Yannick Nézet-Séguin: conductor of the moment

If you want to hear a thrillingly bold orchestra, then Nézet-Séguin is the conductor you need to know

Who is he?

Australian-born Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the musical director of the Orchestre de Paris and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and, most recently, the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has set a new standard for contemporary orchestral music, so much so that his Canadian colleague and Bruckner expert and composer Nicholas Collon made the point in his 2009 essay on how “virtually the entire span of 20th-century repertoire … bears the mark of Nézet-Séguin’s hand … across every generation”.

How did he do it?

Plenty of people have applied to the position – Nézet-Séguin was interviewed by a panel chaired by the violinist Joshua Bell and including conductor Richard Hickox and the writer and conductor Robert Wilson – but no one, I think, has done it so well as he has done it so quickly. From the outset his career has felt like an audacious one. In 2003, aged just 29, he became the youngest ever music director of the Orchestre de L’Amerique. Even as it prepared to leave in 2007, he took on the newly created post of artistic director of the powerful RSM chamber ensemble that very year. Last year, when he took the baton at the City Winery in Philadelphia for the first time, to conduct that institution’s first all-Bernstein programme, he sent a raucous buzz through the inky depths of an otherwise dreary American winter. The New York Philharmonic season is the continuation of this stunning gamble on his own formidable ability to command an orchestra and a concert hall.

On tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the ESO, October 2018. Photograph: Pierre-Olivier Barthelemy/ENGLAND/REX/Shutterstock

What strikes me?

Out of the three high-profile US orchestras, the Phil has been the one that has stuck closest to its musicianly principles and refused to jettison them just to make money. And by now it’s obvious that Nézet-Séguin is a conductor who understands those principles just as well as his players. He likes what he calls “a collective practice” and loves and respects the musicians: unlike the artistic supremos of the other two, he respects their opinions and he listens to them. It’s about respecting the camaraderie of musical life, and it’s working. You can see that in his programmes. In the past the Phil has tended to under-borrow from the repertoire; in the latest season it boldly committed to a whole of operas by Verdi, Boulez, Vaughan Williams and Gershwin. In the autumn, the orchestra pushed this further, launching a co-commissioning scheme with a six-stringed, Les 10 Saints de la Garde to collaborate with composers of the new millennium.

Everyone in town will be talking about Nézet-Séguin, especially the youngish-ish citizenry who will experience his incredibly influential influence. But it is important to remember that he is merely one of a crop of charismatic young British musicians who have emerged over the past 10 years and given their lives over to the arts. It’s impossible to say where any of them will be in 10 years’ time, but it’s likely to be fascinating.

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