The drumroll that greeted the announcement Wednesday of Yannick Nézet-Séguin's first full Philadelphia Orchestra concert season came with surprises that perhaps even music pundits didn't see coming.
With highlights including an Oct. 18 season opener with opera star Renée Fleming; the Verdi Requiem with Marina Poplavskaya and Rolando Villazón; a fully staged The Rite of Spring in collaboration with the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival; and Bach's great and infrequently heard St. Matthew Passion, the 36-year-old incoming music director also let it drop (in an interview before the announcement) that the orchestra will record for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label.
And as early as this June, he said in a late-afternoon rollout at the Kimmel Center, he will conduct a short season of concerts at the Academy of Music - the orchestra's first series there since leaving for the Kimmel Center 10 years ago.
"I'm very optimistic that we will be back where we belong, both in the city and in the international eye," he said in the interview. "We're planning future tours. And you've witnessed in the concert hall . . . that the spirit is unbelievably high."
The overall theme, both of the 2012-13 season and the June 21-23 concerts at the Academy, will be the career of Leopold Stokowski, the British conductor who arrived at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra a century ago and turned a provincial ensemble into a world-class one. Many of the programs - including the nine subscription weeks Nézet-Séguin will conduct - will be Stokowski-esque, including the staging of The Rite of Spring Feb. 21, 23, and 24, 2013, in collaboration with the cutting-edge Ridge Theater Company, best known for the film Decasia.
The early-summer season at the Academy will include a two June 23 programs, one family concert taken entirely from the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia in which Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, and an "audience choice" in which requests will be fielded through social media, Internet, and other sources.
"I know that many disparaged the Academy for its acoustics, yet others remember the hall fondly, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to hear the orchestra for myself in the place that was their home for so long," he said in an e-mail earlier this week. "We must remember that the orchestra's wonderful Philadelphia sound was born in and blossomed as a result of that very hall."
As for the recordings, Nézet-Séguin will be working with Deutsche Grammophon with other orchestras - last summer he recorded Mozart's Don Giovanni in Baden Baden with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra - and he fully intends Philadelphia to be part of that contract. Details are still to come.
The 2012-2013 season will also include new works by high-profile composers Osvaldo Golijov (his Violin Concerto will have its U.S. premiere Jan. 16-19, 2013) and Oliver Knussen (whose still-untitled work will be given its world premiere Feb. 21, 23, and 24, 2013). Both composers are notorious for missing deadlines; fingers are crossed.
"Golijov was in the works when I arrived . . . I love Golijov's work," said Nézet-Séguin. "Knussen has had the commission for a long time. . . . I'm confident we're going to get it."
Another wild card is the high-profile Verdi Requiem: Superstar tenor Villazón has taken long absences from singing for health reasons. However, he sang Don Ottavio in Nézet-Séguin's Don Giovanni "and Rolando is truly back and in wonderful voice." (When the Requiem is performed at New York's Carnegie Hall on Oct. 23, after the Philadelphia performances, both conductor and tenor will be making their debuts in that venue. It will be one of four Philadelphia Orchestra appearances at Carnegie, three led by Nézet-Séguin, one by guest Simon Rattle.)
As for Poplavskaya, the Requiem's soprano, Nézet-Séguin appeared to form a strong bond with her during the recent Metropolitan Opera production of Faust, in which he is credited with conducting peacemaking negotiations between her and the strong-minded stage director, Des McAnuff. He declined to comfirm reports, except to say it's his job to keep everybody speaking to each other.
The inclusion of the Bach St. Matthew Passion (March 28 and 30, 2013) is unusual for Philadelphia Orchestra music directors; typically, baroque-era music is now left to such specialists as Nicholas McGegan, who will conduct Brandenburg Concertos April 18-20, 2013. However, French conductors don't typically keep that kind of distance from Bach. And having studied at Westminster College in Princeton (one of North America's choral meccas), Nézet-Séguin gravitates toward choral repertoire. "I hope I am very much a blend of many influences," he said, "that makes me my own man."
Guest conductors next season don't include the out-going Charles Dutoit, former music director Christoph Eschenbach, or the popular guest Vladimir Jurowski. But Nézet-Séguin assured they will be back in the future. In their places are old friends of the orchestra who will visit for multiple weeks, among them Stéphane Denève, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Gianandrea Noseda, Jaap van Zweden, and, most significantly, Berlin Philharmonic music director Rattle for two programs in May 2013, collaborating with Lang Lang and conducting symphonies of Beethoven and Sibelius.
