Yannick Nézet-Séguin staying true to his musical roots

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo: Hans van der Woerd

Recently the leaders of three major national arts institutions were talking about the importance of cultural diplomacy for Canada.

They might have been thinking about Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The 44 year old Montrealer is certainly an ambassador for Canadian classical music. He holds two of the most important musical directorships in the United States — the Philadelphia Orchestra with predecessors such as Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, and Riccardo Muti; and now the baton at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

That’s big time in any book.

But Nézet-Séguin is also true to his roots. To that point he was conducting the Orchestre Metropolitain in Southam Hall in the National Arts Centre on Thursday evening.

He’s also generous with his time giving an interview to ARTSFILE Thursday during a break in an afternoon rehearsal after a bus ride from Montreal.

The program in Ottawa included a symphony by the great Quebec composer Jacques Hétu, who was an alumnus of the University of Ottawa.

“It’s an anniversary this year, the 10th of his passing. I think it is important in general for orchestras everywhere in the world, not only to commission new music, but to nurture and keep alive the repertoire of composers from the previous generations.

“Jacques Hétu is certainly a determining figure in Quebec music and artistic development. This (Symphony No 5, Op. 81) is interesting because it is a choral symphony. I consider it his masterpiece, or one of his masterpieces. I think that it tends not to be programmed much because of the presence of the chorus.

“This was why we thought it would be a good idea to pair it with another choral work not only because of the presence of the chorus but also to draw a parallel between the preoccupations of the 18th century.”

That other work is Mozart’s Mass in C minor. In this work, Nézet-Séguin said, Mozart put all his doubts and fears of his employment, his father and his wife Constanza’s illness. In the case of Hétu, he said, the work is about the German occupation of France in the Second World War. But it is also about Hétu’s own journey through cancer.

“He started by being hopeful composing the last movement. Then in the previous movements he was told he was dying. I feel there is a parallel between the centuries and how the setting of words in music can be universal and personal at once.”

The voice is something that runs through Nézet-Séguin’s career from the beginning.

“I am a man from the chorus. Not only that, but I see constantly the power of having choral and orchestral forces joined together to always convey a message that is stronger than purely instrumental music.

“There has always been a very important place in programming choruses, especially our Orchestre Metropolitain chorus. We have increased the number of concerts with them now and will increase it more when we announce our next season which will be our 40th.”

Nézet-Séguin got his first job as a music director with the Chœur polyphonique de Montréal in 1994 and then with the Choeur de Laval in 1995. In that year, he founded his own professional orchestral and vocal ensemble, La Chapelle de Montréal. He also had a stint with the Opéra de Montréal.

With this background, and his strong background in orchestral music via the famous Philadelphia Orchestra and his post in Rotterdam, it’s a natural progression to his job with the Metropolitan Opera.

Juggling all of his various directorships is actually “working marvellously so far. It’s the right regime for me. It’s the right balance and combination.

“More specifically, about symphonic and opera, I think those two words tend to be separate and yet they obviously come from the same source. Any symphonic music has originated from composers and ensembles attached to theatres. Opera came first is what I am saying.

“Therefore voice is always a priority. So listening to each other, breathing together, phrasing is a priority.” For opera living in the moment is also important, he said.

“Sometimes in symphonic music we forget about this and micro-manage too many variables. It’s good to have the mix. The other part is that my experience in symphonic music is helping me through rich and thick opera scores such as the Wozzeck that I just did at the Met. Of course, it is great to have the opportunity to be in both musical worlds.”

In New York, Nézet-Séguin is working hard to bring opera to a wider community. He’s commissioned two operas by women and adaptations of modern novels by Michael Chabon and George Saunders. And the Met will be holding smaller more accessible performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in Central Park and place outside the Big Apple.

“I think there is a place for everything,” he said, “and there is also a much more varied audience. There is no right or wrong context to listen to opera and making it feel welcome to different audiences. I think to have different offerings tailored to different audiences is the key whether with symphonic music or with opera.”

That said, there is tradition and expectation.

“We are at the Met custodians of a tradition and being standard bearers for a certain optimal quality in the way we present operas. But that doesn’t prevent us from  trying different things.”

The OM is his other directorship and it is very close to his heart.

Just this past fall he signed a lifetime contract with the orchestra which is also home to his partner, the violist Pierre Tourville, who is in the Orchestre Métropolitain.

He did it, he said, “to avoid  having to think every five years about the future. We were always thinking about how are we going to renew? When are we going to review? Everyone always said we hope you stay for life” while he was hoping they would ask.

In the end, “it was just like a couple, we realized we love each other so much we agreed.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.