Michael Vitez: Philadelphia's newest star wields a baton, not a bat or a stick

Philadelphia Orchestra executives came to the Wells Fargo Center recently to see the orchestra perform the national anthem on the big screen.

In an effort to provide class, and improve the overall fan experience, the 76ers' new CEO, Adam Aron, hired the orchestra to record the anthem. The video will be played at every home game.

I was hanging with Aron that day, met the orchestra execs, and told them I had seen the Brahms Requiem. This really shocked them. I was impersonating a sports reporter, after all. Shows you how stereotypes run deep in both directions.

I loved Walt Frazier and Willie Mays growing up, but I also played trombone through eighth grade. (On a mid-career fellowship at the University of Michigan in 1995, I learned to play the fight song on trombone.)

In any case, I told the orchestra folks that I was blown away by their brand-new conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, by how much he pours himself into his performances. I told them that what he can do with his stick, his baton, is as impressive as that of any athlete in the city - as Utley with a bat, or Briere and his hockey stick.

They asked me if I wanted to meet Yannick.

And I did last Wednesday.

What a delightful man.

He had just flown in from Europe, where he spends most of his time these days, though he grew up in Montreal. He was in Philadelphia for two performances, Thursday and Friday. He doesn't officially start here as music director until the fall.

We started talking sports.

"Coming from Canada," he said, "hockey never really interested me, and to be honest, I find that everybody is more fighting than playing anyway, nowadays."

In Europe, he has "started to get more interest in football, well, soccer, and I like it more because I see people running, but there is hardly a goal there. And recently I watched basketball. I said, 'That's fun. You get a goal every minute.' I really like it."

When the Sixers came calling, he said, "I was especially thrilled . . . so I would love to go, to attend a game. It would be the first time in my life."

"I was never a contender to play basketball, for obvious reasons," he said.

He stands 5 feet, 4 inches.

Five or six years ago, Yannick, 36, discovered he needed something to "balance the music" and "release the tension." He was conducting 100 performances a year, all over the world, and he is a particularly physical conductor.

"I've always conceived my role as expressing the music through my whole body," he said. "Sometimes people say 'Oh, you're dancing.' Put me on a dance floor, you don't want to see. But somehow the music is expressing, through my body . . . something."

So he hired a personal trainer and became a gym rat.

"I go to the gym now five times a week," he said. "Now I could be built a little like a gymnast if I had started earlier. I have to be careful I don't want to get big. It's all about balancing my body so I don't get injured, to compensate for what conducting is asking of me."

Yannick did add that he has become a huge tennis fan, and had gotten up that morning to watch the Australian Open. His favorite player?

"[Rafael] Nadal. Clearly. Clearly. Of course one has to admire [Roger] Federer. But it's a different thing. Musicians always say, 'Oh Federer, it's so effortless.' "

But he has met Nadal and says that their ascendance to the world stage happened at roughly the same time and that Nadal's grandfather is a conductor.

"Nadal was very interested in music, actually, when we discussed."

After meeting Yannick, I went to see him conduct Mahler's Sixth Symphony Thursday.

When it ended, the woman in front of me said, "We have a new hero in Philadelphia."

They feel like they just signed Michael Jordan.

But Yannick is more like Allen Iverson.

Even for a conductor, he is little, and conducts with such passion, energy, and feeling. It is like he is diving after every loose ball, sacrificing his body for the team, creating magic and excitement - or trying to - with every wave of his baton.

There can be no argument that this is an athletic performance.

He winds down like a corkscrew and then explodes up, and thrusts his baton skyward, as if he were creating heaven and earth, and the orchestra responds with thunder. He will curl down to his left, almost on his knees, imploring, begging the violins for more soul. It is a treat as glorious as any in the city to see him command a 100-person orchestra.

A coda:

Yannick had to end our interview to go practice the harpsichord for his performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Number 5. (He was conducting Mahler from the podium but Bach from the keyboard.)

 He let me listen. It was like being alone in the gym with Larry Bird, watching him work on his shooting.

 


Watch Yannick Nézet-Séguin rehearse Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto Number 5" at philly.com/yannick.


Contact columnist Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com or on Twitter @michaelvitez.