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SEEN AND HEARD  INTERVIEW
 

 

Gergiev's Successor : Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the new Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra talks to Bas van Westerop (BvW)



Yannick Nézet-Séguin - Photograph © Marco Borggreve

In December 2006, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was announced as the next Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, succeeding Valery Gergiev for the start of the season 2008–09. In addition, the London Philharmonic Orchestra has announced that Yannick Nézet-Séguin will also take up the position of Principal Guest Conductor at the start of the Orchestra's 2008/09 season.

Born in Montreal in 1975, Yannick Nézet-Séguin started taking piano lessons at the age of five. Later he entered the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal, studying piano, composition, chamber music, and conducting. While attending the Conservatoire, Yannick Nézet-Séguin also studied choral conducting at Westminster Choir College in Princeton , New Jersey and, in 1995, he founded the vocal and instrumental ensemble La Chapelle de Montréal. He continued his training near a number of famous conductors, among them the great Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini.  In April 2000, he was appointed Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal.

This week in Rotterdam Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted three performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, considered as a second National Anthem for most people in The Netherlands (each choir is having its “own” Mattheus these weeks!) and a very courageous choice. Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink (79) is doing his very first St Matthew Passion just this week in Boston, considered probably a “safe” place... And even Riccardo Chailly managed only once to program it during his time in Amsterdam.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s career seems to be going at a high speed at the moment so I was happy to meet him, smiling and relaxed, in De Doelen just before an audition for a substitute concertmaster. Valery Gergiev, who is leaving after this season, never attended any auditions during his 13 years as Music Director. So I asked Yannick how important it is for the next Music Director....

Yannick Nézet-Séguin:
Yes, the last time they had a conductor at an audition was 15 years ago. I think it’s important, especially for key-positions. And I think it has to start somewhere, so it is today.

How was your week here, “your” Mattheus.?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Oh, it was beautiful, beautiful! When we started I already had the experience of this type of work. So I knew it would be a bit like an opera in terms of the pressure at the beginning: you want to rehearse this and that and that, and then you have the singers and then the children and the set-up, so there’s a lot of pressure. I knew I would feel very, very tired after the first two days, a bit depressed too. Everything went well but...so many things were going on. This, this, that, that. But then finally....the concerts! I mean, I felt the whole week how special this music is for the people here.

Was it your choice to conduct Bach’s Matthew-Passion?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Yes, yes, it had already been decided before I was named Chief Conductor. We decided already that I would do two or three visits this season because it was going well with the orchestra. I think Cynthia Wilson (who was then the Artistic Director of the orchesrtra BvW)  knew I was doing a bit of Baroque music and asked me if I would like to do it and she told me it’s a big tradition here and I thought: Yeah, good! I didn’t realise how big it was but then..that’s O.K. .... I always throw myself into the biggest situations. I think that’s what makes me grow, it’s very important. The “growing” thing for me is very important!  I get a lot from the musicians and yes, I have my own vision  of the piece but.... for me it was a very special moment this week, very special. And I think today it will be even more....

Do you care about reviews?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: I always read them. Everything, everything . Also today’s newspapers and yes, I was pleased. My relationship with reviewers, it has always been the same: it affects me if I know it’s true, it doesn’t affect me if I don’t agree. So I have a good relationship with it: for me it’s fine! But I’m not one of these artists saying: I don’t read them, I don’t care.

Like Gergiev?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Yeah, but I think it’s not true, I am not saying this to Gergiev particularly, but I think any artist who says “I don’t read them”:... it’s not true. And as a conductor: the musicians read them, so if the conductor doesn’t know it’s even worse. I like to know what’s been told. But then, at the end of the first St Matthew Passion (on Wednesday) one of my first thoughts was: I don’t care. I knew it was awaited like this (big gesture), great expectations.... so you can be disappointed or you can be surprised. And I really didn’t care about this. But the reviews... I’m content.

Did the reviewers hear what you wanted them to hear?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Well, some things are surprising to me. We cared a lot about the sound, for exemple, but they heared a “lightness of sound” ....I thought it had been more on the dramatic side than this lightness but... OK, fine, it was not necessarily my priority.

