Among the new generation of kid conductors, Yannick Nézet-Séguin looks the youngest, but at 33 is one of the oldest. And while he ranks in the minds of many with the sensationally kinetic Gustavo Dudamel, he at times conducts like a wise old man.
Standing in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra yesterday morning, he confidently led the group through the core of its core repertoire, Tchaikovsky's
Symphony No. 6
, speaking entirely through his baton. Words were used only when charm was needed to apologize for canceling Tuesday's rehearsal.
"I'm sure you were
sad!" he joked in his French Canadian accent. The problem, he explained, was something he ate a few days ago - in Paris.
," chorused the orchestra in a playful expression of sympathy.
There was definitely work to be done on the Tchaikovsky symphony, but, oddly, less and less as each movement came perceptibly into focus, first time through.
Until recently, Nézet-Séguin was known, when known at all, as the conductor of the Orchestre Metropolitain de Grand Montreal, the city's No. 2 ensemble. But in just the last year, he replaced Valery Gergiev as chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and has a principal guest position with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Major-label recordings for Virgin Classics are on the way, as are three consecutive seasons conducting new productions at the Metropolitan Opera. Last summer's Salzburg Festival debut in Gounod's
Romeo and Juliet
arrives on DVD early next year.
His U.S. presence has been limited until now. Though Nézet-Séguin (pronounced Neh-ZAY Saygan - or just YNS) studied at Westminster College in Princeton as a teenager, his Philadelphia Orchestra guest engagement is only his second in the United States and is his first with one of the Big Five orchestras.
He has covered a lot of territory in very little time by sticking close to his parents, retired teachers who help him with the logistical aspects of his career - making sure there's a nice cold beer waiting for him when he finishes his concert, and reminding his cleaning lady to feed his three cats while he's away.
"When I stop and think about me - a little Quebecois - going around the world and to the so-called Big Five, it's completely overwhelming for me," he says.
"At the same time, I realize that music is music everywhere and that I have something to share with my own vision. Trying to be natural and your own self is the most difficult thing - a lifetime journey for me - but I'm always amazed how I'm welcomed. Never does it feel, at least for very long, 'Who is that kid and what does he want?' "
Actually, there have been times, says his London-based manager, Rupert Chandler, when reengagement talks have begun even before Nézet-Séguin has finished his first rehearsal. After he conducted three programs in Rotterdam, one of the violinists took him by the shoulders and exclaimed, "You belong to us!"
Still, there's that moment when meeting a major new orchestra like Philadelphia that requires a kind of fortitude that can be derived only from a near-religious sense of purpose.
For Nézet-Séguin, conversion to such purpose came at age 10. He remembers exactly where he was and what the day was like when he realized his future lay in conducting classical music, his primary role model being then-Montreal Symphony Orchestra chief conductor Charles Dutoit, now in Philadelphia.
Knowing that he couldn't just pick up his baton and start in, he learned piano at Conservatoire de Montreal and became accomplished enough that he still accompanies vocal recitals. But while Dutoit was a guiding light, two summers spent studying choral conducting at Westminster College (one with the famous Joseph Flummerfelt) made him much of what he is today. Recounting that, Nézet-Séguin starts talking metaphysically.
"I learned there how to breath. You realize the importance of the body language, how every gesture you make has a very subconscious effect on the singing and playing. It's more immediate with singing. I always remember this," he says. "I'm completely unaware of what I do. I apparently sweat a lot. But breathing is very important for me, and something I try to bring when I make music with orchestra."
Such attitudes also drew him to the great Italian maestro Carlo Maria Giulini, who was a gurulike presence on the podium and, like Nézet-Séguin, had an almost mystical rapport with the symphonic grandeur of Anton Bruckner's work. The younger man was able to work with Giulini during his last year of conducting, a few years before his 2005 death at age 91. They never talked metaphysics. In fact, Nézet-Séguin is a little embarrassed to admit that he brought up what he calls "young conductor" questions about managing this or that musical transition.
Another key moment came in 2000 when, instead of taking an assistant-conductor position with a big orchestra, he took the top post at the smaller one in Montreal, where opportunities were frequent and the stakes were lower.
The final result is a conductor whose goal during performances is freedom - and the option to exercise it in all sorts of ways. Nézet-Séguin swears he's not following in the footsteps of Gergiev, who generates performance excitement partly by keeping the players guessing as to what's next.
The Canadian gives himself the option to make a bad decision one night and correct it the next. His points of reference include a wide repertoire in which the great choral works of Bach loom large. He'll draw connections between composers who lived centuries apart, from Monteverdi to Verdi. He'll withhold vibrato in a Bruckner symphony not because of some authentic period-performance consideration, but because he's after an elevated, organlike sonority. Then when he conducts Tchaikovsky, the vibrato is big and wide.
Slavish, he's not. It's part of being a generalist, not by design but by necessity. "It's always been a strange physical need to approach as broad a range as possible. For me, when I spend a few months without Bach or Handel, I feel that I need my drug. Same with opera. I say that for virtually every aspect of the repertoire. I need it."