The young conductor takes over the Philadelphia Orchestra next year – James Jolly meets him
Knowing what to call conductors face-to-face has always been by far the most nerve-racking element in interviewing them. “Maestro”, for all but eminent Italians, seems dangerously ego-massaging in a profession not famed for its perspective (or sense of irony); British knights have the get-out of a gentle familiarity within a formal structure; but the majority of them provide the dilemma of first name being too chummy and “Mr X” sounding too much like a confrontation with the bank manager. With the French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, there’s no confusion. This boyish, enthusiastic young conductor is so friendly that anything other than Yannick would be just wrong. And I suspect that over the past few years “Yannick?”, addressed in a slightly pleading way, followed by a hasty brandishing of the diary, is a familiar mode of address. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has, in a very short time, become one of the hottest properties in the conducting world.
At the start of June he assumes the title of music director designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra, joining a lineage that includes Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach. And that post crowns his other appointments: music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and artistic director of the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal. He’s a man orchestras want to work with.
Until very recently every conducting debut must have been something like a date, with the peal of wedding bells a real possibility. “Yes, it’s true. Many of the orchestras I’ve visited in my recent history were at some point in need of a music director or engaged in a search for one. It’s like any corporation or major company. It’s always good to think of the future and even very traditional orchestras who have long-term music directors – even if it’s not for now – have to cultivate relationships with younger conductors so that eventually, 10 or 20 years down the road, there might be a close association. It’s true: it adds to the huge pressure of meeting an orchestra for the first time.” But he’s clearly a “good date” and, if rumour be true, it was love at first sight when he made his debut at New York’s Met a couple of years ago.
Nézet-Séguin’s passion for his work is rewarded by passion from his players. Tim Walker, chief executive and artistic director of the LPO, explained that as soon as he watched Yannick rehearse the Toronto Symphony back in March 2004 he knew he wanted to work with him. “I didn’t even speak to him then. I sat in the stalls for maybe 20 minutes and I was immediately struck by his energy, his manner, the way he treated the musicians and the music. He had such a bright and engaging personality.” And ever since their first concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the relationship between the conductor and the LPO has deepened. He’s just taken them on tour to Germany, and their plans together stretch way into the future, with more tours and a swathe of concerts that will bring us Haydn, Richard Strauss, Bartók and Poulenc, as well as concertos with Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2013. Yannick’s a perfect foil to the LPO’s principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, whose passion is for the musical byways: it works well, with the younger conductor exploring the core repertoire and drawing a quite different sound from the orchestra. And, of course, he brings something very special to French repertoire.