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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 6

Up Among the Stars!

by Yannick Nézet-Séguin talks with RÉJEAN BEAUCAGE / March 6, 2004

Version française...

Concerts, recordings, and innovative projects are driving the conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal. Now, on the eve of his concert with singer Diane Dufresne in a program of Kurt Weill's music, La Scena Musicale asks him about his many activities.

LSM: Your career seems to have been moving at the speed of light over the past few years, to the point where it's hard to keep up with what you're doing.

YNS: My career has always worked on a fairly simple premise: when I feel I've reached some sort of plateau, a comfortable situation, something always happens to launch me on a new trajectory. I think this is a good thing. I've tried to create this kind of dynamic, but trying doesn't always mean succeeding. Fortunately, I can count on my lucky star!

But thanks to experience, I'm beginning to feel that I'm much more in control of my resources, and I don't feel I have to be everywhere at once--not as much as before, in any case--although I'm still involved in plenty of things. In other words, I feel ready to take on the kinds of challenges that await me in a career that's moving into the international sphere. The timing is good for what is happening with me now, internationally. Before, it would have been too soon.

LSM: Early this year you announced that you had signed a contract with a London-based agency.

YNS: I was already represented by a New York agency before signing with Askonas Holt. I had already begun to "take root" in Canada. In the Canadian orchestral world, when things go well for a conductor, the word quickly gets around. Since I'd had the opportunity to form good relationships with musicians in the orchestras where I had been a guest conductor, the invitations flowed in. The signing with the British agency happened at just the right time--that is, at a moment when my ambition is to increase the network of venues to which I am invited, with, of course, the focus on Europe.

LSM: Can we expect some developments for the coming season?

YNS: Without going into much detail, I can already tell you that I'll make my European debut in the fall. I will also conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for the first time, as well as the Calgary Symphony. There will be some concert dates in the US as well.

LSM: It's surprising that the British came looking for you just when your first recording for ATMA had been released.

YNS: I don't think the CD played an important part in how things developed. However, I think the second CD ("Mahler 4," also with ATMA) will have a decisive effect. Its release comes at an opportune moment, and a large supply of CDs has already gone to the London office for promotion. You might say the planets are well aligned!

LSM: The two Opus prizes awarded the first CD at the end of January couldn't have come at a better time.

YNS: You're right! It's very encouraging for us in our work. Of course, we didn't expect to win two Opus prizes only a week before the second recording came out. It might seem like a fantastic marketing manoeuvre, but again it was just luck that made it all turn out so well.

LSM: La Chapelle de Montréal (the baroque vocal and instrumental ensemble of young music professionals directed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin) was forced to cut its last season short because of financial problems. What's the situation there?

YSN: Like many other groups, La Chapelle de Montréal has always worked within its means, and in this particular case it was truly a shoestring budget. We were able to make do for a time, but if we had gone on that way we would have reached a point of no return that would have bankrupted the organization. Stopping in mid-season was a difficult decision to make, but that's what had to be done so that we could hope to continue. Right now we're putting things in order. We won't be able to offer a whole season, but special projects, probably working with other music groups, will begin in 2005.

LSM: One might have expected that the reputation of its conductor would have helped the ensemble more.

YNS: Being well known isn't always enough to get funding, whether public or private. People might think that I had scuttled La Chapelle de Montréal in order to get a better footing on the international scene, but that's not the case. People might also think I would have found it difficult to manage the ensemble's development in the long run. However, you must remember that we're only talking about four concerts a year. It's not an insurmountable challenge. Early music is really an important part of what I like. For example, with La Chapelle we were planning to move from modern to baroque instruments. In December 2003 I had the pleasure of making my Toronto debut with the Christmas Oratorio performed by the Bach Consort, which I loved. I miss this music terribly when I have to do other things for too long. Actually, this is an aspect of my career that my new agency, Askonas Holt, won't neglect. The initial approach will probably be to let audiences know that I conduct Bruckner and Mahler, but also Bach and Monteverdi. La Chapelle has helped me develop this predilection and it's clear that my association with the group hasn't ended. Of course, I'm not the first to take on such a wide repertoire, but I think it's a tendency that is becoming general in my generation. I didn't fully realize how eclectic a repertoire I had been tackling until my agents pointed it out to


There's no doubt that I feel more comfortable with a particular repertoire, but I like to cultivate an eclectic approach. I find it nourishing. I get frustrated if I have to spend too much time away from creating something or performing baroque music. At the moment I'm conducting the orchestra for L'Opéra de Montréal's current production of La Bohème. I'm very happy with what we've been able to do. I always find it requires a lot of self-discipline, but I realize that I need less time these days to get to know the score. I use the time gained to go into the work in depth. Last summer, because of signing this contract with a new agency among other things, I felt almost dizzy. However I've managed to get back on solid ground since.

LSM: You may well speak of taking an eclectic approach, considering your first CD was devoted to Nino Rota, and your two upcoming concerts; one includes a concerto for DJ and orchestra, the other an entire program of Kurt Weill music. There really is a will to "be different" at the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal!

YNS: That's for sure. There's a genuine balance between what I consider the mission of a conductor today with regard to responsibility to the public and the classical music market, and the mission of the OMGM. The latter is very clear: it consists of getting the largest possible number of people in the general public to appreciate classical music. I find this an ideal mission; I think we've sown seeds in fertile ground and that we're now reaping a successful harvest that's been growing for some time. We've had to work under serious constraints to become Montreal's second most prestigious orchestra, but the presence of such constraints has been lucky for us, because it made us do something different. At the last meeting of the Association of Canadian Orchestras, everyone was talking about developing an artistic policy, a vision of building up audiences. I feel we have something of a head start in this respect, because we were forced to recognize these needs from the beginning. The same is true in Europe, in various forms, because public funding, like audiences, is shrinking everywhere. However, I'm not pessimistic about this; I simply think we must adopt another approach and get away from considering classical music as a museum piece.

