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

has come a long way since his debut as a guest conductor with Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain in 1998. Principal conductor posts at the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestras followed, along with Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic. The man dubbed “Mighty Mouse” by mezzo Joyce DiDonato is hugely popular with musicians and audiences alike and is in demand everywhere. He takes up his new post as Music Director at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2020/21 season. Yet Nézet-Séguin remains loyal to his Montreal orchestra, where he’s been music director since 2000. This autumn, he leads the OM on a European tour which Nézet-Séguin views as its biggest adventure to date.

“This is such a prestigious tour,” he admits, “a blend of the older established halls and new ones like the Paris Philharmonie and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.” Although a major milestone for the orchestra, touring must bring its own challenges. “Touring is about sharing our own vision of the world and getting an impression of another world… so when we are playing in other halls, we should be our own selves, we should represent who we are and we should sound different to the resident orchestras. Otherwise, why should we travel halfway around the world to sound the same as the audience’s usual orchestra? A good example of this is the Concertgebouw. I play with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in this hall very often, but when we go there, we don’t want to sound like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. It’s important to retain our own sound.

“Adapting to each acoustic is something which I’m very experienced at but for the OM some of the musicians are a bit anxious, especially if there’s only a sound check of 20-30 minutes. But I reminded them that one of the core things we do here in Montreal is to go from venue to venue. We play concerts not only in the main symphonic hall downtown but also in churches and other auditoriums and most of them do not have good acoustics so the musicians have already developed a muscle to adapt to various acoustics. That will be very helpful for this tour."

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© François Goupil

Nézet-Séguin remembers his OM debut as if it were yesterday, an ambitious programme of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Second Symphony. “It was immediately obvious that our destinies were sealed together and that’s why it was almost a no-brainer when I was offered the responsibility two years later to take on the chief conductor role.” Nézet-Séguin consciously broadened the orchestra’s repertoire to the extent that quite a lot of the works they perform were learnt together.

Bruckner has become an orchestral speciality. When we spoke, they were about to record the Fifth Symphony, the final one in the cycle for Atma Classique. Bruckner was not, I suggest, natural territory for the OM. “Absolutely not. It was my inclination by being fascinated with Bruckner. The first I conducted with them was the Ninth and soon after we started recording all of them. Bruckner’s symphonies were something I felt personally attracted towards and they were a way for us to work on this kind of central European culture and its very special sound world. However, there’s probably something about my Catholic background in Quebec that connects me to Bruckner, as well as the pastoral qualities of the works which are also familiar to where the orchestra and I grew up. Bruckner has helped us to develop our own sound.”

The Orchestre Métropolitain in action
© Antoine Saito

How would Nézet-Séguin describe that sound? “It’s very transparent. Of all my orchestras, the OM’s has the most tender sound. There is something pure and delicate and very expressive about it. They have the music in their hearts – there’s a purity about it, but it’s not clinical. They are used to playing for the Opéra de Montréal and they love to work with singers, therefore there’s a flexibility to their sound, there’s a listening quality which runs across all sections. The timing of this tour couldn’t be better for showing the world what a special instrument it is.”

For its tour, Nézet-Séguin wants to pay tribute to Canada’s two founding cultures – English and French – hence programmes which features both, along with some Québécois music. I suggest that Elgar isn’t performed that much in Europe outside of the UK and, perhaps, Germany. “I never really understood these reservations about Elgar in Europe,” confesses Nézet-Séguin. “For me the Enigma Variations and the Cello Concerto are masterpieces. I think the orchestra will be able to show its background in English culture – richness without undue heaviness and this is what is very important and difficult to achieve in Elgar. You want to play it like Brahms but also don’t want the cerebral approach which ends up putting too much weight on it. On the contrary, the Enigmas are all about humour and spirit, therefore it’s a unique blend and I’m happy that German halls will hear us playing Elgar. They are good vehicles, along with Debussy, to show the special qualities of the OM.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the OM
© François Goupil

Among the soloists on tour with the OM is Canadian mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux, singing Berlioz’s song cycle Les Nuits d’été. Nézet-Séguin is immediately wreathed in smiles at the mere mention of her name. “She’s incredible, so genuine. Her humour is legendary but I think she and I share the same really true and passionate love for music... although that doesn’t mean that everything has to be completely serious. There are many moments when we laugh together, and as many moments when we actually cry. The last time we worked together we did Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and it was very difficult to refrain from being overcome by the emotion of the music. There’s an authentic personality in Marie-Nicole which is very inspiring and which we can all relate to.”

Away from the concert hall, Nézet-Séguin works out in the gym – the cause of DiDonato’s “Mighty Mouse” tag. He was never sporty as a child – “I was the typical geeky student” – but he realised that the kind of freedom he wanted on the podium included a great physicality. "I didn’t want to be restrained by potential injuries so I needed to start working out and it has proved the right way for me to think about something else other than music for a while. It’s important to keep your body in good health, good shape. It’s not easy to be a musician. It’s very physical.”

Post-concert relaxation is also important. “It’s almost sacred after a concert to go and have a nice meal and a drink. It’s important to enjoy and reflect and have a human connection. We’re here to express life so we have to live! We don’t want to be in a vicious circle where there’s nothing possible outside of music. I consider myself as a musician first and foremost. Music is my life but I need to live it.”

Click here to view the OM tour dates.


Article sponsored by the Orchestre Métropolitain