Wave

updated 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN HE HITS THE BEACH WITH HIS FAVORITE board under his arm, his long hair glistening in the California sun, Kent Nagano is just another happy surfer dude. "I love it and the feeling of freedom all around me," he says. "None of the other surfers has a clue as to what I do for a living."

But among classical music aficionados, most of whom rarely hang 10—or even 5—Nagano, 42, is recognized as a legend in the making. "In Nagano," declared New York magazine, "music really may have found the next Bernstein—a dazzling theatrical musician who can electrify an audience." That's Leonard Bernstein, of course, and lofty praise indeed for a former student of the late maestro's. "I can't deny it's terribly flattering, in an embarrassing kind of way," says Nagano.

Though clearly uncomfortable with such grandiose comparisons, Nagano has worked hard to earn them. He serves as chief conductor and musical director for orchestras in three countries: France's Opéra de Lyon; the Manchester, England, Hallé Orchestra; and California's Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. Between the three-month performance seasons he spends with each company, Nagano finds time to record—he has released more than two dozen albums of classical and avant-garde music since 1980—and he also guest-conducts with orchestras in London, Paris, Milan and Munich.

Munching a turkey sandwich during a recent rehearsal break at the Hollywood Bowl, Nagano, wearing jeans and an untucked white shirt, looks more like an off-duty rock star or male model (he has, in fact, appeared in a Gap jeans ad) than the inheritor of the Bernstein mantle. Eclectic in his musical tastes, he is a devoted fan of everything from avant-garde opera (he conducted John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China) to modern pop, including the works of close friend Frank Zappa, who died of prostate cancer in 1993. "People think of Frank as some crazy rock guitarist," says Nagano, who conducted Zappa's recording sessions with the London Symphony in 1980. "But there was another side to him. He helped so many young musicians get their start."

A third-generation Japanese American whose parents were interned during World War II, Nagano grew up on his family's 500-acre artichoke farm outside Morro Bay, Calif. His mother, Ruth, a classically trained pianist, taught her eldest son at home; by the time he graduated from high school in 1970, he had mastered the viola, clarinet and electric guitar as well. Nagano continued his music studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz and San Francisco State, where he earned his master's degree in 1975. He apprenticed with the Opera Company of Boston until 1979, when he became director of the Berkeley Symphony.

His big break came in 1984. With no time to rehearse a knotty piece he had never conducted before—Mahler's Ninth Symphony—Nagano, then assistant to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Seiji Ozawa, stepped in when the . conductor was called away on a family emergency and led a much-lauded performance. The following year the feat helped him land a $75,000 grant from the Seaver Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts that enabled him to study with Ozawa, Pierre Boulez and Bernstein. That schooling would later help him revitalize both the Opéra de Lyon, which he took over in 1989, and the Hallé Orchestra, which he has led since 1992. Like Bernstein, Nagano is admired for his exuberance, but the similarities end there, according to his friend John Adams. "Leonard was a spontaneous, mercurial and manic figure, which Kent is not," says Adams. "He's totally in control of his emotions. His music-making is orderly."

Nagano's personal life, too, has fallen nicely into place. Shortly after they collaborated on a Prokofiev recording in 1991, he married Mari Kodama, 27, a Japanese classical pianist. "I had felt, sadly, that I might stay a bachelor my entire life," he says. "I could not imagine someone being able to tolerate my work and travel schedule." An acclaimed concert performer herself, Kodama now tailors her tours so that she and Nagano can together enjoy their homes in San Francisco, Manchester, Lyon and Paris.

Despite all the work and travel, Nagano does take time out—for reading, karate practice and, of course, surfing on Morro Bay and the coast of France. "I insist on two surf periods a year, in winter and summer," he says. "Surfing brings you as close to nature as you can be. It's very inspiring." Still, nothing stirs his soul like song. "Whether I'm studying, working or just sitting around the house with my wife playing piano," says Nagano, "music is what makes life worth living."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING in Los Angeles

From Our Partners