“Sexy!” he says
, advising the orchestra’s first violin section from the podium as they rehearse in Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. Wearing a blue polo shirt, baton up high in his right hand, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin holds a muscled left arm toward the violins, his brown eyes glittering. A giggle rises from the cellos. Pianist Louis Lortie waits with folded hands at the concert grand parked downstage, ready to solo in Ravel’s G major concerto. The music’s sensuality is incongruous with the brightly lit room. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is dressed casually, which for some reason makes the ensemble seem smaller. Everyone attends to the conductor closely as he teases more and more amour
from the musicians’ sound.
“Enjoy the tensions in the work!” he demands. “It’s still too quiet. More generosity!” Nézet-Séguin tells the orchestra members how he wants certain motifs to shape up, how to sculpt phrases with dynamics and rhythm, fleshing out what will become his rendition of the score. The fast third movement, he explains to the orchestra, is a “motif being passed around [among orchestral sections]. It becomes like a bunch of flying toys come to life. They must be easy to hear, crisp. Don’t be nice — children are not nice to their toys. Get psycho!” At thirty-four, he recognizes that a respectful interpretation sometimes requires a little violence.
After the rehearsal, the conductor sips bottled water in his dressing room. The show is just one day away, and he says the TSO
is “sounding great.” It is, and it’s uncanny how Nézet-Séguin managed to evoke such a specific, vivid rendition while leaving the ensemble all smiles, without conflict or compromise.
“Leadership comes with complete honesty,” he says. “You have to stay true to yourself. Authority isn’t a mindset; in music, it comes from your actual individuality, and from knowing that all of life is learning and personal development. If I was assuming a persona,” he adds, “I’d have no authority at all.”
Authority has come quickly for Nézet-Séguin. Starting with the 2008–09 concert season, he was named music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and
principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic. That’s two A-list European appointments in one year, a unique Canadian achievement. Back in his hometown, he has been the artistic director and principal conductor of l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal since 2000, having already made many superb recordings with that ensemble on the ATMA
Classique label. For a young man born in 1975, he’s accomplished a great deal.
Like many classical success stories, he began studying piano early, at age five (conductors are often excellent pianists). Young Yannick’s fascination with conducting became evident when he was ten: his mother, Claudine, found that all her son’s drawings were orchestra related. One day, he saw himself in one such picture, on the podium, and he knew what he wanted. He began singing with the Petits Chanteurs at the Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde in Montreal. He was enchanted by the choir and the polyphony arising when his choral group sang with the adult choir, Le Choeur polyphonique. After a Conservatoire stint and choral conducting classes, he was, at nineteen, named director of the same adult choir. The following year, Le Choeur de Laval brought him on as conductor, beginning his professional conducting life, and he founded his own baroque ensemble, La Chapelle de Montréal.
When he was twenty-two, l’Opéra de Montréal hired him, first to prepare the choirs and conduct operas, then as musical advisor. That year, he also studied with renowned Italian maestro Carlo Maria Giulini. Nézet-Séguin travelled with the master to Paris and Madrid, soaking up his dramatic style, which was ripe and painterly, and capable of restructuring an orchestra’s sound mid-performance with just a glance.
Finally, at twenty-five, he landed at l’Orchestre Métropolitain. His ensuing ATMA
recordings include a transparent rendition of Mahler’s fourth symphony (2004), a brilliant interpretation of Mozart’s Lieder
with Nézet-Séguin accompanying soprano Suzie LeBlanc on fortepiano (2006), and a soaring version of Bruckner’s seventh symphony (2007).
People tend to think of classical music as they do Latin: a dead language, more a tradition than an art form. In this view, conducting is a type of scholarship. Twenty-first-century conductors will be responsible for reviving their trade, and this will require flair as much as it will rigour. Nézet-Séguin’s classical pedigree is impeccable, but how he hears is more important than what he knows — he’ll succeed according to how cleverly he deviates from tradition rather than how well he preserves it.
Many of us
first learned about conductors from the 1948 animated Warner Brothers cartoon “Long-Haired Hare.” In it, Bugs Bunny declares war on the blond, barrel-chested tenor next door, who is preparing to sing at the Hollywood Bowl. That night, Bugs walks onstage during the performance, wearing a powdered wig and evening dress, oozing entitlement. The musicians bow and scrape at the rabbit’s entrance, muttering, “Leopold,” as if he’s the real-life American maestro Leopold Stokowski. The stereotype of musicians cringing before a conductor is not arbitrary, though Stokowski himself was not that kind of despot. Others were.