It was certainly not your last St Matthew Passion?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: No, no  and that’s the beauitiful thing about these masterpieces. I will do it at the age of 33, 43, 53 , 63 and each time it will be so different. I will take it with me all my life. I think that’s why we are doing this.


You are not...afraid of it ? For example: Bernard Haitink conducts it this week in Boston for the first time! He waited a very long time.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Well, it’s a totally different idiom than...an opera. I guess for some conductors it’s related because there are recitatives and things like that but... When the Evangelist sings, I’m not doing anything and yet I am, because I’m underlining a little bit and sometimes I just have to breathe,and I know he’s reacting to some things and  it just never stops really. It’s a question of also giving a lot of freedom to the musicians; I’m trying to do more than conducting, I’m trying to let flow the line, to indicate.

Probably the more you wait ,the more intimidating it becomes. And in my case I had the opportunity to do my first Matthaus when I was 24. That’s almost 10 years ago. It’s a part of me already .....from a choral point of view.

You know I founded my small group which I had for 8 years in Montréal: La Chapelle de Montréal, a small group on modern instruments. Mostly one a part or two a part like Jos van Veldhoven is doing now. Two choruses: two times eight. So it was very small. I founded this group just because I wanted to do the Johannes Passion . We were a couple of friends saying: “Yeah, Johannes Passion, we have listened to it and we need to do it! So let’s found a group!

So it was foreseen that one day you would come here and conduct it!

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Maybe.. I guess so!

People in the orchestra wonder where you learned all this repertoire, because it is so big: from Monteverdi to contemporary music. Is this your choice?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Yes, it’s my choice because I’m a curious person: I like to discover. I need to disciplin myself not to take too much. I will always keep a wide range of repertoire but for example: I conducted Schumann symphonies 2 and 3, but not 1 and 4. So when I’m asked  to conduct a Schumann Symphony my first reflex is : Oh, I want to do number one ! But then I think, OK, wait, let’s do 2 and 3 a bit more and I will have enough time. I’ve conducted every Beethoven Symphony more than once, all Brahms, four Bruckner and seven Mahler Symphonies and this is because in my younger years I really wanted to do many things and I was given many opportunities! But now, I think it’s strange, I’m slowing down.

Which music is in your heart?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Hmmm....(long silence)..... it’s almost a physical need, you know. Let’s face it: the core of my work is not Baroque Music, it’s not what makes my day to day life. But when I spend more than 6 or 8 months without it I feel like some part of my body is missing, I really feel  a physical need. I need Bach, I need Händel. So now that I know this  I’m trying to plan it in advance. Same for opera! When I start conducting rehearsals of a new opera I always say (tired voice): “This is my last opera!”. To deal with singers, psychology ,all these things. But then when I go in the pit I could just spent the rest of my life doing opera! I am a really passionate person you know!

So your heart is at what you’re doing at that moment?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin:I think so! It’s easier for me to identify where my heart is not. Stravinsky is not.... I’m attracted...I do the Firebird a little bit, I do Pulcinella, this neoclassical approach is what gets me. But the Sacre...you know I will conduct it one day. Every young conductor wants to do the Sacre, but.. not for me. Donizetti, Rossini: I’ve been there but it’s not what gets me. I respect it but ...

Did you choose all your repertoire for the next season?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Yes, absolutely. I decided, but I spoke a lot with Jan Raes (general manager) and Michael Fine (artistic manager) what would be expected. For me it’s important what I want to do, but also where I want to go with the orchestra and to know this it was important for me to know where they’ve been coming from. Because it’s one thing to want to do something but it has to mean something in the historical line of the orchestra.

I think the Rotterdam Philharmonic is a very flexible orchestra. I’m also trying to be a flexible conductor. For me to do many styles with them is enhancing the flexibility I think. It’s a different approach then working only with specialists, which we will continue to do, for instance having Frans Brüggen who’s coming, that’s very important. But I want to develop different approaches of style within the same evening, the same program.

I saw a program with Händel, Stravinsky and Beethoven...

