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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 6

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, The Jetsetter

by Réjean Beaucage / March 31, 2007

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Despite his relatively young age of 31, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin already has an international reputation. At the offices of the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal (OMGM), Maestro Nézet-Séguin talked enthusiastically about his multitasking musical life. He had just come from a rehearsal and was scheduled for a televised interview later that morning and a concert that night. Still, there he was, relaxed, giving another interview. In a word, a typical work-day!

The big news

Last December it was annouced that Nézet-Séguin would become music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, succeeding Valery Gergiev. It must have been news that sent shivers down the spines of OMGM personnel.

YNS: It all happened very quickly. I conducted there for the first time in October 2005, and was asked back last fall. At that point, I felt there was real electricity between me and the orchestra. I realized that there was a possibility here, so I talked to André Dupras [OMGM’s general manager]. I spend about four months a year with the OMGM, so not much will change in that respect. My outside activities are the ones that will be under more pressure.

On his website (yannicknezetseguin.com), a message dated November 12, 2006, states: “I flew to Europe at the end of September, where I experienced one of the finest months of my life as a musician—visiting three top orchestras for the first time (Orchestre de la Suisse Romande-Genève, Orchestre National de France-Paris, and Sächsiche Staatskapelle-Dresden), in addition to another return engagement that I was very much looking forward to with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. My admiration and affection for this unique orchestra has only grown as a result of this second visit. I value highly the relationship that has developed with the musicians there.” So it’s a happy ending!

YNS: When I was writing that, I really felt my last visit to Rotterdam was something special. It’s true that I was looking for a position in Europe. When I started using the London agency, Askonas Holt, I did so with the aim of getting a position in Europe within two or three years. I thought of getting a position like principal guest conductor, but I would never have expected to get something such as the Rotterdam offer so quickly. It’s a great honour. I’m certainly very different from Gergiev in terms of my preferred repertoire and my working approach. He’s a genius, and he’s been around this orchestra for some fifteen years. He concentrated on the Russian repertoire, while I’m more inclined toward music that is outside the norm. That works very well, because Rotterdam is an ultra-modern city and wants to be recognised as such, but it plays very little music of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. This is an aspect that I’ve been given a mandate to develop. Also, I need to get to know Dutch music better, and I’m hoping, as well, to find room for Canadian composers and soloists.

A feverish February

Aside from conducting symphonic works, Yannick Nézet-Séguin also harbours a passion for opera, piano performance, and baroque music. He took advantage of an invitation from the Canadian Opera Company for nine performances of Gounod’s Faust in February, which gave him the opportunity to connect with different aspects of his métier.

YNS: If I have to spend two months in the same place, I take the opportunity to set up projects that are geographically compatible. In the case of Winterreise, which I did with Alexander Dobson, we’d been talking about it for a long time. He’s done it before, and we talked about it again when we did Wozzeck in 2006 at the TNM [Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde]. He lives near Toronto, and that made it convenient to work on my piano skills.

LSM: But at the level you’ve reached in conducting, is it useful to continue developing your piano skills?

YNS: Yes, because, for example, during my first season at Rotterdam, I’ll be involved in chamber music, which I want to do annually. I’m not saying I want to be a soloist—that was never my ambition; but performing a work like Winterreise is incredibly enriching. It helps me understand Schubert, whose Ninth I’m doing in Finland next year, and whose Unfinished I’ll be doing here. When it comes to baroque music, my association with the Bach Consort happened by accident three or four years ago, when I was asked to fill in for someone. There are always benefit concerts for charities, done mainly by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra musicians and excellent singers. I’ve already done the Christmas Oratorio twice, but this time I’ve suggested doing the Mass in G, which I haven’t conducted since 2000. I’ll also be doing this kind of repertoire in Rotterdam.

LSM: And since you were in Toronto on February 14, you happened to replace Valery Gergiev at the TSO’s podium at the last minute!

YNS: It was crazy . . . All day they were hoping he’d be able to land in Toronto, but because of the blizzard they thought it better to make an alternate plan, so they asked me if I would be prepared to fill in. Just in case, I had a general rehearsal with the orchestra. I’m not very familiar with the Stravinsky concertos that were on the program. Though I conducted the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune seven years ago, and La Mer somewhat more often. I told them I could help them out if need be, but that I had to conduct an opera that evening, after all! Well, the TSO and the Opera got together on this, and I realized that the TSO would have lost a great deal if it had been forced to cancel. When I entered the orchestra pit for Faust at 7:30 p.m., I was told that Gergiev’s plane had just taken off, but it was a mistake. So after the first act, I handed the baton over to Steven Philcox of the Canadian Opera Company and left to conduct the Debussy pieces [Gary Kulesha had just finished conducting the two Stravinsky concertos]. This was the fourth time I’d conducted the TSO, and I’d never heard them play like that!

