Propelled by an exuberant podium athleticism and mastery of a vast range of repertoire, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s meteoric rise can be measured in a string of dazzling achievements. From his first appearance as a guest conductor of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain to being named music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra—in addition to being awarded Musical America’s 2016 Artist of the Year and on to his most recent appointment as music director of the Metropolitan Opera—he is one of the most dynamic artists of our time.
Continuing the first year of a two-year Perspectives series, Nézet-Séguin returns to Carnegie Hall this month to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday with a complete cycle of the master’s symphonies performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra. In a recent conversation, Nézet-Séguin discussed everything from what Beethoven’s music has taught him, to his many musical collaborations and his love for New York City.
Your Carnegie Hall debut was as music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Yes, it was—an amazing event in my life. Of course, I had attended a few concerts at Carnegie Hall before. There’s one in particular that I remember from 2003, which was quite early on in the relationship between Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker, where they performed Sibelius’s Seventh and Schubert’s Ninth. And I remember just at that precise moment in time, dreaming of being on that stage one day. Less than 10 years later in 2012, I was there making my debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of Verdi’s Requiem, and then six years after that starting my tenure as music director of the Met with another work by Verdi … I see a lot of destiny in all of that.
Now in your eighth season, how have your goals for The Philadelphia Orchestra changed?
Being the music director of such a legendary orchestra means first and foremost that you are a custodian of something much bigger. The history of the orchestra alone is impressive—it’s now 120 years old. And me being only the eighth music director in all that time is actually quite remarkable. It means that in whatever we do,we have to respect and honor the tradition, yet also bring it forward and have an understanding of what it means for the present generation. When I arrived, it was very important for me to reconnect the orchestra with its sound—that famous Philadelphia Sound—by revisiting a lot of the repertoire for which the orchestra became famous, especially from recordings with Eugene Ormandy and also the celebrated connection to Rachmaninoff. But what I’m passionate about now is reinventing the Philadelphia Sound for the future, particularly as it relates to living composers. So the mixture of great staples of the repertoire, like the Beethoven symphonies, with new works by the likes of Mason Bates, Valerie Coleman, Nico Muhly, and Gabriela Lena Frank, is key.
The tone poems of Richard Strauss bookend your series this season: In your first concert with Philadelphia last October, you conducted Eine Alpensinfonie, and then this June you lead The MET Orchestra in Ein Heldenleben.
As a conductor, there’s something so satisfying about delving into Strauss’s music and having all the sections of the orchestra collaborating and shining. Of course his tone poems are very much part of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s history. And now to have The MET Orchestra musicians playing Strauss tone poems is such a thrill. They’ve played a lot of Don Juan and Eine Alpensinfonie, but never Ein Heldenleben. So it’s sort of a mini premiere that I am very proud to perform in my second season with the Met.
On that same concert, you also conduct Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Elza van den Heever.
I’ve done the Four Last Songs with singers like Renée Fleming and Dorothea Röschmann—everybody brings something uniquely different. Not only will Elza bring her voice—which is just like no other—but she will also imbue the performance with her unmatched personality. But it’s not an all-Strauss program. There’s also a work by Jörg Widmann called Lied, which in name alone is the ideal setup for Strauss’s wonderful songs.
One of the cornerstones of your series is the Beethoven symphony cycle. What do these works mean to you?
I have this very romantic idea that somehow Beethoven knew from the very first note of his first symphony where all of this would lead—from the surprise of this dominant chord at the start of the Symphony No. 1 to the surprise of having a chorus coming in at the very end of this journey in the Symphony No. 9. We could talk for days about how Beethoven has influenced all of Western music.For me the opportunity to be able to experience all nine symphonies in a concentrated amount of time is what I love most. Yes, Beethoven perhaps had a difficult temper. He was someone who was fighting all his life. His own destiny was fighting adversity, and this fight is actually what was maybe the most inspiring aspect of all. That gives me the courage to stick to my ideas and go for what I believe in. I still think that today in the 21st century, this is what is most inspiring about Beethoven. Musically, he did everything to try to shake the foundation of what the symphony should be and what language should convey and why. I think it is meaningful in a Beethoven year to be able to look back at this cycle and not just with the mindset that these are wonderful symphonies. We know that. What I hope to achieve with The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall is to make the symphonies sound fresh—not just for the sake of sounding fresh, but because Beethoven’s goal was to unsettle everything and everyone.
How does your approach to these works differ now compared to earlier in your career? Is there anything specific that makes this time different for you?
I did my first Beethoven cycle in Montreal with the Orchestre Métropolitain back in 2005. Of course it is ever-evolving, especially the relationship between an interpreter and great works like these. This is the beauty of what we do. We evolve. We change. I had the great fortune in my life to start conducting these pieces when I was very young. So hopefully my journey won’t stop for many more years. Coming back to them from time to time has taught me a lot about myself. And I love that I now have the opportunity to take this journey with The Philadelphia Orchestra because it forces us to look beyond just the beauty of our music making and find how we can talk to the soul more directly through music. I’m curious what the cycle will teach me this time about countless details in my own life, but also about the struggles Beethoven had with authority, with the political climate of his own day. Through his music, he made strong statements about unity and brotherhood/sisterhood that still vividly resonate today—perhaps even more so than when he composed these works. That is what true masterworks do: They become even more relevant as time goes by.
What is it you hope to gain as you continue your Perspectives series beyond this season and into 2020–2021?
When I was asked to be a Perspectives artist, of course I was so happy and honored, but I reflected on the word perspective immediately. And I like it because I understand that it gives perspective to the audience about who I am. But immediately I thought of this as an opportunity for me to gain perspective on my musical journey at this specific time. I turn 45 this month. I started conducting when I was 18. I’ve done the Beethoven symphonies. I’ve done all of the Strauss tone poems. I’ve done new pieces. I’ve worked with a lot of singers. But where does all of this lead me in the future? I feel that New York City is still at the center of what it means to be a musician. Now to call this city my home is just amazing—it’s really a dream come true. And I think that in a city like New York, where I can have all these wonderful collaborators and have a forum like a Perspectives series, it can all come together with a certain synergy that is going to help me gain perspective on where I am and where I want to go—and hopefully with Carnegie Hall as a partner for many years to come.