Kent Nagano, who will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on March 29-31, has been music director or principal conductor at many of the world’s foremost concert halls, including the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra, the Gothenburg Symphony, the Bavarian State Opera, Los Angeles Opera and Opéra National de Lyon, to name just a few. But his podium career began with a humble start: leading a children’s choir when he was just 8 years old.

“I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, where there was a very important and active children’s choir, so I was called upon occasionally to conduct it,” recalls Nagano, who grew up in the Morro Bay area of southern California. “Later on at university, a number of composers asked me to conduct their pieces. I just seemed to be the chosen one, so I got quite a bit of experience that way.

“I didn’t really consider conducting as a real métier until much later. One of my first jobs I got, employment-wise, was being accepted into the opera company in Boston under Sarah Caldwell [founding director of the Opera Company of Boston]. I went there as her formal apprentice [1977 to 1979].  I really did grow up in her opera house, doing everything, working my way up from the very bottom to the top.

“That was quite a defining moment. I had always had a strong love of opera, as well as symphonic music, and I’d always felt that somehow the particularly German tradition of learning the repertoire and métier through an opera house was something that seemed to make a lot of sense. So I followed the same pathway, even though it wasn’t in Europe.”

For his CSO concerts, Nagano will conduct a wide-ranging program of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll; Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety), with pianist Gilles Vonsattel as soloist, and Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (Spring). For more information, click here.