The silence was electrifying. After 90 minutes of the high-powered Sturm und Drang of the Verdi Requiem, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin held stock-still on the podium—and the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra froze, too, instruments in the air. And they held it and held it and held it. The Carnegie Hall audience—notoriously noisy New Yorkers, who cough and shift and rustle all the time—was stone-silent for what felt like an eternity. Nézet-Séguin began to move, the musicians lowered their instruments. And the place exploded.
Not a bad way for a conductor to make his Carnegie Hall debut.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin started as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra last fall, and already it looks like a solid partnership, with intriguing hints of deeper rapport and new directions to come. He first led the orchestra as a guest in 2008 and the connection was reportedly strong on both sides. He’s led the orchestra several times at home in Philadelphia to raves, and that well-received October 23 Verdi Requiem at Carnegie Hall was just the first to win glowing reviews away from the orchestra’s home turf, where praise for the new guy might be de rigueur. At the end of the orchestra’s January 17 concert at Carnegie Hall, a program of Ravel’s La Valse, Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Leonidas Kavakos, and Shostakovich’s towering Symphony No. 5, the musicians stomped their feet in acclaim and approval when Nézet-Séguin took his bow. Is it a love-fest between the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra and their new music director? It’s early days, but an encouraging sign for an orchestra that has undergone some serious recent travails.
The 112-year-old orchestra filed for bankruptcy in 2012, making headlines as the news sent shock waves through the orchestra world. Over many months, the orchestra restructured its debts, worked out a new deal with its landlord, the Kimmel Center, and negotiated a new, concessionary contract with its musicians. Philadelphia was not the only orchestra to confront grave financial concerns in the past year. But now, with its financial house in better order, it looks like the orchestra is moving ahead on the artistic front.
In some ways, Nézet-Séguin might be just what the orchestra doctor ordered. At 37 years old, he’s part of the new breed of relatively young music directors currently making their marks. Born in Canada, he was a hardworking fixture on Montreal’s hyperactive classical-music scene for several years, most notably with the Orchestre Métropolitain, where as artistic director and principal conductor he worked to connect the orchestra with its community while maintaining high artistic standards. And in recent years he has come far. Fast. He made his European conducting debut in 2004, and was soon appointed music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and principal guest conductor at the London Philharmonic, posts he retains in addition to Philadelphia. He made his New York debut in 2009 at the Mostly Mozart Festival, and has since worked at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden, and the Salzburg Festival. In addition to his work in Philadelphia, his 2012-13 season includes two separate tours to Japan and Asia with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, a German tour with the London Philharmonic, and a traversal of the complete Schumann symphonies and concertos with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. He’ll also return to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and there’s the small matter of a Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera.
Despite his globe-trotting international career, Nézet-Séguin continues to live in Montreal, with his partner of nearly two decades, Pierre Tourville, assistant principal viola at Orchestre Métropolitain. Nézet-Séguin is a Montreal native, and studied piano, conducting, composition, and chamber music at the Conservatoire de musique de Quebec, and choral conducting at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He studied with a variety of conductors, perhaps most notably Carlo Maria Giulini. Now he’s tackling a broad swath of repertoire on a global front.
We caught up with Nézet-Séguin to talk about the Philadelphia Orchestra, his conducting style, and chemistry.
Robert Sandla: One of the first, very public things you did when you arrived at the Philadelphia Orchestra was to sell tickets at the box office. That’s an unusual thing for a music director to do. What was the motivation behind that gesture?
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Many things, actually. It was a very simple and, I have to say, spontaneous gesture. We knew that this was maybe a symbol of what I feel the role of a music director is nowadays. It’s not a question of having the holy art-making by the artists and the untouchable music director dreaming of how to serve the composers and asking the whole staff to sell tickets. Things don’t function that way anymore, and I think it’s for the better. As musicians and as a conductor, we make music to communicate, to reach people. We do this to move them, to make them dream, to enable them, as a catharsis, to feel many emotions.
I want to be involved when I have artistic-planning meetings. I regularly invite the marketing and PR people to those meetings, just as I am also involved with the communications and image side, to see that we all work in the same direction. I see the music director as being central to the whole organization, not just conducting on the stage. It took me just two minutes to go to the box office and talk to the patrons about their choices. They were very happy to see me, and that makes a big difference in their own life to see that they can touch the music director. That’s why it was fun to do it. I got many diverse reactions to doing that; some people said von Karajan and Georg Szell would not have done that. Well, maybe if they were living in 2013 they would. Times are different. We do the music with the same care. But the roles have changed.
