A Montrealer’s rise on the world stage
Norman Lebrecht - The Globe and Mail
December 30, 2009
On the eve of his debut at New York’s Met, Yannick Nézet-Séguin has made his name with a repertoire that belies his young age
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who makes his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera conducting Carmen on New Year’s Eve, has shot to attention by defying convention.
There are many ways for a young conductor – the spiky-haired French Canadian is 34 – to make his name, but Anton Bruckner is not traditionally one of them. The nineteen-century Austrian symphonist, simplistically devout and seldom less than an hour long, calls for the venerable transcendence that Bruno Walter and Herbert von Karajan achieved toward the end of their long lives – a submissive fatalism allied to rapt control of a huge orchestra .
This is not young man’s music. Yet Nézet-Séguin launched his international career three years ago with a recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 that struck many critics as among the finest ever heard. It was sunnier than the Germanic norm and lightly playful. Along with a seductive lyricism, there was an austere restraint at the big climaxes, the mark of an artist who is not searching cheap rewards.
The Montreal native is now in New York, where he has spent the past month rehearsing Richard Eyre’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen with Elina Garanca as the gypsy temptress and Roberto Alagna as Don Jose.
It is a show the Met hopes will stop the rot to hitherto patchy season. Before he lifts the baton, Nézet-Séguin has been booked for four more operas, a mark of the Met’s conviction that he is the coming man.
“I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed in French repertoire” he said in an interview. “But they let me put my imprimatur on a new production and they have agreed to let me do Italian opera nex time – I am not allowed to say which one”.
Breezy, informal and bristling with energy, he is in ascent on the world stage – successor of Valery Gergiev at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and a fixture at London’s Royal festival Hall.
What catches the eye with Nézet-Séguin is his communication skill. There is a You Tube video of him as a kid at 10, powering his way with unmistakable gestures through Ravel’s Bolero in a school classroom. He seems to know no fear, and to expect that others will follow wherever he leads.
The son of two education professors, he sang as a boy in a choir of a Montreal cathedral, becoming its director at just 19. But it was five years later as conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain that this impact spread across Montreal, transforming a community orchestra that gave family Christmas shows into a crack ensemble that could challenge Kent Nagano’s Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Bruckner, he says, was his vocational awakening – specifically, a church performance in his teens of Symphony No. 9 conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Leading the work himself at 26, “ I felt completely at home in this music. In Bruckner, each individual – including the conductor – needs to be submitted to the whole. It is not a place to polish your ego.”
While many interpreters underline the devotional aspect of the music, Nézet-Séguin brings out its loving descriptions of courtry life before the machines took over. In the Symphony No. 8, released in October on the Atma Classique label, he tones down the orotund grandeur for an intimacy rarely heard in this gigantic Wagnerian tribute.
Although he is not as flamboyant as the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, the pair are increasingly mentioned in the same breath as leaders of their generation.
Bruckner, though, is Nézet-Séguin’s hedge against the temptation of fame. “I know Bruckner is not the normal path to start a career,” he concedes, “and I am well aware that this is music which, as we mature, gets deeper. I hope I will have more to say when I’m 70. But I just can’t wait until then.”