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Yes, exactly, that’s something I really like. I know sometimes people discuss this, musicians, whether it’s a salad. But as long as there is a concept I think this orchestra can do it. They showed it in the R.Strauss/Beethoven program in November last year. After the break it sounded almost like a different orchestra to me. That’s what really excites me. Not many orchestras in the world handle this.

Or want to handle it...

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: ( Laughing ) O yes, absolutely. So, we will have three lines in our programming. Beethoven because to me this is where we always go back to, to know where symphonic music is coming from. It’s chamber, emotional and also symbolic. So we’ll do a complete Beethoven series over three seasons (Starting with numbers 4 and 7 and the Missa Solemnis.  BvW).

The other line is Richard Strauss. I know there is a big tradition here with Mahler and Bruckner. Both are very important to me!  Mahler has been done a lot by Gergiev and Bruckner will be done in the 09/10 season.  I think this ís a great Strauss orchestra because it gets the powerful side of the orchestra.  We’ll have his complete symphonic poems over the next few seasons.

And French music, of course. I think it’s good for the orchestra, for the listening aspect, for the care of the sound. French music is very healthy and it’s also because of my French name, I’ve been put into this affinity. But it’s normal. So, these are the three angles.

But I will always try to do works like Händel as well as new works. No commissions next season but from the 09/10 season I will commission also pieces to Dutch composers but also big international names. Creations are also very important to me and they will be more integrated within the programming.

Your appointment in London: where does that fit in
?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin:
It’s not that much: only four programmes a season. And what’s beautiful with it is that there’s absolutely no responsibility. The only thing I have to do is to program what I would like to do with the orchestra. So, for example: the Deutsches Requiem I am going do with them next season: it’s something I can’t programme here because Gergiev just did it. And the sound of the London Philharmonic is very different from the Rotterdam Philharmonic but at the same time there’s no limitation of energy with both orchestras. That’s very important to me!

The idea of fitting this in, with Montréal (which I will keep, but reducing it), Rotterdam, which is my main place now, and London is that it will give me more stability. It seems as if it’s more but actually it is less. The whole idea is to do less!

Next year I will do Janacek’s Vec Makropulos here at the Dutch Opera and I will also do one opera at the MET annualy. This is also forcing me to be stable. So when you take all my weeks here, London, Montréal, the Amsterdam Opera and New York Opera not many other things are left and that’s good.

Everywhere you came the last two, three years you were asked back. How do you handle this “problem”?  You’re liked and I guess it feels nice...

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: (laughing) It’s difficult because ...I am not complaining of course, the real problem with this is the affectionate problem. I create links with musicians and sometimes it makes me sad to think that it doesn’t fit in my diary now... (long silence)

I always approach the orchestras with a state of mind of....open, in love. I won’t say I fall in love easily, but there are various degrees. But I have to analyze how much in love I am. But things become clearer as we proceed, really.

You know, things went fast to me. Very fast, but not too fast, it’s not out of control.

Do you want to be in control?


Yannick Nézet-Séguin:
I don’t think I’m a controlfreak at all, but of course it’s part of my job being in control. In terms of my career I understand the dangers of doing too much and too soon but I have great managers and I arrived here in a family where I know many things are needed but I also know that people are very intelligent and people are very loving. And, with the love I feel, I think everything is possible. We’ll have good moments, less good moments but I think it is important to be sincere in everything we do and that’s why I’m looking more and more forward to these years.

And what about controlling the orchestra?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Freedom is the key.....however, I like rehearsing as much as concerts. It is an orchestra which performs very well in concerts but I think they can continue to perform as well in concerts with structured rehearsals. I’m trying to plan both now. What would kill my relationship with the orchestra is that we might rehearse too much and then the concert is nothing. At the same time I believe we can have both.

Here our conversation ended.

That evening, Good Friday, Yannick Nézet-Séguin gave a very emotional and personal St.Matthew in the big hall of De Doelen in Rotterdam. He will be back in Rotterdam in June to conduct Shostakovitch’ Fifth Symphony a.o. before taking his new orchestra on a tour to Asia (China, Japan, Taipeh and South-Corea) with pianist Yundi Li as a soloist.

Bas van Westerop


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