Kent Nagano

When Kent Nagano convinced Björk to tackle the speaking part of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 atonal masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire, he was bridging cultural divides with customary cool. The most exciting conductor of his generation and the most idiosyncratic vocalist of hers, exploring the thorniest composer of the 20th century ? The Icelandic electro-songbird was anxious over the classical music world’s perceived arrogance, but Nagano told her that Schoenberg wrote the piece because "he’d had it with the snobs in Germany," she recalled recently. "They’d become so self-obsessed and the gap between educated music people and the common people had become massive."

So the titan of 12-tone music wrote Pierrot for "more of a street person." Björk could relate, and Nagano insisted she experiment. "I do strongly believe in chemistry, which of course is an inexplicable human phenomenon," he said last week, adding that Schoenberg was one of Björk’s favourite composers as a classically-trained child, pre-Sugarcubes. "She’s at ease reading the music and her very imaginative and intense creative skills combined for a working environment that was deeply inspiring."

Great repertoire will impart different meanings at various stages of the listener’s life. But the fear of the unfamiliar, or of instrumental music in general, keeps some from taking the plunge. There’s also the snob factor that initially intimidated Björk. Says Nagano : "I totally sympathize with that nearly overwhelming, fragile feeling of thinking you’re not quite understanding things that everybody else appears to be getting."

By comparison, Nagano confesses it was only relatively recently that he began to appreciate the subtleties of wine, strange for a cultured Californian. "Everyone who attends a concert goes to discover something that is unknown, and that shared sense of discovery is what makes live music so extraordinary. If you go with an open mind, the opportunity for discovery and tremendous emotional reaction can be more invigorating than you could possibly imagine. It’s the opposite of cynicism."