In September, Yannick Nézet-Séguin becomes music director at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Taking on North America’s foremost opera house means that, while remaining with the Orchestre Métropolitain in his birthplace Montreal and the Philadelphia Orchestra, his tenure at the Rotterdam Philharmonic has come to its natural end. As the orchestra celebrates its hundredth birthday, it also bids farewell to its beloved principal conductor. The two jubilee concerts he conducted last weekend, starring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, were his last with the orchestra in that capacity.

Saturday’s concert was webstreamed across the globe and projected on a screen on Schouwburgplein, outside the orchestra’s home, De Doelen. An afternoon of live performances led up to the screening on the square, where indulgent weather contributed to a garden party atmosphere. Inside De Doelen you could get your photograph taken with a life-size cardboard cut-out Nézet-Séguin. The stage was hemmed with white garlands flecked with purple flowers, to match the purple seats. There were several speeches and two short films tracing the orchestra’s history and its decade-long relationship with the maestro. At the start of the evening, he was officially proclaimed honorary conductor (Valery Gergiev is the other one), guaranteeing he will return for guest appearances. After the intermission, Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb presented him with a gold medal, the Gouden Penning of the City of Rotterdam. Despite all these celebratory moments, the brilliantly constructed musical programme never felt disrupted.

Starting with a lone harpsichordist, the musicians made their entrance one by one, at first forming a Baroque ensemble, then ultimately reaching their full capacity to perform Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem Pines of Rome. Blending in with the musicians in a black tuxedo, DiDonato started with two Handel male characters in crisis. She performed the desperate “Scherza infida”, with gorgeous bassoon tears, and the vengeance cry “Svegliatevi nel core” as one scene, without applause in-between. Limbs atremble, she was a mass of impotent rage, varying the repeated sections of the arias with expressive simplicity. In an equally intense “Parto, parto” by Mozart, DiDonato crowned a fabulous duet with Julien Hervé on the basset clarinet with dazzling coloratura. More Mozart followed in the shape of a light-footed, heady “Haffner”, the first Mozart symphony Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra ever performed together.  

The programme became more theatrical as the orchestra’s numbers swelled. In a Berio arrangement of a Boccherini guitar quintet, based on a tune played at the changing of the guard in Madrid, Nézet-Séguin built the scene with great dynamic finesse. The thematic significance of this choice, as he passes the baton to his successor Lahav Shani, was not lost on those present. Having left her trouser roles behind her, DiDonato returned after the break, in a stunning gown shot with gold, to sing the melting romanza from Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini.  She then became a self-assured, ebullient Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Giving a delighted Nézet-Séguin conspiratorial looks, she made the audience roar at her head-spinning dexterity in “Una voce poco fa”.

In the grand finale, Respighi’s Pini di Roma, Nézet-Séguin captured the panoramic glide over the Eternal City with colourful radiance. After the rowdy children at play in the first movement, the hymns in the catacomb scene seemed to echo into limitless space. The silvery night at the Janiculum is an ideal piece to highlight each section of the orchestra and the Rotterdam players rendered it with silken beauty. With brass players strategically placed on the balconies, the march on the Appian Way was high drama in full shining armour. After such military might, the encore, Richard Strauss’s “Morgen”, felt a little anticlimactic. It is, however, a song about hope and reunion. Lusher voices have sung it, but DiDonato infused the text with reflective stillness, and it was a spotlight moment for concertmaster Marieke Blankestijn. The reciprocal love between Nézet-Séguin, his orchestra and the Rotterdam audience was evident every time he walked onstage to prolonged applause. With this encore, he reassured them that their love affair would continue. In a radio interview on Sunday he promised that his new job in Manhattan would spill over into future operatic projects in Manhattan on the Maas, as Rotterdam is sometimes called. Sounds like there are exciting times ahead.