— In this city he is known simply as Yannick, while American journalists seem to be plumping for YNS. Whatever the appellation, last month's announcement that 35-year-old Quebecker Yannick Nézet-Séguin would be the eighth music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra was kind of a big deal.
Long one of America's most prestigious orchestras, the Philadelphia Orchestra has been listing dangerously of late. A new board chair and orchestra manager have steadied the ship considerably, and Nézet-Séguin will be expected to provide the artistic guidance necessary for the orchestra to sail on to adventures new.
Music director appointments are meant to last a decade or more, and as in marriage, the chances of success improve dramatically if both parties at least like each other before tying the knot. That the orchestra board snatched Nézet-Séguin after just two dates smacks of last-girl-at-the-party, although both sides insist it was love at first sight.
"In every orchestra it's an average of very dedicated people and some who are worn down by the years," Nézet-Séguin explained last month in the back of an airport-bound Town Car. "In this orchestra I felt that it was so easy to get roughly everyone involved. It's my role to awaken the fire and joy of making music. Maybe for some people it's strange; for me that's why it clicked."
Blair Bollinger, a bass trombone player and head of Philadelphia's Conductor Search Committee, said by telephone, "Right from the first rehearsal the orchestra really responded to him. He has a fantastically clear technique, which makes it very comfortable."
The other important factor was timing. Vladimir Jurowski, the 38-year-old music director of the Glyndebourne Opera in Britain, was also being wooed, but he wasn't available until 2015. Ballooning deficits and weak management have left the orchestra in a vulnerable position and waiting five more years for a permanent music director, the public face of an ensemble, had more cons than pros.
Nézet-Séguin suceeds Christoph Eschenbach with an orchestra that has had such illustrious leaders as Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Muti. His appointment is part of a new wave of younger conductors securing posts at major orchestras, the most fêted of whom is, of course, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's 29-year-old music director, Gustavo Dudamel, but Seattle's recently appointed Ludovic Morlot, 36, and Alan Gilbert, 43, round out the team nicely.
Cynics would say this trend is because of orchestras trying desperately to get bums in seats while they are still firm. Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin suggested an alternate theory.
"When you think about generations of conductors, you have an old guard of people like Haitink, Muti and Sawallisch, some of whom are still conducting and some who are too old," he said by phone. "If you look at the generation of conductors in their 50s operating at a very high level, there aren't that many of them. There's Rattle, Gergiev and Mariss Jansons. "What you have then is a generation of much younger conductors, and orchestras are [having to take] chances on hiring these people."
Because he has conducted rarely in America, it may seem as if Nézet-Séguin has appeared out of nowhere. The truth is that his star has been rising steadily for nearly 20 years. At 18, he was the music director of his church choir, then at 20, he started his own Baroque ensemble and then became choir master of Opéra de Montréal. At 24 he was hired as music director at the Orchestre Métropolitain, Montreal's second orchestra.
Seeking out an assistant conductor post would have been the logical next step for someone his age, and indeed Nézet-Séguin was advised by colleagues to turn the Métropolitain offer down and continue studying. He's content with his career path.
"I wish sometimes I could have sat in more rehearsals with others," he said, "but now I'm starting to think that apparently if I'm different then maybe it's good that I didn't see too many of them. The best way of learning is to do it."
He makes a good point, something he did with disarming frequency throughout the interview. Nézet-Séguin is a salesman in the very best sense of the word. Almost everything he says is so reasonable that countering feels almost vulgar.
This amenability may be the secret to his success. Arthur Kaptainis, music critic for the Montreal Gazette, has watched Nézet-Séguin for more than a decade. "Yannick enjoys the success he does because he knows instinctively how to get the best result out of the orchestra he's appearing with. He has ideas but he's adaptable. He listens."
All that listening paid off in 2008 when Nézet-Séguin was appointed principal guest conductor at the London Philharmonic Orchestra and principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic.He explained, "I was able to accept those engagements because I had been working for quite a long time towards that. I would not have been able to accept Philadelphia at 35 if I have not spent almost half my life learning how to do those things.
The day before the interview, Nézet-Séguin finished the Orchestre Métropolitain season with Mahler's Eighth Symphony — the last installment in the orchestra's 10-year Mahler cycle.
The change of seasons put him in a reflective mood. "I went on holiday two weeks ago at the same place I did 10 years ago. I was about to do my first summer season at the Orchestre Métropolitain here. What I remember most about that holiday was the pile of scores [his hands are about four 4 feet apart] I had to have and feeling the pressure of that.
"[This time] I was just about to be announced at Philadelphia and the only thing I had with me was this Mahler 8. It made me measure the distance of those 10 years especially in terms of being able to revisit instead of always doing new things."
Compared to the mania that swept the globe in the 18 months leading to Dudamel's first day as music director, the YNS hype is barely a burble. The PO will certainly wind its PR machine into high gear in time for his official first day in 2012, but even so, the vibe is entirely different. For a start, no one has suggested that Nézet-Séguin will single-handedly save classical music. This is no bad thing.
He is well liked in Europe, but American critics, while broadly hopeful, are not falling over themselves just yet.Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic of the New York Times, wrote recently, "Mr. Nézet-Séguin has impressed me as an exciting, instinctively musical but somewhat erratic conductor." After a 2009 appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Times music critic Mark Swed was also unevenly impressed, admiring the energy but wishing for fewer extremes.
Nézet-Séguin is a long-term thinker, unlikely to be put off by a skeptical welcome.With young conductors, he said, "sometimes people say that what they're being offered is a work in progress. I don't think that way. I think that Haitink would say the same thing at 80-something: He's still learning. We're all still learning."