Music is sharing emotions
Liesbeth Wytzes - Elsevier
April 5, 2008
Already as a boy Yannick Nézet-Séguin knew he wanted to be a conductor. "It felt like a religious vocation." As from August he will work in Rotterdam.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin approaches quickly through a corridor of the Rotterdam concert hall de Doelen. He is small, active, wears sneakers, a black T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. His short hair is standing on end and has a disheveled look. The Canadian does not look like 32 and absolutely not like a highly talented and promising conductor.
But he is. Though promising may not be the right word anymore, since he already fulfilled his promise: as from August 2008, Nézet-Séguin will be the Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and therefore the successor of the great Valery Gergiev. Nézet-Séguin will lead the orchestra for an average of eight weeks per year, not counting tours and operas. He is much more accessible than his predecessor, who had nerve-wracking habits like rehearsing little and being just on time or even a bit late. But Nézet-Séguin and Gergiev have in common that they feel that a concert has to be a happening, and does not need to be overly perfect like a CD-recording.
The conductors have met each others. Last year, Gergiev had to perform in Toronto, but due to a blizzard, he could not leave New York. Nézet-Séguin fell in for him. Gergiev didn't arrive until the evening, when the after concert dinner was almost over. 'He said: "Missing a concert is one thing, but to miss dinner, never!"
For Nézet-Séguin, the past two years have been the busiest of his life, and he would like to slow down a bit. "I don't know why musicians have the habit of traveling so much. I think it started in the sixties. At that time it were especially the opera stars who traveled around a lot. My teacher, the conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, hated it. He preferred not to perform if the stars were flown in for one concert."
This conductor would like to stay in one place a bit longer. That is why he is looking for an apartment in Rotterdam. He is impressed by the city. "I think Rotterdam is a very attractive mix of all kinds of things, also population-wise. The public in this city is becoming more and more diverse and it is one of my duties to make sure that people will keep feeling welcome. In Rotterdam there is not an orchestra, like in Amsterdam, where traditions play a large role. That is rather liberating."
"What attracts me in Rotterdam is the edgy aspect of the city that makes it so much fun. It is a city that does its best to be different. If you want to understand the wishes and desires of the community in which you work, you have to belong to it. I would not have accepted this job if I would not have liked the city. I am very happy here, there is so much energy. You feel that the people are proud here, without being arrogant. They want to prove over and over again that they belong to the best in the world, just like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Nézet-Séguin's appointment was unanimous: the whole orchestra was enthusiastic. But not immediately. After the first rehearsal (Yannick Nézet-Séguin made his debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 2005) he had the feeling the orchestra did not like him at all. "I felt some kind of reserve, but this was over before the end of the rehearsal. There must be trust, and that is something you can work on. You have to deserve it."
This young conductor does not want to be a despot but a colleague. He thinks dictatorial behavior has a bad effect. "Dictatorial behavior is not very productive. People start to play with fear, and that is audible. I have a recording of Verdi's Requiem under Toscanini, the conductor who was known for his temperament. You can hear that the soprano is nervous. Of course you have to tell the orchestra how you want something to be played, but at the same time you have to give the musicians the feeling that you respect them. These musicians are so well trained and professional. They expect a lot from me. I think you always have to be sincere, and that you have to be able to admit to mistakes. Music is a matter of sharing emotions." Collegiality is important, and Nézet-Séguin puts it into practice. When he conducted Bach's St Matthew Passion in March, mezzo soprano Helena Rasker felt that the aria "Können Tränen meiner Wangen" should be performed in a different way, lighter. 'I said: "Try it." But she did not convince me."
Nézet-Séguin, who is from Quebec, the French speaking part of Canada, began piano lessons at the age of five. His name has to be pronounced in the French way. He created it himself by putting his mother's Breton family name before his own last name. There are enough Seguin in Canada, but Nézet-Séguin are rare. Nézet-Séguin did not really grow up with music, although it was part of his education. 'There was a piano in the house, and my parents played sometimes, but not often. My older sisters had piano lessons. I was going to learn to play the violin, but I preferred to do what they did. When I was eight years old, I started to sing in the local church choir. At that time I still wanted to become pope. I was the kind of boy who conducts Mozart's music when he is by himself. Why I wanted to become a conductor? I already knew when I was ten. It felt like a religious vocation: this is the way to fulfill myself, this is the way I have to go."
Nézet-Séguin prepares exhaustively. But how does he do that, as a conductor? "I look at a score and read in it for hours. I like the solitude of being alone with the music. I hear everything exactly in my head. I have a lot of CDs at home, because that's what I used to spend all my money on. When I was young" – We both have to laugh when he says it – "I listened to every possible interpretation I could find. I have dozens of recordings of Bach's St Matthew Passion for instance. I don't do that so often anymore, listening to recordings. These days, I try to get a certain bond with the music. I like to conduct from memory, because it is important to keep eye contact with the musicians. I try to form the music. Combinations are almost always the main thing. The violins with the flutes, for instance. Which of those instruments gets the emphasis? This way you try to create a sense of balance. The tempo is the very last thing I decide on."
Classical music is a sacrosanct selection, a canon of masterpieces. There has been concurrence on the great names for a long time: Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, Mahler, to name just a few. Occasionally a new name surfaces, but that is a second-tier composer. The works of the great composers have been played and recorded hundreds of times. How can you breathe new life into such well-worn music? "Aha!" Nézet-Séguin sits up. "That is actually a very existential question. How much freedom can you take when a piece has been performed and recorded a thousand times? How does one re-interpret a masterpiece? How can we find truth in a composition? I don't think those masterworks have only one truth. There are dozens of possible interpretations and they are all true. That is the reason one never tires of music, and you always discover something new."
Nézet-Séguin does not want to commit himself to one period or composer. He likes to do all kinds of things. "I think there are links everywhere. I like bringing Monteverdi and Verdi together in one programme. It is an unexpected combination, but you feel that there is a relationship between both composers. Or Haydn and Stravinsky, there are no greater opposites. I want to place contemporary music in a tradition. But not too soon: I want to learn to know the audience here first."
When Nézet-Séguin rehearses a new piece of music, he always starts by playing it through with the orchestra. "That way you get a feel for it." After that he starts working out the details. He is seldom nervous. "I am tense for the first rehearsal, but after that not anymore. I don't actually want the audience to look at me. That's not what I'm for. My gestures are for the orchestra. The audience so to speak has to look over my head to the musicians."
What does an inspired conductor like Nézet-Séguin do after a performance? Although he likes to be alone with a score, he also likes to socialize. So after a concert there's food and drinks. "One has to relax." Recently, he started tennis lessons and he has a personal trainer at a gym. And he is teaching himself Dutch. "I would like to read books again. Also in Dutch."