Orchestra's new maestro looks ahead with verve

Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin rehearses with The Philadelphia Orchestra on October 17, 2012. Opening night is October 18. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )

Of the Philadelphia Orchestra's eight music directors in 112 years, none has arrived with the vessel-of-hope urgency that accompanies Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Bankruptcy and several years of organizational chaos have cast doubt on the orchestra as a going concern, and its public image has taken a beating.

"Beautiful but beleaguered," wrote the New Yorker in advance of the orchestra's Carnegie Hall concert this week. "Can These Philadelphians Be Fabulous Again?" asked the Wall Street Journal.

And yet the cherubic, modest Montrealer charged with reviving attendance, wooing donors, renovating concert formats, and maintaining musical standards seems almost irrationally cheerful about the atmosphere he has officially entered.

"I feel I have the tools for it," he said. "That's why it never scared me. At no moment I felt I wished I could have come in more stable and normal circumstances. I am happy to be here at a moment when I can be helpful."

Locally, a hopeful "Dewey Defeats Truman" phenomenon blew in ahead of the Yannick era even before its start. A headline in Philadelphia Style magazine channeled the sentiments of many orchestra board members and musicians when referring to Nézet-Séguin's "triumphant tenure" several days before he gave his actual first downbeat as music director at Thursday night's black-tie opening gala.

If it's a rescue mission, it's also a match of potentially tremendous mutual benefit. Nézet-Séguin, 37, has never held a post as high-profile as this one. While he is still formulating the main thrusts of his tenure, he says his overarching goal is creating a greater sense of ownership.

"I get that in this community, even if people are proud of the orchestra, I still feel that there is a lot of respect which is translating, instead of love, into a distanciation [French for distance] aspect."

He wasn't the orchestra's first choice for the job, whose compensation an orchestra spokeswoman declined to reveal (tax forms show that previous artistic chief Charles Dutoit was paid $1.47 million for the year ending Aug. 31, 2011). Talks with Simon Rattle had gotten far enough along that he and the orchestra were discussing where Rattle would live and which school his children might attend. Rattle instead stayed with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Nézet-Séguin's transition to Philadelphia will happen gradually. A two-hour interview last week was peppered with references to his new city, how "characterful, warm and open-minded" the orchestra's donors are, and his hopes for a very long tenure. He talks of owning a home here someday - perhaps an apartment in the city and a house farther out for weekends.


'Feeling at home'

For now, during Philadelphia visits he and Pierre Tourville, his partner of 16 years, will stay in an orchestra-owned condominium in the Rittenhouse. That will make three homes for the pair, who met as conservatory students.

"It's a lot of money, I know, but it's not wasted, because it does give me the sense of feeling at home. And cooking - even if it's only an omelet, it's me cooking, it's a different feeling from being in a hotel."

Two cats, operatically named Mélisande and Parsifal, will stay in Montreal for now. Two loving parents - academics Serge Séguin and Claudine Nézet - on the other hand, tend to hover near their Yannick, whose name means "little John," often traveling with him; his mother handles the schedule and website, his father the money. They like to attend his rehearsals.

But not Tourville, not often. A violist in one of Nézet-Séguin's other orchestras, Montreal's Orchestre Métropolitain, Tourville occasionally offers a musical opinion, but they keep musical worlds somewhat separate.

What would be risked by Tourville monitoring rehearsals, as previous music-directors' significant others often have done?

"Then it would become as if he is only there to support me or tell me what to do. As a conductor, I think it's such a learning process and a learning curve. And it's a very lonely one. I think this was maybe the best thing that [mentoring conductor Carlo Maria] Giulini taught me - that in the end it's all about developing yourself and your own strength, preparation, beliefs, style, to be a better musician and to be a better servant. And for this, any advice has to be relativized."

Still, he says, once in a while after a concert, partner will ask conductor whether he was really "convinced" by the way he interpreted a particular passage. "He's always right," says Nézet-Séguin. "But it's never a critique."

