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Karin Kei Nagano, daughter of MSO director, releases debut album at 15

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MONTREAL - When asked who she would choose to listen to if it came down to Justin Bieber or Ludwig van Beethoven, Karin Kei Nagano gives an answer that might be a little different from the average teenager's.

"I would have to say Beethoven, yes," the 15-year-old says with a laugh.

It's not really a surprise coming from the piano prodigy, who released her first album, "Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 12 & 13" on Tuesday. Described as "Mozart's 'Happy Medium," the concertos are K.414 in A Major and and K.415 in C major.

Nagano is the daughter of Kent Nagano, the renowned conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and accomplished pianist Mari Kodama.

The amiable young woman says her decision to take up music was almost a logical path given there have been musicians in the Nagano family for 40 years.

"It was sort of something that happened completely naturally," she said in an interview.

Listening to her album, it's clear she is an established talent in her own right as she draws the nuances of the music out on her keyboard.

Accompanied by the Cecilia String Quartet, which is currently in residence at the University of Toronto's faculty of music, Nagano gives a polished rendition of the masterpieces which are among the first works composed by Mozart after he moved to Vienna.

"It was a different experience because I was used to recording concertos, live performances, but with big orchestras," said the poised young musician.

"This time, performing with a small quartet was completely different but very interesting."

She explained that when playing with an orchestra, the soloist mainly interacts with the conductor, whereas, in recording the album, the process was more collaborative with the string quartet.

"It's a much more intimate process," Nagano said.

The choice of music was also very meaningful.

"Mozart is very, very special to me," she said. "His operas were actually the first pieces I heard as a baby."

There were also other reasons for the selections.

"They have completely completely different dynamics so that's why it's even more interesting to interpret them."

Nagano pointed out that Mozart actually didn't write many concertos in versions for quartet and piano.

Both pieces were written in 1782 and were originally intended for a full orchestra but Mozart gave permission for them to be interpreted by quartets.

The composer described the concertos in a letter to his father as "a happy medium" that could be equally enjoyed by connoisseurs or occasional classical music listeners.

Nagano's album is the latest accomplishment in an already impressive life.

The winner of several international prizes, she began touring when she was 10.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., Nagano debuted in the 2007-2008 season, playing a Mozart concerto with famed conductor Wachtang Korisheli's orchestra in California.

There followed concerts in Paris and Munich as well as with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Her first professional international concert was in 2010 when she performed in Italy with the prestigious Baroque Tafelmusik Orchestra.

Along with other peformances in Germany, she also began the 2011-2012 season as featured soloist with the Montreal Symphony at the opening of the orchestra's new concert hall.

Nagano practises four to five hours per day and "a lot" on the weekends and during holidays. She says her school accommodates her schedule, while her parents and friends are very supportive.

Mom and dad are not shy about giving her critiques and she says they "push me to the highest level."

"That's something that I'm extremely grateful about."

She enjoyed performing with her father, saying she didn't expect the honour of being featured soloist.

"It was very, very nice because we have the same way of interpreting the music," she said. "We have a big connection together."

But was he tough?

"Yes, very tough," she says, breaking into a broad smile. "But still it was very nice."

Kodama, who gives the occasional playing tip, is thrilled to see her daughter doing what she clearly loves.

"We're just happy to have a happy daughter," she said at the interview. "She can do what she likes to enjoy her life and make her life richer.

"We would have been supportive anyway but probably it's easier to support her in classical music than in anything else like theatre or sports because we're in this profession and can maybe advise her a little bit better."

Nagano, who listens mostly to classical music, says she also likes a little jazz and pop and fills her spare time with dancing, writing, drawing and making homemade movies.

"I always like anything linked to creativity," she said.

And lest anyone forget, at the heart of things, she's still a normal teenager.

"Yes," Nagano says brightly. "Obviously!"

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