Arts & Culture

The Maestro

Montreal’s young classical superstar, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, takes his place on the world stage

Photograph by Monic Richard

“Sexy!” he says, advising the orchestra’s first violin section from the podium as they rehearse in Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. Wearing a blue polo shirt, baton up high in his right hand, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin holds a muscled left arm toward the violins, his brown eyes glittering. A giggle rises from the cellos. Pianist Louis Lortie waits with folded hands at the concert grand parked downstage, ready to solo in Ravel’s G major concerto. The music’s sensuality is incongruous with the brightly lit room. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is dressed casually, which for some reason makes the ensemble seem smaller. Everyone attends to the conductor closely as he teases more and more amour from the musicians’ sound.

“Enjoy the tensions in the work!” he demands. “It’s still too quiet. More generosity!” Nézet-Séguin tells the orchestra members how he wants certain motifs to shape up, how to sculpt phrases with dynamics and rhythm, fleshing out what will become his rendition of the score. The fast third movement, he explains to the orchestra, is a “motif being passed around [among orchestral sections]. It becomes like a bunch of flying toys come to life. They must be easy to hear, crisp. Don’t be nice—children are not nice to their toys. Get psycho!” At thirty-four, he recognizes that a respectful interpretation sometimes requires a little violence.

After the rehearsal, the conductor sips bottled water in his dressing room. The show is just one day away, and he says the TSO is “sounding great.” It is, and it’s uncanny how Nézet-Séguin managed to evoke such a specific, vivid rendition while leaving the ensemble all smiles, without conflict or compromise.

“Leadership comes with complete honesty,” he says. “You have to stay true to yourself. Authority isn’t a mindset; in music, it comes from your actual individuality, and from knowing that all of life is learning and personal development. If I was assuming a persona,” he adds, “I’d have no authority at all.”

Authority has come quickly for Nézet-Séguin. Starting with the 2008–09 concert season, he was named music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic. That’s two A-list European appointments in one year, a unique Canadian achievement. Back in his hometown, he has been the artistic director and principal conductor of l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal since 2000, having already made many superb recordings with that ensemble on the ATMA Classique label. For a young man born in 1975, he’s accomplished a great deal.

Like many classical success stories, he began studying piano early, at age five (conductors are often excellent pianists). Young Yannick’s fascination with conducting became evident when he was ten: his mother, Claudine, found that all her son’s drawings were orchestra related. One day, he saw himself in one such picture, on the podium, and he knew what he wanted. He began singing with the Petits Chanteurs at the Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde in Montreal. He was enchanted by the choir and the polyphony arising when his choral group sang with the adult choir, Le Choeur polyphonique. After a Conservatoire stint and choral conducting classes, he was, at nineteen, named director of the same adult choir. The following year, Le Choeur de Laval brought him on as conductor, beginning his professional conducting life, and he founded his own baroque ensemble, La Chapelle de Montréal.

When he was twenty-two, l’Opéra de Montréal hired him, first to prepare the choirs and conduct operas, then as musical advisor. That year, he also studied with renowned Italian maestro Carlo Maria Giulini. Nézet-Séguin travelled with the master to Paris and Madrid, soaking up his dramatic style, which was ripe and painterly, and capable of restructuring an orchestra’s sound mid-performance with just a glance.

Finally, at twenty-five, he landed at l’Orchestre Métropolitain. His ensuing ATMA recordings include a transparent rendition of Mahler’s fourth symphony (2004), a brilliant interpretation of Mozart’s Lieder with Nézet-Séguin accompanying soprano Suzie LeBlanc on fortepiano (2006), and a soaring version of Bruckner’s seventh symphony (2007).

People tend to think of classical music as they do Latin: a dead language, more a tradition than an art form. In this view, conducting is a type of scholarship. Twenty-first-century conductors will be responsible for reviving their trade, and this will require flair as much as it will rigour. Nézet-Séguin’s classical pedigree is impeccable, but how he hears is more important than what he knows—he’ll succeed according to how cleverly he deviates from tradition rather than how well he preserves it.

