February 17, 2010 / 11:08 AM / 9 years ago

Nezet-Seguin: the smiling conductor makes his mark

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Few conductors get to conduct at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York, fewer still, like Canada’s Yannick Nezet-Seguin, at the tender age of 34.

But not only did the Montreal native make his Met debut conducting a gala New Year’s Eve performance of Bizet’s ever popular “Carmen”, with Latvia’s Elina Garanca as the steamy seductress, two weeks later he conducted it for a live broadcast that set a record for the Met’s digital transmissions, reaching a quarter of a million people in some 40 countries.

“He’s very fresh,” said Italian Giancarlo Battista, 41, in awe of the infectious energy Nezet-Seguin radiated through the screen at a multiplex in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland, where three screens sold out for “Carmen”, pipping Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar” on the night.

“Well, what’s the point of doing this if we’re not enjoying it?” Nezet-Seguin said in an interview, when asked if he knew that in the broadcast he’d looked like a boy who’d received a new set of electric trains for Christmas.

He was in London for two packed concerts of mostly French impressionist music with the London Philharmonic Orchestra — of which he is principal guest conductor — before heading off to the United States for his first North American tour with his other new toy, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

So what is the secret of the meteoric rise of this smiling French Canadian dynamo who can be seen in a clip on YouTube conducting for his classmates at the age of 10, and who conducted Gounod’s opera “Romeo et Juliette” at Salzburg two years ago?

“As serious as the act of making music is — and it requires such skill and detailed work from the musicians but also from the conductor — in the end it all has to be done in order to explode, in order really to unleash everything at the end,” he told Reuters by phone, because he’s so busy it was hard to meet up even in the same city.

“I’m someone who likes to rehearse very much and in detail, having in mind always it will serve to get something electric at the concert...so I’m glad if people feel that.”

A tall order from a man who, by his own estimate, stands about 5-foot, 5-inches tall, but is quick to point out that “Toscanini was short, too”. As is Daniel Barenboim. The Montrealer of Breton ancestry stands in very big company.

Here’s what else he had to say about his start in music, the Met, his plans and his worries about being “pigeonholed”:

Q: Wasn’t that an amazing Met debut, and so young?

A: “It was a spectacular way to make a debut in such a great house but this rise you’re talking about, for me I see it as the enlargement of my playing field. I started very early in Canada and I had a great chance with my orchestra in Montreal, the Orchestre Metropolitain, and that was a chance to develop my repertoire and skills. It’s barely five years I’m conducting outside of Canada but I don’t feel it’s so sudden for myself because it’s rooted on the solid ground of previous work.”

Q: Don’t you get butterflies in your stomach when you step into the orchestra pit at the Met for the first time, or for that matter at Salzburg, one of Europe’s top opera festivals?

A: “The Salzburg Festival two years ago was roughly my first opera engagement outside Canada or America but they were the daring people, not me, to take me.... I was overwhelmed. I am there in the footsteps of (the late Austrian conductor Herbert von) Karajan but somehow after one day I felt very much at home. It’s still like a dream but once I get started to work I don’t feel any fear.”

Q: Do you worry, with your concerts in London, and that Salzburg debut, you will be seen as a “French music” maestro? Then you’ve also done Bruckner, often seen as “old man’s” music.

A: “I’m quite successful in the key thing of avoiding being ‘pigeonholed’ in repertoire. It’s true that this French repertoire is something I’ve been doing a lot as a guest conductor...but I’ve been attracted to Bruckner (Austrian) since I was quite young...maybe since I’m 16 or 17 years old and that always sounds strange. Some people say perhaps it is because of my Catholic background, I don’t know.”

Q: That clip on YouTube of you conducting at age 10: how many boys that age want to be conductors — and why?

A: “It’s impossible for me to say...I remember the day I told my parents I want to become a conductor but I still don’t know why. I just sort of felt it, I knew it was like a call. But I’m also wondering what was going through my mind.”

Q: The comparisons are inevitable — you and Gustavo Dudamel, the young Venezuelan whirlwind who has taken over as principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Do you know him, and do you see him as a competitor?

A: “We’ve never met, for conductors it’s very rare that we meet. I have great admiration for him...(and) I think there’s room for everyone in this world — I just hope we’re different enough to be sustained. It’s true that we seem to be having a generational takeover now with the orchestras. I think it’s all the better for music, if this is what the world needs. But when actually we’re in it the only thing is to develop individually as the artists we are.”

(Nezet-Seguin’s release of Ravel orchestral suites with the Rotterdam Philharmonic is on EMI 9663422; his recording of the Bruckner Symphony No. 8 with the Orchestre Metropolitan is on the Atma label; the London Philharmonic Orchestra is on U.S. tour with principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski starting on March 1 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York.)

Editing by Paul Casciato

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