Conductor Nézet-Séguin returns to Philly
David Patrick Stearns - The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 29, 2009
Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin seems too amiable to be an original. And yet originality is exactly what seems to have emerged from the up-and-coming 34-year-old Quebecois in the year between his last Philadelphia Orchestra engagement and the one coming this week.
Music that's normally considered second-rate suddenly sounds substantial under his direction. His programs are full of important, provocative new music. And among established masterworks, normally urbane Maurice Ravel works lose their cool in his soon-to-be-released EMI recording debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, where he is music director, leaving you wondering why that doesn't always happen.
With the young conductor and the orchestra involved in a tentative music-director mating dance, one must ask what Philadelphia might be getting. But nobody can have the same answer from season to season: Nézet-Séguin is morphing dramatically.
"When I come back to my dear friends" at the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, which he has led for a decade, "they know a difference from two or three months of absence. They always say, 'Oh, we can see you've changed. We can see what you've brought.' That makes me happy," he says. "I can appreciate that working with these orchestras makes me grow."
Last December's version so charmed the Philadelphia Orchestra that Nézet-Séguin (neh-ZAY say-GHEN) went to the top of the short list of future music directors. In a world where many musical communities would love a Gustavo Dudamel (who just took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 28, with an avalanche of publicity) Nézet-Séguin still has the youth factor but more years of experience. And he likes it here.
"I'm well aware of what's being talked about," he says. "Hopefully with Philadelphia, I can go back every season and nurture that relationship. But after only one visit, it's not my place to say that I want the music directorship."
Now, industry sources say he's second only to Dudamel in terms of demand. Great debuts are on the horizon, including Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera. Chicago, Munich, and Vienna eagerly await his guest appearances. The question among local music lovers, however, is what logic could possibly lie behind this week's Philadelphia programs.
What's with Orion by the respected, but little-known, Canadian composer Claude Vivier? (Answer: Chief conductor Charles Dutoit asked for it.) The Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 features pianist Nicholas Angelich - an artist Nézet-Séguin regards as highly as the late, legendary Claudio Arrau. Then, he conducts the wannabe Wagneriana that is Franck's Symphony in D. It's hardly a calling card.
"Exactly!" he said in a phone interview from goodness-knows-where. "It's a symphony that's not always taken seriously. For some people, it's vulgar or slightly boring. I think it's a wonderful work. It has its pitfalls. When it comes down to creating a program, there are so many things to take into consideration, but the most important thing is to do a good concert. I would not choose a program in order to impress. I was choosing it for the right reasons, I hope."
He has pulled bigger rabbits out of smaller hats. His 2008 Salzburg debut was in Gounod's intermittently engaging opera Romeo et Juliette - though it turned into much more than that under his direction.
"There was this sound from the orchestra that was Wagnerian, more romantic, but clear and crisp," says Philadelphia's Ailyn Perez, one of the production's leading sopranos. The fine Deutsche Grammophon DVD of the production bears her out.
"He gets all of that strength from the orchestra, and then when he looks up at you, he wants your voice to soar," she said. "He wants to help everybody to be the greatest they ever were. I adore him. He's badass!"
She and her husband, tenor Stephen Costello, became friends with Nézet-Séguin that summer and went backstage at the Kimmel Center during his 2008 appearance. They asked if he'd be interested in coming here full time. "Would you?" Costello said. "Please?"
And? "He would be honored," reports Perez.
But that's hardly the whole story. Nézet-Séguin lays his cards on the table. "My first Philadelphia visit was definitely a highlight of my musical life," he said. "I found an ideal response to my way of music-making . . . I found a friendly atmosphere, all dedicated to music. I liked the relationship with the audience. I liked everything about it."
"My life is still in the exploration stage. I have a few debuts to make . . . Chicago, Cleveland, Berlin Phil, the Gewandhaus Leipzig Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra . . . with La Scala and Covent Garden in the next few years. The drive is to make music with orchestras where it's going to work and then we can explore deeper. That's one reason I settled in Rotterdam and London," where he's principal guest of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, "for the next few years."
This week's Philadelphia concerts are, he adds, only the second date - in a world where dates are separated by a year.
What does it all mean?
Words like ideal don't readily trip off any conductor's lips. He seems to be saying "not yet." Then again, the way the music industry plans in advance, any new conductor would keep Philadelphia waiting two or three years. And Nézet-Séguin's permanent positions don't have to monopolize him.
He feels undying loyalty to the orchestra in Montreal and is extremely close to his family there - his mother, Claudine, handles most of his personal affairs - as well as to his three cats. Professionally speaking, however, not everything is rosy in Montreal.
With a new concert hall being planned, he feels his orchestra's place at the table is sometimes crowded out by the more famous Montreal Symphony Orchestra (which he has conducted only once, in 1999). Some critics still question the need for two Montreal orchestras - though Nézet-Séguin's has major guest artists such as Barbara Bonney and, this season, performs nothing less than the gargantuan Mahler Symphony No. 8. His commitment to that orchestra could go as low as four weeks a season.
Rotterdam appears to be a keeper; his programs there have been particularly innovative - one recent Webcast paired the adventurous new Bassoon Concerto of Sofia Gubaidulina with the cultishly popular Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony - and his contract runs through 2012. His London Philharmonic contract goes through 2011.
On the Philadelphia side, the dots could be connected any number of ways. Chief conductor Dutoit is reportedly happy here and probably would be willing to stay longer. The other main contender for the music directorship, Vladimir Jurowski, is sending out conflicting "yes and no" signals, a switch from what was previously thought to be "no." Also, another orchestra could throw a net over Nézet-Séguin. As close as he feels to Philadelphia, orchestras fall in love with him left and right.
That factor is perhaps the key to how he's able to be himself completely while also acting as the ultimate collaborator. With a firm grounding in a piece's structure, Nézet-Séguin claims he's able to bend in ways that accommodate and enshrine whoever he's with. Just recently, he discovered an artistic soul mate in the late architect Antoni Gaudi and his fantastical Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona.
"Gaudi was obsessed with the structure of the building and, through that, was able to achieve a wonderful freedom," he says. "In music, structure has nothing to do with rigidity. We conductors often talk about being true to the score. But there's a danger in becoming less true to the essence of the music because we're unimaginatively following what is written."
Might that be the definition of amiable originality?