Many of us first learned about conductors from the 1948 animated Warner Brothers cartoon “Long-Haired Hare.” In it, Bugs Bunny declares war on the blond, barrel-chested tenor next door, who is preparing to sing at the Hollywood Bowl. That night, Bugs walks onstage during the performance, wearing a powdered wig and evening dress, oozing entitlement. The musicians bow and scrape at the rabbit’s entrance, muttering, “Leopold,” as if he’s the real-life American maestro Leopold Stokowski. The stereotype of musicians cringing before a conductor is not arbitrary, though Stokowski himself was not that kind of despot. Others were.

In 1886, as a minor Italian orchestra performed Verdi’s Aida in Rio de Janeiro, the conductor was booed off the stage. A nineteen-year-old cellist rose to the podium and conducted the two-and-a-half-hour opera from memory. His name was Arturo Toscanini—who is important because he represents a clean break from the long-dominant tradition of conductors as composers. As an orchestral player, he went right back to the cello section after returning to Italy to play in Verdi’s Otello, under the composer’s own direction. (Aside from one other 1886 performance, Toscanini conducted very rarely in public until 1896.) He was made artistic director at Milan’s La Scala in 1898. A new type of conductor, he was a prototype with a temper, a volcanic traditionalist with celebrity power, famous for screaming at and humiliating orchestra members. He once ripped off his own shirt during rehearsal because he was so angry. But his fanatically interpretative approach astounded listeners. When Bugs Bunny was faking his way as Stokowski, being genuflected to by all those Hollywood Bowl musicians, they were really treating him like the autocratic Toscanini, whose intensity had become recognized as how conductors behave, at least in the popular imagination.

Though conducting had existed for centuries before Toscanini’s brave steps onto the podium, its origins are shadowy, harking back in part to cheironomy, an ancient set of hand motions that some believe was adapted for directing Gregorian chant around the tenth century. The baton was probably inspired by the violin bow; violinists had been leading ensembles with their bows for decades, doing two jobs at once. The nineteenth-century German composer and violin virtuoso Louis Spohr was among the first musicians to recognize conducting as a full-time position; the profession was further advanced when one of Spohr’s contemporaries, composer Felix Mendelssohn, began resurrecting J. S. Bach’s music for public concerts. In Mendelssohn’s wake, orchestras gradually started appointing conductors, though they often chose well-connected composers.

Toscanini broke that tradition, and his fame spread quickly. In the New World, it was cemented by his tenure at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which began in 1908. The idea of the conductor as a cultural icon was taking shape at a time when the popular media was making it possible for everyone to hear recorded performances on seventy-eights and in live concert radio broadcasts. This was all still new technology, and Toscanini was at the forefront of it. His “eccentricity” made an impact on new audiences, who came to associate rage with talent, and his strange mixture of desperation and consummate poise meant that performing a Beethoven score was no longer just a pleasant adventure—it was a critical moral quest, demanding total clarity of melodic and harmonic propulsion. Attacking a great orchestra meant nothing to him; the music’s own inner truth was everything.

Nézet-Séguin’s expression is friendly, unaffected yet penetrating, and youthfully energized. Like his rendition of Ravel’s concerto, now as much the conductor’s version as the composer’s, he seems fantastically liberated in person. Toscanini’s blustery artistic sincerity was driven by his idea of revealing what the composer meant, period. Nézet-Séguin maintains that perfect representation is impossible.

“We should know that there is never just one truth,” he says. “I’m sick of the old objective/subjective thing. I project what I know of and get from the score, which is unique to me. Knowing there are multiple sides of a truth should free us.

“Respecting the score is a never-ending quest,” he notes. “Conductors need to conceptualize. A performance should be deeply personal. As a child, I searched for ways to demonstrate my individuality. Now I have learned to seek out what feels right, which is more genuinely personal. So risks are fine,” he concludes. “As long as they’re not forced, they’re worth taking.”