LSM: That's right: people who attend your next Montreal concert tour in order to hear a DJ in Nicole Lyzée's composition will also hear Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Franck, and Ravel.

YNS: There you have it. I sincerely believe that a good proportion of them will come back to hear us in the future or in some way get closer to classical music. This is the spirit in which we could envisage doing a symphonic concert with Diane Dufresne and her usual repertoire, which would definitely not be lacking in interest. But inviting her to sing Kurt Weill is something else. In this particular case, finding a vocalist who can adapt perfectly to this special repertoire, which goes from cabaret to symphony, is a real coup. I don't think the audience will suffer while listening to Weill's Symphony No. 2 while waiting for Diane Dufresne. I believe they'll appreciate it, just as the people who came to hear La Strada last year were pleased to discover Nino Rota's concertos. The two events are in fact sister projects, and that's why the Weill program will also be recorded for an upcoming CD release.

LSM: That's another area in which the OMGM seems to be swimming against the current. Most orchestras are doing fewer and fewer recordings, while you seem to be steaming ahead.

YNS: Yes, and we have ATMA to thank for that. Personally, I wasn't in a hurry to record, because I like CDs a lot and I know the great and lasting effect they have. There's a legacy there for which you must be prepared. ATMA's Johanne Goyette suggested that we do a recording. She gave us a list of concertos that included Rota's works. However, I wanted the orchestra to have something weightier than the concerto form for this, and that's why La Strada was included. Johanne had already thought of doing three CDs over four years together, but things have speeded up because of the previous recording's excellent reception. I also realized that I love recording sessions and everything that surrounds making a CD. As for going against the current, I believe it's generally the case in the classical music recording industry in Quebec, which seems to have the wind in its sails. If you consider Analekta's production, early-music.com, or Empreintes Digitales, you get the sense that things are really on the move. The fact that major labels are experiencing a slow-down seems to be benefiting the small local and independent labels, which treat each project with great care.

LSM: Hasn't there also been a chamber music CD called "Conversations" with trombonist Alain Trudel?

YNS: He contacted me about this recording, even though we had never played together. I had to read his email two or three times because I was so surprised that he was approaching me as a pianist! However, I had quietly begun putting together several chamber music projects, because it's important for me not to neglect this aspect and to return occasionally to performing the music itself, without an intervening element. I believe it's healthy for a conductor to go back to being a performer on occasion. And I have other recording projects of this kind.

Diane Dufresne

LSM: How did Diane Dufresne's participation with the OMGM get started?

YNS: We've been working on this project for a long time. I had suggested to our committee a neo-classical program including several pieces by Kurt Weill. It was Yves Lefebvre, the general manager, who at the time asked me, "Why not have a complete Kurt Weill program?" I found this an interesting idea, but I saw that we'd have to find the singer capable of performing this very special repertoire. It would either have to be a classical singer like Teresa Stratas or Anne Sophie von Otter, or a singer like Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, or Ute Lemper. All types of voice could be thought of, but what counted most was personality. Weill's music has a kind of flayed tenderness, with something sullied about it, a rough, biting poetry. Diane Dufresne's name came up in committee fairly quickly. In September 2002 I was able to talk to her about the project. We didn't know each other personally. I had listened to her songs and I knew her great reputation. Even though the choice had been very obvious for us, one of her first questions was, "Why me?" The answer is because of her voice, clearly, but also because of her personality, and because Kurt Weill's world fits her like a second skin. I appreciated her artistic approach and I knew that she did nothing lightly, that she needed to identify herself totally with a project before becoming part of it. And in fact the project benefited from her presence, because she wasn't satisfied with just being in front of the music stand and singing. She discussed setting the background scene, putting the music in context. The program includes the best-known Kurt Weill songs, all sung in French (as some were originally written, or in translation). There'll be Alabama Song, September Song, J'attends un navire (My Ship), Le tango des matelots, (Sailor's Tango) etc. I'll be at the piano to accompany two more intimate songs, Nana's Lied et Je ne t'aime pas (I Do Not Love You). Weill's original orchestration calls for a big band type of ensemble. We therefore asked Simon Leclerc, a veritable genius, to arrange a score that would use our orchestra in full measure. For the time being, we're only planning a single performance of this program, but we'll see what the future holds. We're certainly pleased to see how fast tickets for this concert are being sold so far, even if this has forced us to change the venue and date. For us, this is another way of enlarging the orchestra's audiences and we're very open to this kind of collaboration as long as it's of the highest quality--which is definitely the case this time.

The program also includes the Threepenny Opera Suite in its original orchestration, without violins, but with drums, piano, saxophones, and so on. And then there's also Symphony No. 2, a work that I've dreamed of doing for a long time. It's neo-classical in the Stravinsky style, but the thematic material can be by none other than Kurt Weill, whose style is easily recognizable.

LSM: And the CD?

YNS: The recording dates haven't been settled yet, but they will probably take place fairly shortly after the concert, and I think you'll be able to listen to the CD in the fall. It will include the symphony and songs sung by Diane Dufresne. For our next CD we're thinking of continuing with Mahler, because we really enjoyed doing Symphony No. 4 and so far the reception seems to be pretty good.

LSM: To say the least!


Monday, March 15, 2004, 7:30 p.m., Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts

Information: (514) 842-2112

photo 1 credit : photo : Marie-Reine Mattera

photo 2 credit : photo : Marie-Reine Mattera

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