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Home » International Musician » Yannick Nézet-Séguin: A Vision for the Philadelphia Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: A Vision for the Philadelphia Orchestra


In June 2010, Yannick Nézet-Séguin made an important conducting appearance in Philadelphia—?but he wasn’t at the famed Kimmel Center or the Academy of Music, and he wasn’t conducting the city’s treasured Philadelphia Orchestra. In fact, he wasn’t in front of an orchestra at all. The Montreal native and conducting superstar was leading a crowd of more than 43,000 as they sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch at a packed Phillies game.

It was the culmination of a day that Nézet-Séguin spent meeting with Philadelphia Orchestra patrons at the Kimmel Center, shaking hands with the city’s mayor, visiting the Liberty Bell with students from the Performing Arts Charter School, and stopping by one of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s free neighborhood concerts in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Nézet-Séguin had recently been named The Philadelphia Orchestra’s eighth music director, and the baseball game—where he fully embraced the spirit of Philadelphia and immersed himself in its community—was perfect foreshadowing of his tenure.

Coloring Outside the Lines

Local 406 (Montreal, QC) member Nézet-Séguin recalls that day as “the start of a crescendo” that would lead up to his official debut as music director in October 2012. It wouldn’t be a stretch, though, to say that the crescendo began in 2008, when Nézet-Séguin first conducted the orchestra in a program that included Tchaikovsky’s heart-wrenching Symphony No. 6. “I felt that something very special was happening,” he remembers. “Later I heard that the musicians also felt this strong connection.”

You might even trace 38-year-old Nézet-Séguin’s connection to The Philadelphia Orchestra all the way back to the early 1980s when, as a kid in Montreal, he listened in awe to a recording of Eugene Ormandy conducting the orchestra in the very same Tchaikovsky symphony. The Philadelphia Orchestra seemed to be a constant force in the young Nézet-Séguin’s life; Charles Dutoit also served as one of his earliest conducting inspirations. “He maintained the highest musical standards and explored the greatest depths of the repertoire during his tenure,” Nézet-Séguin says. “I am honored to follow in his footsteps.”

Part of following in the footsteps of the great conducting masters who have led The Philadelphia Orchestra means working with the legendary “Philadelphia sound.” It is an honor that Nézet-Séguin does not take lightly. “The legacy of the sound has been passed down through generations of musicians, who breathe and phrase together in a way that produces the most exceptional colors and the most uniquely identifiable sound,” he says. Yet, while he strives to draw those traditional “colors” from the orchestra, Nézet-Séguin finds it equally important to color outside the lines.

He explains that he is eager to expand the orchestra’s education and community engagement programs, and to reach new audiences by bridging out from the traditional orchestra model. “I want our audiences to hear the orchestra in new ways, and to expand the boundaries of the orchestra,” he says. “So, we will see some changes in program order, styles, pacing, and concert formats, as well as performances of repertoire the orchestra hasn’t played regularly. I want audiences to hear familiar works in a new context, and to experience new music in a fresh environment.”

In the 2013-2014 season, for instance, The Philadelphia Orchestra will commission three new works for principal harp Elizabeth Hainen, principal flute Jeffrey Khaner, and principal bassoon Daniel Matsukawa, all members of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA). The works, each for different combinations of those players, will be presented in three concerts over one weekend as a “micro-festival.”

An Artist’s Touch

Nézet-Séguin says that his creative programming comes from a “curatorial outlook,” with an eye toward developing artistic themes, balancing new and traditional repertoire, and taking into account audience, musician, and board input. He is equally thoughtful in choosing repertoire for guest conductors as he is in selecting works that he will conduct. “I think about what is best suited for our guest conductors to continue the themes and pathways of each season—a way for our audience to follow along on our journey,” he explains. “I am fortunate in this respect, also, to be working with conductors and artists who are engaged with us and participate in the whole artistic picture.”

Beyond carefully tailoring his programs, Nézet-Séguin also customizes his work on the podium. He holds titles with numerous ensembles (in addition to The Philadelphia Orchestra, he is music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic, and artistic director and principal conductor of Orchestre Metropolitan in Montreal) and he keeps in mind that each orchestra is unique. “The character of each musician, and therefore of each orchestra, is shaped by history, culture, and environment, so the music takes on a different color every time. It is my duty as a conductor to enhance these different colors,” he says.

Nézet-Séguin is grateful for the small class sizes and personal connections he enjoyed as a student at Montreal Conservatory, and for his apprenticeship with Carlo Maria Giuliani, all of which helped to develop what he describes as a “human approach” to music. After all, music works best when there are strong personal connections both on and off stage.

“Making music is about breathing, about a voice, or an instrument, or a group, taking the lead for a moment, and then, the moment after, accompanying and listening to one another,” Nézet-Séguin says of the on-stage experience. Off stage, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s musicians continually inspire him. “Their commitment and reach into Philadelphia is quite extraordinary, and I am filled with pride to see their influence, as teachers, soloists, mentors, and as participants in the greater music community.

“We are united in our goals—to make the ultimate in music,” he continues. “It brings me great joy to be at the start of a wonderful journey and to have so many years ahead to look forward to.”

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