Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Hans van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

Speaking over the phone with a total stranger can be awkward, but it’s not when the voice on the other end belongs to Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who exudes the same air of genuine geniality that he radiates from the podium of a concert stage. As a resident of Philadelphia, where Nézet-Séguin has been music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2012, I have been fortunate to experience the warmth he so effortlessly projects on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter whether he’s presiding over a glitzy opening night concert or leading a probing, thoughtful reading of a Mahler symphony: the joy of musical discovery and the ability to share these gifts with people, is always there.

In contrast with the forbidding image adopted by conductors of yore, Nézet-Séguin is refreshingly open and approachable; in political parlance, he’s the type you’d want to grab a beer with. But when we speak, he’s even more affable than usual. Perhaps that has something to do with the circumstances surrounding our conversation.

Nézet-Séguin – who, in addition to his Philadelphia perch has been the Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera since 2018 – is about to embark on a US tour with his first love: the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, which he has helmed since 2000. Joined by the internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, the tour will play engagements in Chicago, Ann Arbor, New York and Philadelphia.

Nézet-Séguin is excited to introduce the Orchestre Métropolitain to American audiences. He is also curious to see how audiences who may know him as a cultivator of the famous “Philadelphia Sound” or as a chameleonic interpreter of vast operatic repertoire, will receive his hometown orchestra.

“The orchestra is still relatively young – we are now about to celebrate our fortieth anniversary next season,” said Nézet-Séguin. “Compared to Philadelphia, which is 120 years old, it’s much more recent that the sound of the OM has developed into something recognizable. But I do believe there is now something recognizable about it, which has something to do with Montreal being very European as a city compared to the rest of North America. The approach of OM is very chamber-like, with a lot of listening going on between the sections and musicians. It’s also a sound that is very transparent and, dare I say, very tender, because the feeling in the orchestra is very family-like. As a result, there is a humility about the approach to music. It’s not an orchestra that is there to impress by being the most, the fastest, the loudest, the biggest. It’s more about serving the greater purpose of the music while exchanging between friends, like chamber music.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal © Francois Goupil
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal
© Francois Goupil

The concert will be anchored by a performance of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4. Nézet-Séguin has made the Austrian composer’s work a cornerstone of his repertoire: earlier this season, he conducted the MET Orchestra in its first-ever performances of Bruckner at Carnegie Hall and the Orchestre Métropolitain has recorded all nine of the composer’s symphonies. Nézet-Séguin views Bruckner as the ideal composer for the OM’s style. But that affinity wasn’t always the case.

“My own personal history with Bruckner was strange, because when I was a music student and started listening to recordings, I did not like Bruckner,” Nézet-Séguin said emphatically. “I thought something was wrong with me and clearly something was! Maybe it was because recordings didn’t give the complete sense. In some music, the difference is even more striking. It took me some years when I experienced it in concert and I fell in love with this music. When I first conducted a symphony by Bruckner, it was the Ninth and I believe I was twenty-six or something like this. Immediately I conducted it from memory and that told me something about how I felt at home with his music. And this is why he was a very early composer where we embarked with the OM, and me with ATMA Classique, on this journey of recording all the symphonies.

“These are cathedrals of sound and they are very large symphonies, but unlike Mahler it doesn’t give a lot of very individual reward for an orchestral musician,” Nézet-Séguin continues. “The reward is that, collectively, we get the sense that we serve some greater purpose. That is the spirituality of this music. I think that me being still a very spiritual person and having my roots and upbringing as a Catholic and church music all comes together in Bruckner. Québec in general being very close to the Catholic faith perhaps also explains this connection between the OM and the music. It’s also wonderful for us to start revisiting these pieces. I conducted all these symphonies for the first time over the years and they played them for the first time as an orchestra, as we discovered the language of this composer together. We are at the point now where we are gradually revisiting these masterpieces and this will be the case with the Fourth.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal © Simon Couturier
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal
© Simon Couturier

Words like “service,” “humility” and “family” come up often when Nézet-Séguin speaks about the OM, and his own familial connections with the orchestra are quite strong. Montreal remains a home base for the conductor, even as his career increasingly includes long stretches of time spent in the United States and Europe. His longtime partner, Pierre Tourville, is the OM’s associate principal violist. Several weeks before we spoke, the musicians decided to permanently cement their relationship by offering Nézet-Séguin a lifetime contract, which he accepted. The move is not unprecedented – Karajan had one with the Berlin Phil – but it is also not common and it speaks to the kinship between the conductor and his ranks.