French music

As the OMGM concert following our interview was called “Chanter à la française,” 2007 seems to be Nézet-Séguin’s year for French music. It began with a concert given by the Orchestre National du Capitole of Toulouse on January 1. There are other such concerts on his schedule: Gounod in Toronto, then Debussy, Poulenc and Fauré in Montréal, Debussy again in London with the London Symphony Orchestra (March 9), then more Debussy in Montreal; Ravel and Saint-Saëns in April with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, followed by Massenet and Poulenc in Barcelona in May.

YNS: It’s true, and it goes on . . . The French repertoire is becoming one of my specialties. I shouldn’t be surprised, particularly in the opera repertoire, as there is a tendency in other countries to propose this repertoire to a French-speaking conductor. This makes complete sense, especially when, as with the COC, one is working with singers who aren’t French-speaking (although they do very well, all the same). With regard to symphonic music, the French repertoire will also figure largely in Rotterdam. The orchestra there has incomparable virtuosity and energy, but I want to work with them on the very distinctive refinement of French music.

The OMGM and its conductor will be honouring the Montreal Arts Council this month on its 50th anniversary. During its concerts on the Island of Montreal, it will salute the city’s four founding populations: the French (Debussy’s La Mer), the English (Britten’s Four Sea-Interludes), the Irish (an Emily Doolittle composition commissioned by the Council), and the Scottish (An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, by Maxwell-Davies). The orchestra will also honour Quebec composer Pierre Mercure, who would have been 80 this year, by performing Kaléidoscope (1948).

YNS : The Montreal Arts Council literally made it possible for us to realize our mission, which is to make classical music more accessible. Without its help, that would be far more difficult. We developed the program with the Council’s people, on the basis of the emblems on the city’s coat of arms. In addition to the founding peoples, we also wanted to honour one of our own composers. Pierre Mercure came to mind—we’d done his Cantate pour une joie in February. He was a comet in our musical life, but he also left a considerable legacy with his work for television and his share in founding the SMCQ (Société de musique contemporaine du Québec). Along with La Mer and Four Sea Interludes, Kaléidoscope will be on our next recording, to be released in the fall by Atma. We’re starting to build a recording list that is getting international recognition, and I think it’s our duty to make our own musical heritage known as well.

It is actually remarkable that Nézet-Séguin’s first recording with the OMGM (devoted to Nino Rota) came out in February 2003 and that, four years later, the recording devoted to Bruchner’s Seventh, also with the OMGM, was the tenth recording on which his name appeared (nine are in the Atma catalogue, six of these being with the OMGM).

YNS : We certainly should congratulate Atma on its flexibility and the willingness of its director, Johanne Goyette, to take a chance—but we should also recognize the readiness of the orchestra’s musicians to make room in their schedules for recording sessions. The musicians don’t play for nothing, however. Atma, with the help of Sodec and Musicaction, pays the orchestra the standard fee and everyone is very happy with this partnership. We want to maintain an average of two CDs per year.

Down the road there will no doubt be recordings made elsewhere, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin will soon have a very impressive CD list! n

A Youthful and Satisfying Die Winterreise

Alexander Dobson, baritone

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, piano

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Heliconian Hall, Toronto

Dobson’s interpretation is powerful in a youthful, extroverted, heart-on-sleeve, dramatic, even operatic sort of way – appropriate for a singer still in his early 30s. With age and experience, his concept of the work is bound to take on greater chiaroscuro and introspection. Dobson handled the many changes of mood well; and I sensed a genuine and heart-felt connection to the music. He was greatly helped by conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the keyboard. One would never have guessed that it was Nézet-Séguin’s first stab at Winterreise – his playing was fresh, crisp, assured, well paced and, above all, very much alive, even on piano that was not up to the high standards of the major concert halls. Very much a singer’s conductor, Nézet-Séguin breathed in sync with the soloist as he sang and always offered sympathetic support. Kudos to him for not doing anything flashy to steal the spotlight! The 80 minutes went by in such a flash that I almost didn’t want it to end. Joseph So

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