He fills our conversation with animated gestures, as impulsive and convincing as when he makes his cello sing. Jean-Guihen Queyras will be collaborating with the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal for the first time, and he's particularly glad to be rejoining Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whom he first met several years ago. “Yannick has so much charisma and exudes so much sunshine that everyone remembers their first meeting with him. Ours happened in Rotterdam in conditions that were frankly off the wall. The day before, I had played a concert quite far away and I had spent most of the day travelling by train and aeroplane. By the time I arrived, the rehearsal had already started, so I ran on stage with my cello, ready to play. That's were we were introduced for the first time, and Yannick put me at ease straight away with his unique brand of positivity.”

Jean-Guihen Queyras © Marco Borggreve
Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Marco Borggreve

If there's one label that you can safely apply to Yannick Nézét-Séguin, “positive” is definitely it. In our era, there are few conductors who have such a gift for bringing out the human feeling for music in their interpretations. “Yannick is an exceptional chamber musician. He doesn't just accompany, I really get the sensation of playing a duet with him, just as if he was at the piano and we were playing chamber music. And in addition to his ability to listen and react, he has strong powers of suggestion through music.” But if there's osmosis, it shouldn't be mistaken for improvisation. In fact, everything gets prepared up front, as Queyras explains: “We'll be meeting up in Montreal two days before the opening concert to discuss the work and sort out choices of tempo.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Orchestre Métropolitain © François Goupil
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Orchestre Métropolitain
© François Goupil

Composed in 1872 and premièred the following year, Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto no. 1 swiftly became a frequent choice in soloists' repertoire and is still played regularly, appealing to audiences with its carefree grace. “One of the attractions of the concerto is the lack of pauses between movements: it carries you along, gathers you into the flow of the music. Moving from one movement to the next isn't all that difficult, especially since the concerto is relatively short. It's nowhere near as tough as the project where I play all six Bach suites without a pause, over several evenings. That's so physical that I need a massage every day to put my body back into shape”.

For sure, in a shorter work but one that's more in the genre of a fantasy, a different form of seduction in operation. “There's a certain superficiality about the work, and I don't mean that in a negative way. When someone complained to Yo-Yo Ma about Saint-Saëns’ ‘lack of depth’, he replied quite correctly ‘You know, there's no need for every instant of one’s life to be deep’. So, for sure, it's not a concerto into which extreme subtlety of articulation is going to come into play – as it does, for example, in the Bach suites – but that doesn't take away anything from its charm, which is, let's be clear, absolutely fantastic!”

Do performers in need of inspiration listen to the way their peers play the piece? Queyras gives several answers which sometimes contradict each other. Queyras' unconditional faith in progress has freed him from the paralysing spectre of influenceability: “In the past, I scrupulously avoided listening to other versions in order not to be too influenced by the great masters of yesteryear. Now, I'm far more comfortable doing so, and I'm not embarrassed in the least by listening to a whole load of different versions and allowing myself to be inspired by them. I haven't done that with the Saint-Saëns yet, but I'll certainly be listening to Yo-Yo Ma, Fournier and Gendron, to name just a few.”

Jean-Guihen Queyras © Marco Borggreve
Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Marco Borggreve

Does one discern a French school of cello playing? There's no certainty there: many young musicians have looked up to Queyras as a beacon, but it's hard to declare that he is obviously in the footsteps of any of his elders. When asked, Queyras doesn't express a strong opinion one way or the other: “Of course, there are cellists I keep coming back to, but when there's a recorded heritage of the size that we have for the cello, one mustn't exclude anyone. It depends on the repertoire. If you're going to play Prokofiev, Shostakovich or Britten, you can't avoid Rostropovich. Yo-Yo Ma is still the master of intelligent phrasing, breath and charisma; Fournier's playing is breathtakingly handsome and elegant; Casals touches humanity to a point that brings me to tears.”

In the whirlwind of all theses travels and concerts, one thing never fades: the excitement of playing in a new hall. “The hall is really one of the performers in a concert: it has an overwhelming influence on how one plays. Whenever you play in a hall for the first time, you have to set about taming it, you have to take the time to get to know the acoustic. An example that springs to mind is the Haydn C major Concerto which I played last year with Yannick and the European Chamber Orchestra. The first date was in the Salzburg Mozarteum, very much a ‘chamber hall’ with 800 seats; the following day, we were at the Paris Philharmonie with its 2,400 seats. Comparing the audio from the two concerts, the difference was immediately obvious: when you have a space that is literally twice the size, you have to project far more to make sure you fill it.” The recent advent of vineyard-style halls, very much the style of the moment since the construction of the Berlin Philharmonie, brings with it a change of perspective, shifting the balance towards the audience, which itself becomes a player in the concert. “With their central stages, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and the Paris Philharmonie are close relatives. You play there as if you were in the middle of an arena, which means that the audience is also in contact with itself: instead of being plunged into obscurity, wherever the audience is seated, it sees other listeners. That closeness has its advantages, but it's also a challenge for the musicians, because it can be harder to concentrate...”

What style of hall does Queyras prefer playing in? Of course, it varies according to mood. But he admits to a gentle nostalgia for the very clear acoustics of the shoebox halls of the past, “even if they've fallen out of fashion”. Which doesn't stop him readily acknowledging the excellence of some of the most recent halls. “Where the halls in Hamburg and Paris have performed a real coup, it's in successfully creating an intimate acoustic in a hall that seats over 2,000 people”.

The Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg © Claudia Hoehne
The Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
© Claudia Hoehne

For a distant onlooker, travelling the world playing with the best orchestras in the best halls might sound like pure fun. But the life of a touring concert performer requires irreproachably good habits. “Touring demands real discipline. For example, when I wake up each morning, I do my morning exercise, a form of yoga that's genuinely essential for me to function. When time permits, I try to go out and do some walking. Then I'll work for a bit, do my packing. With all that, the day often goes by very quickly, so there's not always time to practise, apart from an hour before the rehearsal with the orchestra, to warm up and get the intonation sorted out.” While Queyras readily acknowledges the joy of being able to travel in the service of music, it's new repertoire that is his principal motivation. “I've always had an eclectic temperament. It's in my blood. When I was a young student, I was already very curious and I flirted with all sorts of repertoire. At the conservatoire, I was the one the composition students came to when they needed a guinea pig.” While it's important to avoid getting stuck for too long in a particular repertoire, Queyras says that isn't enough: “To be an interpreter, it's to be able to find oneself through exploring another person's universe: one is never quite the same when playing Bach or Kurtág. And when I play Saint-Saëns in a month's time, I will be living a different part of myself.”

Click here to see the dates of the Orchestre Métropolitain's European tour.
This interview was sponsored by the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal.

Translated from French by David Karlin