In the orchestra world, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the conductor everyone wants. He’s young (just turned 40) and cool, at home both on Twitter and in a Tchaikovsky score. He likes innovation and tradition, contemporary music and Bach and jazz. He loves talking about music to audiences, board members, and the musicians of the orchestra; and he loves taking it off the stage into different venues, and to different publics.
When Nézet-Séguin swept into Philadelphia in 2012, the orchestra was in bad shape. Though traditionally one of the top orchestras in the United States — the so-called Big Five — it was between music directors; had seen precipitous audience decline; and was in such financial trouble it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2011, sending shock waves through an orchestra world that has reason for existential concern about its collective future. The hope was that Nézet-Séguin, a relative unknown in top international circles, could ride in on a white horse to save it.
This week, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians are coming to Washington for their second visit of his tenure, so local audiences can continue to judge the musical results of this marriage. But the general idea in the orchestral world, propagated by the orchestra itself, is that he has excelled in his function as savior.
“I just can’t say how magical the relationship is,” says Harold Robinson, the principal bass, who joined the orchestra in 1995 (after 10 years at the National Symphony Orchestra). He adds, “I have not found a weakness . . . I think he’s the best music director I have worked with.” In Robinson’s case, this includes Mstislav Rostropovich, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach.
“The mood is incredible,” says the violinist Barbara Govatos, a member of the orchestra since 1983. “Yannick has been an incredible injection of hope for classical music in general, not just the orchestra.”
As a number of American orchestras — including the National Symphony Orchestra — embark on the search for new music directors of their own, Nézet-Séguin appears to be a template for what they’re looking for. If there’s a flaw in his seemingly perfect profile, everything around him is usually moving too fast, with too much electricity and excitement, for anyone to have time to figure it out.
There are advantages to being an underdog. Taking over a major musical institution with decades of tradition can be a daunting task for a young conductor — witness Alan Gilbert’s tenure at the New York Philharmonic, trying to reinvent a wheel that predecessors such as Leonard Bernstein left rolling happily a generation before. Try to save a beloved one on the verge of extinction, though, and you’ll have everyone rooting for you.
With the Philadelphia Orchestra, Nézet-Séguin had the advantage of a group of first-rate musicians all eager to ensure the future of their organization. That they all actually like each other is icing on the cake.
“To a person in the orchestra,” says Govatos, “I haven’t heard anybody say anything negative.”
“It felt from the beginning,” says Nézet-Séguin, “as if we had met in a previous life.”
He was speaking by phone from Philadelphia, having just returned from New York and opening night of the revival of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Metropolitan Opera. Nézet-Séguin currently holds two other music director posts: with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, where he will step down at the end of the 2017-2018 season, and with the Orchestre Metropolitain in Montreal, a post he plans to retain. Apart from that, he is mainly limiting his guest appearances to Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Met — “where he belongs as often as the company can recruit him,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times in his “Don Carlo” review.
“What can I say? I’m a faithful guy,” Nézet-Séguin joked on the phone. “I like long-term relationships.”
He has certainly embarked on one with Philadelphia — and not only with the orchestra administration, which recently extended his contract through 2022. He has established a home in the city and is often attended by his parents, academics from Montreal who take an active role in his life, and his partner, Pierre Tourville, a violist in Montreal. He has a palpable love affair with the audience, to the extent of occasionally encouraging people to take video and post clips of concert excerpts on YouTube (“Yannick gave us permission,” explains one YouTube member under her post), and even Tweeting from the stage himself.
Allison Vulgamore, the orchestra’s president and chief executive cites “a spirit of joyful interaction that audiences cotton onto.”
She added, “We’re a whooping and hollering crowd in Philadelphia now,” and described baseball whistlers and shouts from the audience. “It has become an infectious environment,” she continued, “and I do attribute that to Yannick. I think his comfort and the musicians’ comfort radiates, and you do feel like you’re a part of it.”
In today’s climate, some music directors who excel at innovation, like Gilbert, fail to generate excitement with their players. This isn’t the case in Philadelphia, where Nézet-Séguin has set about broadening the orchestra’s range — a “St. Matthew Passion” here, Strauss’s “Salome” there, or an initiative this season called 40/40, playing 40 works that the orchestra hasn’t performed for the last 40 years if ever, from Rossini to Nico Muhly — while genuinely connecting with its musicians.
“His rehearsals are so invigorating and so inspiring,” says Robinson. “There’s not a lot of dead time.” He adds, “His musical instincts are fantastic. He knows exactly what he wants.”
Everyone wants a happy ending. But it’s a little premature to say Philadelphia’s troubles are over. Vulgamore discusses what she calls “a happy palette of opportunity” — outreach programs, a new app that delivers program notes in real time (which my colleague Geoff Edgers wrote about last fall), a regular working relationship with China that is, through sponsorships, “accretive to the orchestra,” Vulgamore says, though she declines to discuss specifics. But the orchestra, though it emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2012, still needs to build up its endowment and find ways to continue attracting audiences. Even Nézet-Séguin’s arrival and subsequent popularity haven’t brought about the rise in ticket sales one might expect.
Furthermore, the musicians’ contract is up for renewal in September, and the players are eager to restore some of the concessions to the bankruptcy that they made in their last contract.
“One of the problems I have with all of the excitement surrounding Yannick is it creates a certain danger,” says Peter Dobrin, a music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Bankruptcy bought time. It didn’t solve the long-term budget gap. The orchestra continues to spend several million dollars more a season than it’s taking in, and while Yannick’s presence is certainly a necessary part of the solution, it isn’t the whole solution.”
There’s one more question hovering in the background: the question of whether Nézet-Séguin, whose energy and exuberance certainly crackles through performances, is the real musical heir of some of the greats who have preceded him (like Carlo Maria Giulini, one of his mentors). At the moment, though, it’s an unimportant question, since no one denies that for music lovers over the coming years, it should be a lot of fun to find out.
The Philadelphia Orchestra performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. Call 202-785-9727 or visit www.washingtonperformingarts.org. $35-$110.