On Friday, May 7th, I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon at which the keynote speaker was Maestro Kent Nagano, music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, which goes by its official French name Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal or OSM.  Approximately 500 leading businesspersons were present at the event hosted by the Montreal Board of Trade.

Mr Nagano gave his entire speech switching back and forth between English and French, often in mid-sentence. This was quite a feat, for an individual who began his presentation apologizing for his limited proficiency in French, noting that when he became head of the OSM in 2006, his French was quite limited.

After listening for a very short period of time, it was obvious that that Mr Nagano’s remarks flowed from his own considerable reflections on art and culture in modern society. We were being treated to the insights of a serious intellect. His remarks were as far removed as one can get from puffy, media-aimed “sound bites” now common in the corporate and political worlds.  (Interestingly enough, several days after this Blog was first posted, an official from the Board of Trade mentioned to this author that she had never heard the lunch crowd so attentive during a speech. The business audience was evidently unaccustomed to hearing remarks of this depth.)

Also interesting was Mr Nagano’s manner of delivery.  He was clear, calm and one might say respectful throughout. One had the feeling that he not only respected his audience, but the importance of his subject-matter.

Mr Nagano spoke about a recent meeting with an aspiring, young classical music conductor who was seeking practical advice on his career. “Should I even consider trying to make a living as a classical music conductor?”, the protégé asked. Given all the economic and other uncertainty, the young conductor worried, “Will there be an orchestra to conduct in 20 years?”

Without wishing to draw a direct causal relationship, Mr Nagano maintained there was at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that neglect of the arts goes hand in hand with social decline.  A Californian by birth, Mr Nagano gave the example of the city of Oakland, California, which brought in major cutbacks to the arts at the same time as increasing expenditures to renovate the stadium which housed its NFL team. Cultural institutions suffered, including the local orchestra which had to lay off its staff. Meanwhile the crime rate rose and illegal drug use soared in the community.  A few years later, the Raiders football team left town anyway.  To lure the team back again, Oakland made enormous public expenditures to build a new stadium. The arts were remained neglected, with no improvement in sight on the crime front.

Mr Nagano contrasted the example of Oakland with Montreal, which he commended for its vitality and quality of life. There was no finer illustration of Montreal for Mr Nagano than its new symphony concert hall designed specifically for the requirements of classical music, scheduled to open in the downtown core during September 2011. He remarked that with the new facility in place, Montreal would join the elite of the world’s great cities, each one of which has just such a facility.  This was fitting, he stated, considering that the symphony orchestra is one of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements, being seen as the collective instrument through which may be expressed the highest levels of human creativity, emotion and even freedom.  For the crowing achievements of the greatest composers such as Beethoven are recognized to be their symphonies.

Mr Nagano noted that historically, ancient Greece and Rome had important cultural venues at the heart of their cities and daily life. Although the upcoming inauguration of the new concert hall in Montreal is a reason to celebrate, we must all remain vigilant in our efforts to promote the arts in years ahead, he added.

“Will there be an orchestra to conduct in 20 years?”, Mr Nagano asked his business audience pointedly.

The temptation to make cutbacks in the arts is stronger now than ever, given the continuing world-wide economic instability, including most recently the enormous problems being faced by the cradle of democracy, Greece. Mr Nagano’s speech helps us to keep in mind that the arts require proper venues in which to achieve their full expression.  After all, if music and the other arts cannot flourish, human creativity and ultimately liberty will become precarious.