Yannick Nezet-Seguin: Watch my face, hear the music

Rapt audiences say that the young French-Canadian's ultra-physical conducting style actually helps them listen. He talks to Edward Seckerson about life lessons, honesty – and his four-orchestra family

Watching Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct calls to mind an extraordinary sequence in the film version of Mark Medoff's play Children of a Lesser God, where the hearing partner of a profoundly deaf young woman attempts to "sign" to her how the sublime slow movement of Bach's Double Violin Concerto sounds.

Through his gestures and facial expression she is able to see and therefore "hear" the rise and fall of the intertwining solo lines and, more importantly, feel something of the ecstasy conveyed.

Few conductors display such physical identification with the music they conduct as Nézet-Séguin. It's as if he is hot-wired into the fabric of the pieces. Phrasing is traced through the contours of his movement; facial expression chronicles the emotional journey or hints at a deeper subtext. There are those, it's true, who convey precisely the same effect through more economical means – indeed, there are conductors whose minimalist stick-technique and quiet manner on the podium suggest a more telepathic mode of communication with their musicians.

But it is a popular misconception that conductors who are extremely physical on the podium are "showmen" and that that showmanship is for the audience. For Nézet-Séguin the physicality is about many things, all of them to do with how he feels about the music. For an audience it's about hearing what you see and seeing what you hear. It might be a simple cue which will direct our eyes and ears to, as it were, pull focus on an important instrumental line. I've overheard many an audience member say that Nézet-Séguin actually helped them listen. It's also, of course, about the transference of energy to his players and not withholding anything of himself in doing so. "An orchestra always knows if a conductor is holding back," says Nézet-Séguin. "Trust me, they want you to show them who you are."

We are talking the morning after a performance of Bruckner's mighty Eighth Symphony, in Rotterdam, with the Rotterdam Philharmonic – one of four orchestral "families" which at this point in time represent stability for the hugely in demand young French-Canadian conductor. They are: the Orchestre Métropolitain in his native Montreal, where he all but cut his musical teeth; the London Philharmonic Orchestra, where as principal guest conductor he is a vibrant counterpart to music director Vladimir Jurowski; and, most recently, the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he has become only the eighth music director in the orchestra's history and at roughly the same age as the legendary Leopold Stokowski who also arrived in his thirties – and stayed into his sixties. They've always hung on to their music directors in Philadelphia.

Word of mouth travelled fast on Nézet-Séguin. He seemed to spring fully formed into the international arena. But his years of musical "grounding" in Canada were intensive and so comprehensive in the choral, operatic, and orchestral fields that he was more than ready when the rest of the world started calling.

One of the things that makes Nézet-Séguin so special is his ability to encapsulate the style, the attitude and the particular tinta of a composer. In Bruckner he understands the difference between "spiritual" and "pious", and makes no apologies for Bruckner's "heavenly lengths" but rather embraces the expansive time frame to invoke a sense of timelessness and soul-searching. Tempo, he believes, is dictated by the character and atmosphere of a piece – it takes as long as it takes. And he's fond of using the word "vegetarian" as an expression of how music should never sound. Gordon Ramsay would approve.

But just as understanding and respecting the style of music are of paramount importance to him, so too is preserving the individual character of the orchestras he conducts. So how would he characterise his four orchestral families?

"I can honestly say that they have 'generosity' in common – both in spirit and sound." Philadelphia, he says, has a "dark and sustained" quality which demands nurturing; Rotterdam is daring and, thanks to Valery Gergiev's pushing of the envelope, thrives on risk-taking; Montreal is, not surprisingly, the most French, he says, the most inherently refined in its personality; the LPO is a "chameleon", capable of quick switches of personality.

"From the first moment I conducted them I was in awe of their responsiveness, the speed with which they picked up on my ideas. I remember thinking at our very first rehearsal that the intensity and quality of what they were giving me was already concert-ready, and that ideas could very quickly be moulded into a finished whole so that in performance it would be possible to go further. And I love that the LPO, following Vladimir Jurowski's example, takes risks with programming so that I, for example, am able to do a rarely performed piece like Rossini's Stabat Mater which I just love to death ..."

A not so inappropriate metaphor, as it turns out, since Rossini's way with the devotional is boisterous and unbuttoned and at times barely a whisker away from profane. The prospect of this piece under this conductor is enticing. Sparks will fly on Saturday.

One of the things that Nézet-Séguin deplores is the idea that conductors like to "clone" their readings and simply reproduce them wherever they go. On the contrary, this conductor likes to hear what different orchestras bring to the table.

"An interpretation of a given piece has to be open enough for the individual qualities of an orchestra to shine through. As much as we want to be true to the text at all times, the text remains open to different nuances and colours, which is why we are able to perform the same pieces again and again and always find something new. An orchestra's personality is part of that process. And if you are coming to an orchestra with a piece for the very first time, it is fascinating to hear what they have to say. The first time I did a Prokofiev symphony in Rotterdam I was very conscious that a great Russian – Gergiev – had explored this music with them. But in one movement in particular I remember how surprised I was that they were inflecting it so lightly, and it seems that Gergiev had told them that for him that movement was something very French! And here was I with my French heritage not feeling that way about it at all!"

Prokofiev and Shostakovich (a complete cycle of the symphonies) will be looming large in Nézet-Séguin's repertoire plans over the next few years. I, for one, have always wondered how it was possible to get one's head around knowing precisely where you will be and what you will be performing in 2014. Nézet-Séguin likes to keep things as fluid as possible, his only grand plan being to front up to the "big W" – Wagner – starting with a concert performance of The Flying Dutchman, where else but in Holland. Working with singers is to this conductor the most exacting, and rewarding, of all his musical pursuits. The human voice, he says, tells us how the music "goes".

So now he enters what he calls the "third phase" of his career, where it is less about proving his worth and earning his place in the world of music but developing as an artist. "It has to do with honesty – and by that I mean being true to yourself and your beliefs, not just in music but in everything. I suppose it's about learning not to be influenced by what people expect from you but rather by what you expect of yourself."

These life lessons take time, of course, and Nézet-Séguin has the best possible headstart. He's still a few years off 40, and while the present schedule might be described as intense, to say the least, there is plenty of room ahead for changes of direction and changes of pace.

As his mentor, the great Italian maestro Carlo Maria Giulini, liked to say: "Hurry slowly."

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Sir Thomas Beecham Anniversary Concert on Wednesday, and, on Saturday, Beethoven's Symphony No 2 and Rossini's 'Stabat Mater', both at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own