Maestro Kent Nagano sets out to solve the OSM's 'grey hair' problem

Documentary film The Mission of Kent Nagano, follows the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conductor's quest to make classical music matter to everyone.

Documentary shows Montreal Symphony Orchestra conductor's quest to make classical music accessible to all

The documentary offers viewers an intimate look into Maestro Kent Nagano's quest to make classical music accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.

Whether he is conducting in front of the likes of Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump and Xi Jin Ping at the G20 Summit or sitting cross-legged with preschoolers in a Montreal North school, Maestro Kent Nagano is on a quest to make classical music accessible to everyone.

The Mission of Kent Nagano, airing as a part of CBC Montreal's Absolutely Quebec series, captures Nagano's ambitious quest to make classical music a bigger part of everyone's life, regardless of their age, status or ethnicity.

Nagano, the musical director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM), fights against the notion that classical music is an elitist art form.

"It just provokes so much outrage in me," says Nagano. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Nagano cites the "problem of grey" at the OSM — that is, too many grey-haired people in the audience and very few young people.

And if a diverse audience is not able to come to the OSM, Nagano says it is "up to us to go to them."

The film, produced by Quebec filmmaker Marie-Odile Demay, follows Nagano as he works to pass on a passion that few young people are taking up these days.

From Montreal to his native California to Berlin and Hamburg, where he is also general music director of the Hamburg State Opera, viewers get privileged access to Nagano's universe and the thinking that drives his success.

Kent Nagano conducts in front of world leaders at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany.

From classroom to opera house

Through intimate scenes of Nagano in his work with young people, from toddlers to teens, we feel the impact he is having outside of the concert hall.

As part of a program called La musique aux enfants, designed to introduce classical music to children who would not normally encounter it, he invites preschoolers to play with instruments and feel what it's like to wave a conductor's baton.

The program has left quite an impression on some of those children.

When they play superheroes, says teacher Marie-Hélène Marcottel, "There's Superman, Spiderman — and then there's Maestro Nagano, the superhero."

Children participating in a program called La musique aux enfants discover the trombone at the home of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, la Maison symphonique.

But no superhero is invincible.

The Mission of Kent Nagano also offers a glimpse into the fear and agitation the maestro still experiences before each performance.

Nagano is aware of the magic classical music can bring, and he wants to make sure he does not fail the audience in directing that magic to their ears.

As McGill neuroscientist Daniel Levitin notes in the film, music needs to move the listener.

"If you feel the same way at the end of a musical piece as you did at the beginning," Levitin says to Nagano, "that piece has failed you."

Nagano's acutely aware of this effect – and it drives his ambition to make each performance exceptional.

"If the day ever comes where I don't feel the adrenaline and the agitation … I know it's time for me to retire."

And that day has not yet arrived.

The Mission of Nagano premieres Saturday July 28 at 7 p.m. ET


Jennifer Yoon


Jennifer Yoon is a journalist at CBC Montreal.