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

Sunday 09 October 2011 00:00 BST

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.

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