Star soloists include cellist Alisa Weilerstein (Dec. 13-15); pianists Imogen Cooper (Jan. 10-12, 2013), André Watts (Feb. 1-2, 2013), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Feb. 21, 23 and 24, 2013), and Rudolf Buchbinder (March 8-10, 2013); and violinists Leonidas Kavakos (Jan. 16-19, 2013), Hilary Hahn (May 3-5, 2013) and Gil Shaham (May 23-25, 2013).
Also, the tradition of concert encores will be restored, "but not systematically," said Nézet-Séguin.
The lively press conference on Wednesday wasn't all complimentary. One man complained that the current season's programs are "stodgy." Nézet-Séguin replied that he's attempting to expand the repertoire. When asked what he's doing to attract younger audiences, some initiatives were outlined, but his answer was surprising: "That's on the verge of disrespect for the people who have been coming for 40 or 50 years."
No doubt, watching the Philadelphia Orchestra go through its bankruptcy agony couldn't have been easy for the Montrealer. "But this was not out of the blue for me," he said. "I knew when signing on that the finances were not good. Nobody tried to hide this from me. I need to say this very clearly. Neither management nor musicians have tried to make me take one side or the other. I was kept informed from a distance."
Did his faith ever ebb? "Never. I was sad but I never lost faith. It's hard to explain why. It's really related to what I felt coming to this orchestra and what I still feel and why I decided to come to this orchestra. . . .
"It was not part of my career plan to be with such an organization so early . . . but I fell in love with the orchestra and knew that I had to make some room for it . . . the unbelievable commitment of the musicians to the cause of their own sound and their music-making means there are no limits when I conduct. I can push and push them and there are no boundaries."
One can't help wondering: With so many young conductors such as Nézet-Séguin making big careers, do they confer among themselves?
Short answer: No. They're too busy. "Recently, Daniel Harding [the young British conductor] was in New York. He texted me. He Facebooked me. He said 'Let's have a beer, if nothing else.' It didn't happen. I was here. He was there. "And Gustavo [Dudamel]? We've never even shaken hands. Andris Nelsons, same thing."
Still, he said, "We all seem to have our places well assured for the future in this great world. And that's great."
The Orchestra's 2012-2013 Season
Oct. 18: The centenary season of Leopold Stokowski opens with a gala featuring soprano Renee Fleming.
Oct. 19-21: Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Verdi Requiem with Marina Poplavskaya and Rolando Villazón
Feb. 21, 23, and 24: Nézet-Séguin conducts The Rite of Spring, staged in collaboration with the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and the Ridge Theater.
March 28 and 30: Nézet-Séguin leads soloists, children's choir, double choir, and double orchestra in the orchestra's first performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 30 years.
Giancarlo Guerrero (Nov. 1-3); Emmanuel Krivine (Nov. 8-10); Stéphane Denève (Nov. 15-17, Nov. 23-25); Donald Runnicles (Nov. 29-Dec. 1, April 25-27); Gianandrea Noseda (Dec. 6-8, Dec. 13-15); Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (Jan. 31-Feb. 2, Feb. 14-16); Christoph von Dohnányi (March 8-10, March 14-16); Andrey Boreyko (March 21-23); Jaap van Zweden (April 4-6, April 11-13); Nicholas McGegan (April 18-20); Simon Rattle (May 9-11, May 16-19, May 17 at Carnegie Hall).
Pianists: Jonathan Biss (April 25-27); Rudolf Buchbinder (March 8-10); Imogen Cooper (Jan. 10-12); Kirill Gerstein (Nov. 1-3); Lang Lang (May 9-11); Denis Matsuev (Dec. 6-8); Christina and Michelle Naughton (Nov. 8-10); Garrick Ohlsson (April 4-6); Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Feb. 21, 23, 24); Lars Vogt (Nov. 29-Dec. 1); André Watts (Feb. 1-2). Violinists: Joshua Bell (Oct. 25-27); Leonidas Kavakos (Jan. 16-19); Hilary Hahn (May 3-5); Gil Shaham (May 23-25). Cellist: Alisa Weilerstein (Dec. 13-15). Principal trumpet: David Bilger (Feb. 14-16). Percussionist: Colin Currie (March 21-23).
Sopranos: Renée Fleming (Oct. 18); Marina Poplavskaya (Oct. 19-23); Barbara Hannigan (May 16-19). Mezzo-soprano: Christine Rice (Oct. 19-23). Tenor: Rolando Villazón (Oct. 19-23). Bass: Mikhail Petrenko (Oct. 19-23).
Choirs: American Boychoir (March 28, 30); Philadelphia Singers Chorale (Nov. 15-17; Dec. 23 (Handel's Messiah); Feb. 14-16); Westminster Symphonic Choir (Oct. 19-23; March 28, 30).