“For the past ten years, with my increasing commitments elsewhere, there was this eternal ongoing question, from the outside and from the musicians, about whether I was going to leave at some point,” Nézet-Séguin said. “I kept repeating no, I feel so good here. It started for me as a duty almost a decade ago, when I said I need to give back to this orchestra that gave me my first chance when I was only a baby conductor at 25.”

“Now that things are going better, I want to give back,” he continues. “I love my city of Montreal and my partner, who plays in the orchestra. Eventually it became that the work on an artistic level became increasingly gratifying, as the orchestra developed its quality and its confidence and I started to realize there’s something really unique about being twenty years with the same ensemble. There are some things that I can achieve here that I still can’t achieve anywhere else, because we know each other so well. Gradually, I began to think that I would never want to leave, and the orchestra kept telling me that they didn’t want me to leave. At some point, we sat down and said: “Why do we keep obsessing over when I’m going to leave?” A contract like this, for life, is extremely moving for me as a mark of trust and I think it’s moving for them. But we’re like every other orchestra, which means there are still guest conductors and projects and I have my other lives in Philadelphia and at the Met. I just think this is very beautiful and I want it to be a tribute to the value of making music together.”

Nézet-Séguin strategically chose the venues for the US tour in order to introduce the OM to a wide expanse of North American music lovers. He has only performed in Chicago once before, with the Rotterdam Philharmonic – a planned debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had to be cancelled due to illness – so bringing the OM to Symphony Center feels like a bit of unfinished business, according to the conductor. He praises the Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor as “a wonderfully historic venue for classical music in the country and very important for the development of classical music in the Midwest”.

In New York and Philadelphia, the OM will play on stages with which Nézet-Séguin is intimately familiar. He is a Perspectives artist at Carnegie Hall, where he regularly brings both the MET Orchestra and the Philadelphians. In Philly, the concert will take place at Verizon Hall, which has been the Philadelphia Orchestra’s home for nearly two decades.

“It was a dream for me to bring the orchestra to Carnegie Hall, and Carnegie was very interested because I was already set to be a Perspectives artists this season,” Nézet-Séguin said. “Similar to when I brought OM to Rotterdam, which was very moving to have them play in the hall of my European family, it was important for me to be able to bring them to my Philadelphia family. That was absolutely crucial to me if we were going to bring this tour to the United States. We just wanted to make sure that we play in the best places, the best venues, the best halls.”

The choice of DiDonato as a featured soloist was an easy one. The pair have worked together for many years and are currently touring an evening of Schubert’s Winterreise that will also come to Carnegie Hall in December.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal

“It’s incredible how life works sometimes,” Nézet-Séguin said. “We’ve always been very close to each other. The Schubert was actually an idea that took many years to come to fruition. She wanted to do a recital with me and I was thrilled and we just booked some dates. But this tour was based on the dates and where we would go and of course we needed a soloist. We thought of many people and at some point I remember thinking it’s a no-brainer: it must be Joyce! She is one of my closest friends in music and we also met for the first time when she came to do a gala concert in Montreal with Renée Fleming, Matthew Polenzani and Diana Damrau. You can imagine how good that sounded. I thought she would be too busy, but she made herself free and now the story is even more beautiful than when we first imagined it.”

The OM’s North American tour comes on the heels of an already busy fall for Nézet-Séguin. He’s already conducted the opening night of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as four weeks of subscription concerts. At the Met, he’s led Turandot and is preparing a new production of Wozzeck. (There was even one Saturday where he conducted Turandot at the Met in the afternoon and a Mahler 5 in Philadelphia in the evening.) Immediately prior to the OM tour, he’s taking the Philadelphians on a ten-day trip to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

The man seems allergic to relaxation, but I have to ask him what he considers an ideal day off. “The real ideal is a day spent focusing on the body, which means, massage, spa, work out, walk or jog outside. That is what I usually do when I can. But the second ideal day is when I can wake up and have nothing to study and I can just try to empty my inbox.”

Nézet-Séguin doesn’t have many days off in his immediate future. That may be bad for his inbox, but it’s a boon for music lovers around the world.

Click here to find out more about the OM North American tour.


This article was sponsored by the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal