Yannick Nézet-Séguin is today one of the most in-demand conductors around, thanks in part to the way he defines a good performance.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a world-famous conductor and pianist. He has conducted over forty-five recordings of orchestra, vocal recital, and opera, winning three Grammy nominations, and has worked with many of the major orchestras of Europe and North America.
Born in Montreal in 1975, Nézet-Séguin began to study piano at age 5 and decided to become an orchestra conductor at age 10. He studied at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec and at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ. He became the musical director of the Chœur polyphonique de Montréal in 1994. By age 25, he was music director of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montréal. He was named as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2010 and was principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 2008 to 2018. After conducting regularly at New York’s Metropolitan Opera since 2009, he became music director there in 2018.
He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor, in 2012.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is getting rock star responses to concerts of music written a century or two before there even were rock stars. Today there are few major orchestras in the world he hasn’t conducted. This, in addition to music directorships with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain and as of fall 2018, the Metropolitan Opera. Wherever he goes Yannick Nézet-Séguin can be counted on to coax the best out of musicians and audiences alike.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: We definitely are too uptight about how we should react to a symphony. The fact of it being a monument, a symbol of our society, should not make people stiff and afraid of letting it go, even maybe follow the music with their bodies.
And over the four years that we’ve been keeping up with him Nézet-Séguin has expressed evolving theories on his alchemistic profession.
Nézet-Séguin: To me, conducting is about making everyone feel secure, self-confident, empowered, also, to express at the best of their capacities. And this is the greatest thing in conducting. And this is my highest task, in a way, is to make sure that everyone there is just expressing freely because I’m not expressing anything, the orchestra is.
Nézet-Séguin: I believe in telepathy I believe in a certain energy that is the one that we still don’t understand, that other energy and where music is. This is also why music is the language it is and why music is so important to go beyond words, or in parallel with words and with body language and all of this. If I look at my close friends and family and partner in life, I don’t need to talk with Pierre to share what we love, what I marvel at, what makes me speechless, what makes me sad, what makes me angry and same for him.
“When I started to make music I was your age, maybe even younger, about the same age. And we all did when we started music. And we make music because we think it’s the best language.”
Nézet-Séguin: I decided, at 10 years old, I’m going to become a conductor. There’s no logical answer as to why I said that, except that I had a gut feeling and I had the right environment, probably, just to allow me to listen to that gut feeling. My parents were putting classical music records–– Beethoven Pastoral, Beethoven 5, Mozart 40, 41, Tchaikovsky 6 with Ormandy, Philadelphia, a lot of Bach, organ Bach with Karl Richter. So, a wide range of things. Chopin as well, and I decided, like my sisters, that I wanted to have piano lessons. I was just playing any song from memory, or just my ears, and not really practicing what I needed to do. So, my teacher was constantly after me for that, and the good thing is that my parents were not they were behind me there, trying to encourage me, but never forcing me.
AJC: You were the baby of the family as well.
Nézet-Séguin: I was, yes—
AJC: So you were getting away with a lot of things that your sisters weren’t getting away with.
Nézet-Séguin: Probably, but the fact of not being forced, I think, was what made that eventually became my love, music. But, it became love just when I started singing in a choir. And that came also almost by accident. It’s just, I happened to be in my regular elementary school and there were some people visiting from that choir and just say, ‘oh, we’re looking for new voices, so, if anyone’s interested.’ I thought, ‘yeah, I’m interested’ and then it became a family affair. I could also bring all my family there and evolve and develop through that channel of chorus and making music in a group which is probably what really turned me on.
It was, as a prodigious 25 year-old that Nézet-Séguin took charge of his hometown’s Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal, an underdog that had only had regular concert seasons since 1985.
Nézet-Séguin: Sometimes when I’m asked, “Don’t you think it’s really fast? Your career went fast?” Internationally, yes, I cannot complain that it went slow, but it was rooted in a long 10 years of being in one city and doing the repertoire and making my own mistakes and my own personality that was, you know, I was able to define at that time.
Those mistakes proved fruitful and today musicians have myriad exclamations for his chemistry with them. One of the most inclusive comes from his frequent collaborator, the internationally renowned pianist, Hélène Grimaud.
Hélène Grimaud: Whether it’s the musical intelligence, the energy, the heart, the intuition, they’re all there on a high level and in equal proportions and it makes this instant… He has the ability to just tap into whatever is necessary to get the result from the partners that are in front of him. It’s not even to get it, it’s to invite it, and that’s also wonderful because he’s very clear. He has this natural authority, but without being bossy or obnoxious about it.
All Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s virtues will be called upon as he takes on the cultural behemoth that is the Metropolitan Opera.
Nézet-Séguin: I walked through the Lincoln Center Plaza and looked at the big arches and I actually couldn’t look. This was too overwhelming. And I had so much doubts then of, ‘What have I done, this is way too big for me.’ And then, of course, as soon as I step on the podium and I establish this rapport, then all of these thoughts just evaporate. To this day, of course, and I’m sure it’s going to stay, I still think there’s another person, you know? Is it really me, am I really there? It was so much a dream that it was not even a dream and then it’s happening.