Sandla: You are a Twitter-er and you are on Facebook. Do you feel that those are tools that conductors from way back when would have used?
Nézet-Séguin: Yes. Especially in Philadelphia, if you look at Stokowski and how he was at the forefront of what was new in the world. He would be doing Twitter big time, much more than I do. [Laughs.] It’s a question of getting the word out there. The music that we do is not always easy, something that you can just listen to any time. It does require a certain amount of concentration in order to receive that music; some have called it elevation of the soul—it elevates your spirit, your mind. Which is great. We have to market it this way. However, what we have to fight against is the perception that the music we are doing is not for everybody, that it’s only for the people who are cultured or educated in music, that if you don’t understand the process you won’t be able to appreciate it. That’s not true. It’s the same as in any other form of art. Of course the specialist will appreciate it in a certain way or will be able to articulate why he or she appreciates it. But the person who is not educated in music should be able to feel something, live something when hearing it. Facebook, Twitter, talking to the patrons, doing post-concert conversations as we do now in Philadelphia—are all tools to communicate so that people know that they are able to appreciate the music and that they should not feel intimidated.
Sandla: Expectations for orchestra music directors are changing in America. You have posts in Rotterdam, London, Canada. How do they compare to what’s happening in this country?
Nézet-Séguin: I am in a good position to observe and compare and also link the expectations. The fact of being a passionate advocate for music and wanting people to love it as much as we do and to receive what we give onstage, this is something of every generation and is common everywhere in the world. Related to this, the crisis about orchestras as big, sometimes financially heavy institutions that we have now in the U.S., I also observed in Germany and in the Netherlands. There was a big crisis where the money from the national government, 33 percent of the budgets of some orchestras there, ended. Some orchestras shut down. In Rotterdam we were very lucky, because for reasons of timing and artistic quality the financing was not affected at all. I observe that it’s the same challenges all over. However, every country responds in a different way.
As a Canadian and North American, I know that in the United States the music director is a much more central figure—the figure that people can recognize on the street, the face of the orchestra. More than a spokesperson, the music director represents the orchestra and the music the same ways as…I certainly don’t want to compare myself to the president, but in Europe, the party is much more important than the individual politicians. In the same way, the prestigious orchestras like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which has Mariss Jansons as chief conductor, I am always surprised to see how his name is not that prominent in the publicity about the Concertgebouw. He is the chief conductor, yes, and they are very proud to work with him, but the institution is still more important. It does create a different expectation for me now as the new person in Philadelphia. It’s something that I am ready to embrace. I was trained in this culture in Montreal.
Sandla: You mention the financial pressures that orchestras are facing. Certainly it’s no secret that Philadelphia has confronted some very serious troubles lately. How did you feel about that—and, now that you are there, how do you feel about the situation?
Nézet-Séguin: Timing-wise, the union between myself and the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians—the feeling of unification—had happened when I first worked with them in 2008, before the very bad financial episode. Of course the financial issues were not a secret when we were discussing my becoming the new music director. I knew that there were difficulties, and nobody tried to hide them. But nobody could have predicted that it would go as bad as it went. Never did I question my attachment to the orchestra. First, I am here for the music. I know it’s important that we reach the audience. This is not a financial question; it’s just a question of communicating the music. I am here because I fell in love with those musicians and that energy and the way of reacting together. When I guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra it was as if we had been making music together always. It was inevitable for me to become the chief there—I could not resist that orchestra. Therefore I was ready to accept any challenge.
More than this, I feel also that I am the right person at the right time—not that I am so special, but I feel that because of my background in Montreal, because I founded some groups, because I am at ease about speaking with people about the art, because I feel at ease with young people, because I have experiences being music director elsewhere in the world, I can give some new ideas about how to get more people interested. I feel that all I have to offer is welcome here, and needed, and will be put to good use. That helps me feel not too much pressure.
Sandla: You’re saying there’s not a lot of pressure?
Nézet-Séguin: I don’t want to sound unaware of the big responsibility and honor. I always felt it, but now that I can speak with some experience of having been music director officially over six months and seeing that the halls are full, people enjoy the concerts, people react to our programming. The orchestra feels rejuvenated. There are many things happening now, other projects are in the works, I see a real change in the atmosphere—there’s a sense that the problems of the orchestra are now behind us. It’s encouraging to see this kind of electricity and this belief that we all have in the institution. The wind is turning in a positive direction.
Sandla: You are very physical on the podium. I have the sense you don’t just talk with the musicians in rehearsal, you move, you demonstrate your ideas. How do you view your work with the Philadelphia musicians? Is it as a collaborator? The old-school way was perhaps more dictatorial. Is there a spirit you encourage?
