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Welcoming Yannick Nézet-Séguin

By Damian Fowler
13 Nov 2012

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
photo by Jessica Griffin

As Yannick Nézet-Séguin begins his tenure as the eighth music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra, it marks yet another auspicious moment in the Orchestra’s rich history.

Ever since the French-Canadian conductor was named music director designate in 2010, the drum roll of anticipation has been building.

Not surprisingly for Yannick, the 37-year-old maestro sees his progression in purely musical terms. “We’re at the end of the crescendo leading to the fortissimo of the music director arriving on stage,” he says, with his characteristic humor. “Everything I’ve done so far has led me to this moment of new beginnings with The Philadelphia Orchestra.”

And to be sure, he has already achieved a tremendous amount in his musical life. Like many a great maestro, the musical terrain he traverses is vast, varied, and international. In addition to his Philadelphia appointment, he continues as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic where, in 2008, he succeeded Russian maestro Valery Gergiev and boosted that ensemble’s reputation in Europe, where an orchestra’s status is jealously guarded. And since 2000, when he assumed the mantle of artistic director and principal conductor, he thrust the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal (his hometown) into the spotlight, with acclaimed live performances and a series of award-winning recordings of Bruckner, Mahler, and Weill. Working in such different contexts, says Yannick, has allowed him to tailor the unique needs of each orchestra within the context of making music at “the highest possible level.”

In demand as a guest conductor, Yannick is a frequent collaborator with many of the greatest European orchestras, including the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics; the Dresden Staatskapelle; Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony; the Zurich Tonhalle; and the London Philharmonic, where he is principal guest conductor. A recent LPO performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony brought him critical acclaim for his “thrilling authority.” At the same time, his extraordinary reputation as a conductor of opera keeps him in demand at the most prestigious opera houses around the world—including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, and the Salzburg Festival, and, this year he made his debut at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden.

It’s a stellar resumé, made even more impressive because Yannick has scaled such lofty heights at a relatively young age. And yet, as he becomes music director in Philadelphia, he’ll join the ranks of the Orchestra’s other great leaders who became music director in their 30s—Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, and Riccardo Muti. It’s a good precedent, a point where energy meets experience. “It is indescribably inspiring to me to walk in the footsteps of these legendary artists who have come before me,” Yannick says.

Audiences already feel the strong connection Yannick has made with the musicians of the Orchestra. He understands he’s working with an ensemble that has the “highest artistic level, a strong personality, and a rich history,” and his concerts over the last two seasons have given him a taste of the vast power and potential of The Philadelphia Orchestra that he can’t wait to unleash. “At the beginning, I would ask myself, ‘What is this famous Philadelphia Sound?’ And then, as the musicians responded to me, the magic would happen. Sometimes I would have the experience I was unlocking, or transporting us into history, and I could feel the audience almost respond: ‘Ah yes, we recognize that sound!’”

Yannick is keenly aware of the legacy he has inherited and the responsibility it entails, and he is energized about working with musicians whose unique sound has been carefully cultivated over the course of decades. “I’m not breaking with tradition or starting from a blank page,” he says. “This Orchestra already has a singular unity of purpose and an exceptional passion. I will now have the joy of bringing my own signature to our collective music-making.”

As far as his own musical genealogy, Yannick insists it’s the vocal aspect that has shaped his history and his life. Growing up in Montreal he started out playing the piano but decided, as a precocious 10 year old, that he wanted to be a conductor, a realization that he still considers a mystery. He studied at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec in Montreal and then, in his teens, specialized in choral conducting at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ. Later the great Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini took the 22 year old under his wing. In addition to studying technique and repertoire from the 80-year-old master, Yannick learned from him that “making music is an act of respect and love.”

Applying his grounding in operatic and choral conducting—long lyrical lines and breathing with the music—to the symphony, Yannick insists that the two forms are mutually dependent. In his first season, he has placed great emphasis on demonstrating his lyrical heart, and in particular the first two weeks will showcase his great aptitude in both the operatic and the symphonic genres. Opening Night features Renée Fleming, who Yannick considers “the lyric soprano of our time.” Following that gala inaugural concert, Yannick has chosen to begin the subscription season with a work that is personally meaningful to him, Verdi’s Requiem, which he calls an “operatic work” that is at once theatrical and sincere. “The Requiem is all about breathing, about touching souls,” he says, calling it “a great spiritual experience.”

This brilliant opening lays the groundwork for Yannick’s tenure in Philadelphia. He is eager to expand the repertoire for this orchestra that is already versatile in many styles, shifting between great romantic works, intimate period-informed performances, and contemporary pieces. Programs will be informative journeys that have a sense of occasion through collaborations with outside artistic partners, and seasons will be curated with large-scale themes that connect across weeks, months, or even seasons. “I hope,” says Yannick, “we will create an atmosphere in the concert hall that is fun, dynamic, and brings audiences to the edge of their seats.”

Growing up, Yannick would listen to his parents’ vinyl recordings of Herbert von Karajan and wave his arms around like a rookie maestro. “At that time I was dreaming of being in front of the Berlin Philharmonic or one of the Big Five American orchestras,” he says with a chuckle.

As he takes up his new role as the eighth music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick is excited to take up this next phase of his career. “I feel so lucky. I am certain that this relationship is right for this Orchestra at this moment. All that I have dreamt is coming true.” *

Damian Fowler is the managing editor of Playbill Classic Arts and writes frequently about classical music for a variety of major publications, including Vanity Fair, the Guardian, and Listen Music Magazine.




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