As a young conductor, he spends weeks off learning repertoire and listening to new artists he may want to engage. "But increasingly now, I'm listening to nonclassical. And for now I am crazy - but crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy - I had my big Ella Fitzgerald period, but now I am crazy about Sarah Vaughan. I buy everything I can. Through Sarah Vaughan I discovered Joe Pass, and now I buy everything he has done. I go with that area of jazz very much.

"On the other hand, the right thing for me to unwind is to listen to R&B. Not the too hip-hop one. I was happy to discover that Jill Scott, who I love, is from Philly. I am less into the men voices. I think Usher had a really great voice when he started, but I am less crazy about his music at the moment."

A Philadelphia Orchestra music director well-versed in Jill Scott and Usher signals an enormous generational shift. Nézet-Séguin promises a contemporization of the orchestra, in presentation if not actual content. In the Netherlands, where he is music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, he recently led a concert that put orchestral music in a very different context - not a hermetically sealed concert hall, but an old warehouse.

"We had 2,500 young people between 25 and 35 who came on a Saturday night to hear techno music, but then the orchestra played three sets of 20 minutes of purely acoustical music by Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Mozart. We had a soloist. And people could feel the energy of the orchestra, and we were featured as if an act, or the centerpiece, of an evening of techno music. They were so happy, they were all with their cellphones filming and they were all wanting to touch the orchestra. I can't wait to do something like that here."

The goal is to "get out of our comfort zone, as long as we play in the best quality possible and the real music that we know." Broadening appeal will include sharing the podium. The orchestra is planning to develop, and likely formalize, its relationships with several other conductors: Rattle, Vladimir Jurowski, Stéphane Denève, and Gianandrea Noseda.

"I believe in the philosophy that I shouldn't be here 52 weeks. . . . I believe it is healthy for an orchestra of the caliber of the Philadelphia Orchestra to also get access to the best, simply the best, there is. Soloists as well as guest conductors. It's very important to nurture the past relationships, to make sure that Charles [Dutoit] comes back, to make sure Christoph [Eschenbach] comes back, to try to have Riccardo Muti come back." The latter two are former music directors.

Nézet-Séguin has already spoken to some of these newer conductors about multi-week projects that would play out over several years and involve a larger collaboration among them, exploring certain composers, repertoire, or themes. What title or titles would they be given? "Principal guest" is the usual designation, but the orchestra is aiming for something more creative.

"I am sure that when I keep meeting individually with these people, that organically within the next months something will arise from that," he said. "I've already started talking to two of them. It's not only about repertoire; it can be also about repertoire/educational projects or Web content. It's another way of getting the orchestra into the 21st century."

For now, Nézet-Séguin is maintaining his titles in Montreal and Rotterdam, as well as regular guest appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and Bavarian Radio Orchestra.

"So it's five places plus my titled orchestras, so this is a much more restrictive circle than the 60-plus orchestras that I visited in my life. I have to live with this and see if I feel comfortable with this. Is it the right amount of time? Does the plan with special relationships with other conductors here work?

"This is for now what we agreed on doing for a few years. When we speak again in three years I will take a different decision."


Energy and excitement

In Rotterdam, after five years, he says he is "just starting to see results." The perception from others has been favorable, says Floris Don, a music journalist from the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad: "He gets good reviews. They talk about excitement and energy and getting the orchestra on the edge of their seats and the audience as well. You do hear the criticism that sometimes he's too smooth, that his Mahler, for instance, is too beautiful. But maybe this too is a compliment," says Don with a laugh.

The Dutch orchestra isn't without its funding challenges, as the traditional paternalistic government system of supporting the arts is under attack. Still, what's at stake in Philadelphia is survival, which depends on raising money quickly, and more of it than ever before.

Nézet-Séguin doesn't duck the severity of the problem, yet his naturally sunny disposition always seems to win out.

"Yes, money is an issue," he said. "Nobody wants to have the problems the orchestra had and is still having. But in order to overcome those problems, the great thing about it is that it does force the institution to become more creative."


Contact Peter Dobrin

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