Proven talent, knowledge and artistry alone do not guarantee that a conductor will be the right leader for an orchestra. A successful match, like those between Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, require a chemistry, a blend of temperaments and styles that sparks.
The Philadelphia Orchestra believes it has found just such a combination with French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 39, who took over as the respected ensemble’s music director in 2012/13 after his first guest-conducting engagement in December 2008. The orchestra announced Jan. 30 that it has extended the maestro’s contract through 2021/22 — an unmistakable stamp of approval.
“It was just so obvious for the past few seasons since I’ve been there, that the chemistry and love between me and the orchestra was just so high and palpable,” he said. “And what we’ve been doing so far with our connection with our community and our own subscribers — reconnecting basically with the city at large — I just it’s feel it’s working. It would be a shame not to continue.”
Nézet-Séguin will be making his much-anticipated Chicago debut Feb. 20 — not at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra but rather the Rotterdam Philharmonic, another major orchestra with which he has had a fruitful partnership since becoming music director in 2008. The fast-rising maestro was supposed to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in January 2011 but canceled his appearance days before because of what he called an “overtaxing” schedule. “To this day,” he said, “this is one of the most painful decisions I’ve had to make. It was a time in my life when there was simply too much going on. Years later, I’m making my debut, not with that wonderful orchestra, but at least in this great city. Yes, that’s very special for me.”
He describes himself an admirer of the CSO, particularly the orchestra’s recordings with his mentor, Carlo Maria Giulini, which Nézet-Séguin said are “close to his heart.” Giulini had a 23-year association with the Chicago Symphony, including a 1969-1972 stint as principal guest conductor. Nézet-Séguin met Giulini when he was 19, and the elder conductor invited him to shadow him in rehearsals and concerts for a year.
The Rotterdam Philharmonic’s appearance, under the auspices of the Symphony Center Presents Orchestra Series, is part of an ambitious American tour that begins Feb. 10 with six concerts in California, including back-to-back appearances in San Francisco, and then continues with stops in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Chicago, and New York City. It is the Dutch orchestra’s first North American tour since 2009/10, when Nézet-Séguin was in only his second season with the orchestra, and he believes that this time listeners will have a chance to hear how it has evolved under his guidance.
“I was trying to retain the colors and a certain attitude toward music that [Valery] Gergiev, to name only him because he had been there 12 years before me, implemented on this orchestra: this very proud, muscular way of making music and extremely colorful as well,” he said. “I was trying to retain those colors and add at the same time my personal touch of, should we say, more refinement in the music-making. This, of course, is a fascinating journey, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I feel that the timing of this tour is wonderful now, because it’s been seven full years together and I can really say that the YNS-Rotterdam combination is something unusual in the world. We have our own voice.”
In serving as music director of orchestras in North America and Europe (he is also music director of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal), Nézet-Séguin has learned that he cannot take the same approach to different ensembles. European orchestras, for example, expect to spend more time with the music in rehearsals. “For the conductor, it does give a different sense of responsibility,” he said. “I cannot rehearse the same way in Rotterdam as in Philly. I used to find it very difficult, and now I see it as a real, real boon to the music, because it does take a different shape.”
He has, for example, performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 with both the Philadelphia and Rotterdam orchestras, and neither one plays it the same way. “That’s perfectly normal,” he said, “because it shows how much a conductor is someone who is enabling the players to express within the same conception, instead of imposing something. Therefore, I take it very much to heart to enhance and keep alive the specific colors of every ensemble and not try to make them sound all the same.”
The centerpiece of the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s Chicago program is Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, which the orchestra played frequently under Gergiev. “But now we’ve also done it a lot together, the orchestra and myself,” Nézet-Séguin said, “so we’re able to arrive with a real offering, which is hopefully different than anyone else’s. And this is the purpose of tours always, to show different colors in those wonderful masterpieces that we know.”
The first half of the concert is devoted to French composer Maurice Ravel, starting with his Mother Goose Suite (Ma mère l’Oye), which originally was written as a piano duet and then orchestrated in 1911. It continues with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major with respected French keyboardist Hélène Grimaud as soloist.
“I’m always very curious and fascinated by the first few decades of the 20th century,” Nézet-Séguin said. “It feels like Russian and French composers were just together. Very often they were physically in Paris together, but also the influence one had on the other against the influence of the Austrian-German world. In Prokofiev, we find a lot of the architecture rhythmically speaking and the way of orchestrating have a lot in common with Ravel and even [Claude] Debussy in some of his works. I always like to combine French and Russian music because of this. I think one informs the other.”
Nézet-Séguin acknowledges that Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is not directly connected to anything French, but he nonetheless finds resonance between it and the rest of the program. “Ma mère l’Oye and the concerto are on the intimate side of Ravel,” he said. “It’s not a huge orchestration. It’s all about every detail in the right place. And I’m thinking about the last movement of the Fifth Symphony of Prokofiev — he also uses the instruments in a pointillist way. I wouldn’t say minimal, but everything has its own place, and it’s not about creating a wall of sound but more about creating a painting with everything in its place. I very much like this program.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.
TOP: Yannick Nézet-Séguin. | Chris Lee/Philadelphia Orchestra