Nézet-Séguin: I still think there is only one person making the decision. Yes, the attitudes of conductors have changed; it’s not one-way, one-sided, totalitarian. There is a collegial aspect of making music. It’s in the way of inviting musicians to give their best, to embody physically what I feel about the music on a very high emotional level, and everyone feeling drawn to not only participate in that but to feel enabled to express. It’s not only about making decisions but about living the music in the moment. Why Philadelphia is so special as an orchestra and why our connection is so special is that they can react at the moment—at the millisecond—to anything I can imagine. Now, why is that? I think it’s chemistry. They feel the music very similarly to the way I feel it, but also I never feel that the orchestra is keeping anything in reserve in terms of energy and commitment, involvement. I think that’s why it makes that special sound. If I ask for more, I get more. It’s wonderful. It happens with little talking, it’s very much in the moment. It’s astonishing how much they can react to any intention I have—it’s almost supernatural or like a reading of the mind. Music-making of the highest quality has to have this aspect.
Sandla: You mention the distinctive Philadelphia Sound. Do you find that orchestras retain the defining sounds they are known for, or are things becoming more generic, more internationalized?
Nézet-Séguin: People are talking a lot about the internationalizing of orchestras’ sounds—that specific qualities get lost. It’s probably true in a certain sense, because top orchestras have much more international recruiting now. But still, conductors do have a responsibility in keeping the specific qualities of orchestras alive, and encouraging the differences between one orchestra and another, instead of trying to make it sound the same. In my first few years in Rotterdam, I conducted a Beethoven Eroica, which was broadcast in Canada. Many of the Canadian musicians, who I had just led in that same piece a few months before, said “Wow, we could almost not recognize it was you because it was so different.” I explained that the conception for the piece would be very strong and clear but should also allow the musicians to inject culture and background and therefore the orchestra itself—their own habits with the piece. It’s very important for a conductor to be a good listener. I always try to listen to what the musicians are used to, what they want to bring, and I try to make that work with my own interpretation. This enriches the experience for everyone involved. And I hope that cultivates the differences between orchestras. When I conduct the same pieces in London and Berlin and Rotterdam and Philadelphia, it doesn’t sound the same. I certainly don’t want it to sound the same. It should be different and enjoyed for what it is.
Sandla: You’ve got a busy international career now. Do you ever wake up not knowing where you are?
Nézet-Séguin: [Laughs.] I am surrounded by a good team of people who take care of my schedule. The beauty of it is that once the schedule is arranged, I can just let myself sail in that schedule. I tend to be very hands-on with it and make sure to be very organized. But it’s a scary thought to think that I have things planned for 2019. In a way it’s scary, but in another way it’s beautiful in that it is organized and planned and I can just concentrate on trying to become a better musician.
Sandla: Opera is a major focus for you, and you have expressed interest in doing operas-in-concert in Philadelphia. What is it about opera that engages you?
Nézet-Séguin: Probably because after I studied piano I started singing choir. I always considered voice to be the essence of anything we do in music. I don’t see a real boundary between a big symphony and an opera. In a big symphony there’s a section where the orchestra may accompany the oboe, and then the brass may accompany the strings. It’s kind of the same thing as in an opera. Opera reminds me and the musicians that there’s someone to listen to and breathe with and it’s not always the same every night. We try to remain in the moment. Opera is a good teacher for that, and why I always like an orchestra to have that flexibility. That’s one reason why I want to make opera with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I also believe that some opera scores have some of the best orchestral music ever written. To have an orchestra like the Philadelphia Orchestra playing those wonderful, gorgeous scores is a big plus.
Sandla: At the end of the Verdi Requiem at Carnegie Hall, you held that silence for a very long time. How do you sense how far to go in a moment like that?
Nézet-Séguin: It’s about being in the moment. I think that we spend our lives becoming true to ourselves. To be sincere, to really, really learn to have no boundary between what you want to say and what you are actually expressing, is the work of a lifetime. I think it’s beautiful that conducting allows you to do this over and over again and try to become one with the score. For the silence at that concert, I tried to sense whether it was needed or not. It was not a premeditated vision. I have the recollection of this moment in Carnegie very clearly, and yet for me it was part of the music. I know it’s been talked about, but I don’t remember it so much, because I was so much in the moment. It’s a beautiful mystery.
Below, Nézet-Séguin with local charter school students at the Liberty Bell.
Below, Nézet-Séguin rehearses the Mozart Requiem at the Kimmel Center.
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