While it’s sensitive, candid, accomplished, and polished in all of the right ways, the new documentary film Yannick: An Artist’s Journey still feels like an artifact from another time. Because it is.
Shot before the pandemic lockdown, the Susan Froemke film documents Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first season as music director at the Metropolitan Opera (2018-2019), though not neglecting the bigger biographical picture — including home movies, archival videos of his early performances, and, of course, his relationships with the Philadelphia Orchestra and his hometown Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal. It plays Wednesday in theaters nationally in two Fathom Events screenings.
Typically, Nézet-Séguin can be a drive-by media presence: With his life moving so fast, press interviews can be limited to five to-the-point minutes. This film has seemingly unlimited access to him, with fly-on-the-wall rehearsal footage of Met productions of La Traviata and Dialogue of the Carmelites — and with stars such as Diana Damrau and Isabel Leonard looking and acting even more charismatic offstage than on.
To Froemke’s great credit, Nézet-Séguin’s story tells itself here, with well-chosen footage and occasional voiceovers. Refreshingly absent are testimonials from colleagues: We get to decide if he’s a swell guy.
The whole package would’ve landed at a moment of peak Yannick had the Met — and his tenure there — proceeded without pandemic interruptions and other hitches. Curiosity about Nézet-Séguin would be growing to insatiable proportions among the New York public, and seemingly with that assumption, the film assumes its audience is at least somewhat familiar with Nézet-Séguin and the operatic world he inhabits there.
Of course, nothing went as planned. Thus, this admirable film arrives oddly at a time when the Met’s immediate future is uncertain due to labor union turmoil. Nézet-Séguin’s prestige has been battered by a perceived lack of support for the Met orchestra (though, by some accounts, he did all that he could).
Even more odd, the Nézet-Séguin we see in 2018 and 2019 is not the one we now know from recent Philadelphia Orchestra webcast concerts.
After the March 2020 shutdown, longtime Yannick watchers could easily conclude that the enforced rest could be the best thing for him, considering his history of courting exhaustion. Based on glimmers from filmed orchestra performances in both Philadelphia and Montreal during the pandemic, we can look forward to seeing some significant evolution once full-orchestra, in-person performances recommence.
But did anybody predict his emergence in a more exuberant wardrobe? One that might be described as “Elton John goes to Florida”? His hair color keeps changing, and his shoulder tattoo is expanding.
“Don’t try to fit in. Just be yourself,” says Nézet-Séguin to a group of students in the film. “The world wants for artists to be their true selves.”
He’s taking his own advice, and not just in cosmetic matters. His latest Deutsche Grammophon recording Introspection: Solo Piano Sessions (his first as a solo pianist) is a mixed program with a particularly bold, original performance of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 No. 1 that’s equally unexpected.
Then again, Nézet-Séguin talks in the film about the opportunity for constant evolution in the life of a performing artist. While his Philadelphia predecessor Charles Dutoit was the same artist from one decade to the next, evolution was an essential part of Nézet-Séguin’s upbringing.
“Talent is hard work ... Talent isn’t a miracle. Talent is an accident,” says Anisia Campos, who was his piano teacher from ages 13 to 21, speaking on camera before her 2020 death. “The teacher doesn’t give you talent. ... Little by little, the teacher detects something in the student that the others don’t have. It’s not better, it’s not worse ... it’s different.” And more different as time goes on.
Talent also requires support in order to function at full speed.
His partner, Pierre Tourville, is a major presence in the film. As students, they became roommates of convenience, “and the rest is history,” he says, assuming you know what that means.
Their on-camera mutual affection stops at embraces — is the film tip-toeing around their relationship? — though it’s clear that Nézet-Séguin counts heavily on Tourville’s dressing room visits at intermission, perhaps as a significant source of the easy confidence that the conductor exudes on the podium.
As poised as Nézet-Séguin is, the film reveals that one German orchestra debut had him so nervous that he was forgetting to breathe.
His parents traveled with him early on, and yes, they have plenty of camera time, too, his charming mother Claudine showing his childhood drawings. (Young Yannick drew Jesus obsessively, sometimes with an extravagant wardrobe.) A well-preserved color video shows the child Yannick conducting to a recording of Ravel’s Bolero — with gestures that are less precise than what he uses now, but not all that different.
A bigger surprise makes him more endearing: At the beginning and end, Nézet-Séguin is seen collapsing in his dressing room after a performance, looking very depleted — and utterly alone. No matter how much star performers are bolstered by surrounding loved ones, they are going out on stage more or less by themselves. And in this film, you sense what fortitude that can take.
“Yannick: An Artist’s Journey” plays at 1 and 6:30 p.m. July 7 at the University 6 and a dozen suburban theaters around the region. Tickets: $15-18. Information: metopera.org/information/an-artists-journey.