The Music Man

Québécois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is on a mission to make classical music accessible to all.

From the choral section of the Maison symphonique concert hall, I have a bird’s-eye view of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain. Bows poised, embouchures moistened and scores open, the musicians await the signal to start the Concerto per arpa e orchestra by Nino Rota. Harpist Valérie Milot is positioned at the front of the stage, facing the hundreds of filled seats, but all eyes are on someone else: Yannick Nézet-Séguin. At the first flick of his baton, an ethereal melody fills the room. His movements are expressive and graceful, his eyes flicking from one musician to another. A smile here, a wink there. While watching him work, one word comes to mind: kindness.

Nézet-Séguin conducting at Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain

Last spring, Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain performed Nino Rota’s concerto under maestro Nézet-Séguin’s direction. (Photo: François Goupil)

The Montrealer is the farthest thing from the conductor cliché of authoritarian pretension, though he certainly has earned the right to be that way if he so desired. At a mere 42, he’s among the world’s most renowned maestros. Last year, he was honoured by being named James Levine’s successor at the helm of the New York Metropolitan Opera, when Levine retires after 40 years of loyal service. It’s a notable challenge, especially because Nézet-Séguin is already musical director for both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, in addition to his undying dedication to Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain for the past 17 years.

I’m at home here. I think my musicians are proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish, and it inspires them to do their best. They constantly surprise me. That’s why I stay.”

“I’m at home here,” explained the conductor three days earlier after a rehearsal. “I think my musicians are proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish, and it inspires them to do their best. They constantly surprise me. That’s why I stay.”

The day before our chat, he’d been conducting at New York’s Carnegie Hall. That night, he was doing a show in a church in Montreal’s Verdun neighbourhood, and in a few days he’d be off on a pan-Asian tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He’s used to this breathless pace, but things will slow down when he takes on the Met in 2020. His contract with the Rotterdam Philharmonic is ending next year, and he plans to accept fewer international invitations as guest conductor. “Those trips are the most exhausting. To direct the Met represents many responsibilities, so I’ll be staying closer to New York, with frequent trips to Montreal and Philadelphia – both relatively close. It should be a healthier lifestyle.”

Maison symphonique

The city’s Maison symphonique. (Photo: Caroline Bergeron)

A true vocation

Nézet-Séguin knew at 10 years old that he wanted to be a conductor. “I told my parents that’s what I was going to become. At home, I’d put on records and role-play,” he says. By the age of 13 he was admitted to the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, and at 19 named art director of the Choeur polyphonique de Montréal. But he hates being thought of as a wunderkind. Rather, he sees his success as a mix of luck and talent, propelled by a series of opportunities he knew not to miss.

Take, for instance, the day he was offered the directorship of the Orchestre Métropolitain. He was a fresh-faced 25-year-old. “People thought it was too local an orchestra; they advised me to pursue my studies in Europe rather than take the job. I didn’t have much experience, but my gut told me to take it.” It was the right decision. The position would allow Nézet-Séguin to truly master his craft and discover his primary passion: to democratize classical music. In those days, the Orchestre Métropolitain was already presenting public concerts in all sorts of Montreal neighbourhoods. “It was very progressive. Very few orchestras did that at the time.”

Orchestre Métropolitain

Despite his work with orchestras around the world, Yannick Nézet-Séguin frequently returns to Montreal to conduct its Orchestre Métropolitain. (Photo: François Goupil)

It’s a mission the maestro intends to pursue once he’s with the Met. “It’s a world-renowned orchestra, sure, but I want New Yorkers to regain possession of it. I intend to put on concerts all over the city to make people who don’t usually feel concerned with opera engage with it.” He certainly has no trouble rallying the troupes: Last April, after a performance of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, the first opera he directed since he got the job, the Met musicians celebrated him by showering him with roses. He was immensely relieved. “Expectations were high, and they showed me I was worthy of them. It was their way of telling me they supported me, that they were ready for this next chapter. It gave me wings.”

The Orchestre Métropolitain musicians who’ve watched their leader garner acclaim worldwide, meanwhile, got their taste of fame starting in November, when they embarked on a European tour with stops in Paris, Amsterdam and Hamburg. It’s a first for the orchestra, which, thanks to Nézet-Séguin, will never again be thought of as “too local.”

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