Beyond his risk taking, Nézet-Séguin won’t define himself except as a devotee of Giulini, a composer whose style brimmed with a sumptuous warmth that his student has inherited. The Montrealer has avoided becoming identified too closely with conducting any particular composer so far, though he has recorded the last three of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies, suggesting that a complete cycle of the final symphonies may be in the works. In Nézet-Séguin’s hands, Bruckner’s staid, Christian-tinged romantic symphonies become rollicking adventures, the score less holy text and more treasure map. Nézet-Séguin’s 2008 release of Bruckner’s ninth is like a pirate’s quest for lost gold. The rendition is wondrously boyish, with an erotic radiance unique to the conductor. He explores the limits of interpretation in a way that reveals new avenues for conductors to pursue, teasing out a wholly personal conception of the piece, enlivening it, and transcending the inhibiting veneration for classical material that often makes it stuffy. His charm and vitality do the work of Toscanini’s fury; no artistic compromise is audible in Nézet-Séguin’s performance.

It wasn’t idle praise when German critic Klaus Geitel of the Berliner Morgenpost announced, “The musical world has a new hero,” after hearing Nézet-Séguin last November. It’s important to remember that in Europe classical music is still a part of everyday life, and that no amount of mere novelty will impress a Berlin audience. But with today’s composers having completely fallen off the mainstream radar outside of Europe, bringing freshness to the orchestral canon has become critical to the survival of classical music.

While contemporary composition still languishes among avant-garde circles, new, flexible renditions of tried-and-true scores have given classical music its current lease on life. In essence, innovative conductors like Nézet-Séguin are holding up the entire tradition. With a touch of Bugs Bunny’s fearless mischievousness, he represents the beginning of a less dogmatic classical ethos.

He’s not alone: in Venezuela, mop-topped young firebrand Gustavo Dudamel is lighting up world stages with sun-drenched pyrotechnics, renditions packed with a joyous, frenetic sweep we northern types can barely comprehend. He began his tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October 2009, having exploded onto the world stage with his stellar Deutsche Grammophon recording of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. And Chicoutimi, Quebec, native Jean-Philippe Tremblay is receiving tremendous reviews as his reputation spreads increasingly into the world music press. Conducting L’orchestre de la francophonie canadienne, he embarks on his first tour of Germany this year. Though he’s still less high profile among conductors, it will be interesting to see how critics there react to his more meditative, restrained style.

These young podium masters inject their personalities directly into the score, which, far from diluting the music’s meaning, seems to bring it much more sharply into focus, the same way both Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh have nailed Shakespeare characters in performances of equal clarity and validity. The proof is in the performance. The old Rage for Order wasn’t tradition. It was just a bad habit.

“When my conducting started to really work, at first I wanted to figure out why it was working,” Nézet-Séguin explains. “Then I decided not to, because that might take it away. I didn’t enter conducting competitions as a student. I didn’t develop that way, through constant scrutiny. So I won’t ask myself now how I do it.

“It’s not a formula,” he adds, grinning. He shares with Toscanini—apart from the fact that they both knew Giulini—a comparatively untutored greatness. They found their separate ways to classical stardom, bypassing the academia that threatens to engulf the music, and their individuality is equally audible and enthralling.

At the podium during the Ravel concert in Toronto, Nézet-Séguin seems more to channel the music than conduct it. He wears all black, and his stage style has a dance-like, weaving grace; he moves his whole upper body in a sort of physical incantation. He multi-tasks by cueing some players while congratulating others with sly, affirming eye contact for making entrances perfectly a moment earlier. As he does so, the psychic barrier separating audience from performer disintegrates. The musical communion felt by everyone generates a shared aura of excitement and purpose. Listeners lean forward. We are involved in a transcendence—and it is one that needs us.