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Talk about orchestral manoeuvres

 

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A young Montreal conductor has landed two high-profile gigs in Europe. It may be a while before Canada gets him back to lead an orchestra at home, writes Robert Everett-Green

 

ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN

February 4, 2008

 

 

How did he get that job? A lot of conductors must have had that thought about Yannick Nézet-Séguin recently, probably more than once.

Till last spring, Nézet-Séguin was known mainly in the Montreal area, as the music director of l'Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal and a frequent conductor of l'Opéra de Montréal. His guest-conducting appearances elsewhere in Canada and the United States had been well received, and he had built a respectable library of recordings with the ATMA label in Quebec. It seemed only a matter of time before the 32-year-old Montrealer began to move up the ladder of orchestral jobs in Canada.

 

Everything changed in April, when Nézet-Séguin surprised everyone (including himself) by becoming the next principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. He will replace Valery Gergiev, one of the most prominent and exciting conductors on the planet.

 

In November, the London Philharmonic announced that they too wanted a steady relationship with the young Canadian, who will become the orchestra's principal guest conductor at about the same time he starts work in the Netherlands next fall. His first gigs with his new colleagues are still months away, but Nézet-Séguin seems certain to become the most prominent orchestral conductor Canada has ever produced.

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Historically, we've done better in the world's opera houses, both in singing and conducting. Wilfrid Pelletier was a fixture on the podium at the Metropolitan Opera in the forties, Mario Bernardi conducted Sadlers Wells in the sixties, and Yves Abel and Keri-Lynn Wilson (conductors of Nézet-Séguin's generation) both have busy careers, mainly in Europe.

 

Nézet-Séguin had only done a handful of concerts in Europe before arriving in Rotterdam for his debut program as a guest conductor, some months after Gergiev had announced his departure. He knew they were shopping, and liked the idea of a job in Europe, but thought it would take another four or five years to get one.

 

"I never imagined I was a real candidate," he said during a phone conversation, in advance of four performances in Toronto. "Maybe that's what got me the job, because I didn't act like someone who wanted the job. I just worked the way I always do." Even so, he was aware that he was coming under sharper scrutiny than usual, from players who have a lot of sway individually over who runs the show.

 

"An orchestra in a search is always a strange animal," he said. "I could feel they were testing me more than usual, asking more questions, resisting things I was asking them to do, to see if I had the balls to go ahead."

He describes himself as a risk-taker, willing to follow the impulse of the moment in performance even if it means colouring over the lines a little. That approach got a strong stamp of approval from the Dutch musicians, who voted unanimously in favour of his appointment.

 

His candidacy was also helped by his repertoire, if only because it doesn't overlap much with that of his predecessor. Gergiev's programs included plenty of Russian works, while Nézet-Séguin favours French music and late-Romantic Germanic repertoire: the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner, and the tone poems and orchestral songs of Richard Strauss.

The same logic advanced Nézet-Séguin's case at the London Philharmonic, which was looking for a foil for its new principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski. The orchestra had a "great tradition" in the works of Mahler and Bruckner during the reign of the late Klaus Tennstedt, Nézet-Séguin said, and they wanted someone to carry that on. He said he has been offered "almost total freedom" in programming his four concerts a year.

 

Nézet-Séguin initially studied piano with Anisia Campos at the Conservatoire in Montreal, though he knew he wanted to be a conductor by the time he was 10. He was particularly impressed by his early experience of concerts in a park, given by Charles Dutoit and l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.

 

"Dutoit would introduce pieces and be very accessible, and that had a big impact on me as a little boy," he said. "If it had not been for this, I would maybe never have been a conductor."

 

He began singing in the Catholic Cathedral choir when he was 8 or 9, eventually became a section leader, and took over as music director at age 18. He did extra work in harmony, analysis and history at the Conservatoire, but only took one year of formal conducting study, with Raffi Armenian.

 

"My main conducting teacher was actually my piano teacher, because a conductor is also an interpreter," he said. "She was a very old-school teacher, very strict and demanding. She wouldn't allow any compromise in my piano study just because I wanted to be a conductor. I remember some years, I was really angry with her, because she wanted to develop some aspect of my playing that I considered very superficial. But I'm so grateful now. I couldn't have wished for a better teacher." He spent a couple of summers at a choral-conducting workshop in Princeton, N.J., and a year of informal study with Carlo Maria Giulini, whom he followed around Europe, sitting in on rehearsals and occasionally meeting with the conductor.

 

Nézet-Séguin was much impressed by Giulini's "very simple and human approach to everything, to the music and to the musicians. He was very calm and respectful and collegial, whether he was working with l'Orchestre de Paris or a Spanish youth orchestra. I didn't know what to do with the amount of respect he was showing me." Gradually he realized that he was being taught the value of an open, trusting attitude, toward others and inevitably toward oneself.

 

Ironically, he never had much contact with his first conducting hero, Dutoit. "I tried twice to get permission to attend rehearsals with the OSM. I wrote them two letters, that were never answered."

 

The usual route for young Canadian conductors trying to get noticed is to enter competitions, leave the country, and jockey for an assistant's job with some well-known conductor. Nézet-Séguin was considering those options when l'Orchestre Métropolitain asked him to become its music director in 2000.

 

"When they offered me the job, I was really ready to leave, and become an assistant somewhere else," he said. Some people even counselled him to do that anyway, because they feared that if he stayed in Montreal with the city's "second" orchestra, he would be seen as a merely local conductor.

 

"I'm very thankful that Canada trusted me very early," he said. "Because I did not really expect that."

 

He remains fiercely loyal to his home town and his first orchestra. When the Berlin Philharmonic approached him with an offer to conduct three concerts in December, he turned them down, because he was already booked to perform several school concerts with l'Orchestre Métropolitain.

"It's a matter of survival, musically and personally, to be part of my own community," he said. His parents and two sisters, who are all teachers, still live in Montreal, and he expects to return often once he takes up his posts in Europe. And he plans to take Canadian music with him in the other direction. His Dutch audiences are probably ready for more Canadian music: Montreal's Claude Vivier may actually be better known in the Netherlands than in Canada, thanks to a major retrospective of the late composer's music at the Holland Festival several years ago.

 

"Rotterdam is a very modern city, and is known for its modern architecture and contemporary art," Nézet-Séguin said. "But the orchestra is quite conservative. So one of the goals is to develop the range of repertoire and to try to be more daring." It sounds like a good berth for a young conductor with an appetite for risk. The next question on this side of the water is whether we'll ever get him back, to lead a major Canadian orchestra.

 

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts a Tchaikovsky program with l'Orchestre Métropolitain at various Montreal-area venues from tonight through Friday (http://www.orchestremetropolitain.com). He performs music of Tchaikovsky and Dvorak with pianist Yundi Li and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 13, 14 and 16 at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall; and Bach's St. Matthew Passion with Toronto's Bach Consort at Eglinton St. George's United Church on

Feb. 15.

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I beleive once Nagano's contract expires, the MSO should seriously consider offering Nézet-Séguin a long term contract.

 

I agree but it is also very good for our worldwide reputation that Nézet-Séguin's talent is recognized. :thumbsup: :thumbsup:

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