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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Unconventional Maestro Makes Met Debut With ‘Carmen’: Interview

By Norman Lebrecht / December 31, 2009

Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who makes his Metropolitan Opera debut 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 one of them.

The 19th-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 Nezet-Seguin launched his career three years ago with a recording of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony that struck many critics, myself included, 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 chasing cheap rewards.

I caught up with him 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.

Coming Back

It is a show the Met hopes will stop the rot of a hitherto patchy season. Before he lifts the baton, Nezet-Seguin 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 pigeonholed in French repertoire,” he told me on the telephone. “But they let me put my imprimatur on a new production and they’ve agreed to let me do Italian opera next time -- I am not allowed to say which one.”

Breezy, informal and bristling with energy, he is in ascent on the world stage -- successor to Valery Gergiev at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and a fixture at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

What catches the eye with Nezet-Seguin is his communication skill. There is a YouTube video of him as a kid of 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 the choir of a Montreal cathedral, becoming its director at just 19. But it was five years later as conductor of the Orchestre Metropolitain Orchestra that his impact spread across the city, transforming a community orchestra that gave family Christmas shows into a crack ensemble that could challenge Kent Nagano’s Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

Country Life

Bruckner, he says, was his vocational awakening -- specifically, a church performance in his teens of the Ninth Symphony 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.”

A Roman Catholic, he shares the composer’s faith, but while many interpreters underline the devotional aspect of the music, Nezet-Seguin brings out its loving descriptions of country life before the machines took over. In the Eighth Symphony, 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 Nezet-Seguin’s hedge against the temptations 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.”

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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