Culture

Meet Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the maestro behind Bradley Cooper’s Maestro

Nézet-Séguin’s savant-like conducting chops made him a star in the classical music world. Then Hollywood came calling.

A black-and-white photo of a man wearing a striped sweater, a watch, and black nail polish. His arms are crossed and he's smiling at the camera.

(Photography by Mark Sommerfeld)

The fastest way to convey the stratospheric significance of conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin within the classical music world is to compare him to Taylor Swift. Let’s just go with “rockstar.” Nézet-Séguin got his prodigious start in Montreal, where he was born. At 13, he was admitted to the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. By 25, he was appointed the artistic director of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain, where he has a lifetime contract. And now, at 48, Nézet-Séguin is also the musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He’s got multiple Grammys. He tours Europe at least twice a year. He wears electric-coloured dress shirts and bleaches his hair. His baton is frequently hailed as a conduit to heaven. He’s even received the Behind the Music treatment, in 2021’s Yannick: An Artist’s Journey, a 110-minute documentary chronicling his dizzying rise.

In 2018, Bradley Cooper approached Nézet-Séguin with a movie-related request of his own: make me a believable Leonard Bernstein. America’s most prolific, enigmatic composer-conductor is the subject of Cooper’s 2023 biopic Maestro, up for several Oscars this month. As Cooper’s conducting consultant, Nézet-Séguin was an indispensable part of the film’s success. He knows a thing or two about what goes into making a master.

You studied piano when you were younger, which a lot of kids do. But you knew, by the time you were 10 years old, that you specifically wanted to conduct—which not a lot of kids do. What appealed to you about it? 

So, my mother and I disagree on this. She thinks I was especially gifted at the piano right from the beginning. I don’t. If I overheard a jingle playing on TV, I’d try to imitate it on the piano, so I had a good ear, but I wasn’t especially attracted to music—not any more than I was to theatre or drawing. At the time, the Montreal Symphony was touring and recording pretty actively, so I was reading about it a lot. The rest is sort of a coincidence: Le Chœur Polyphonique de Montréal came to my school and asked if some kids wanted to be in their choir. I said, “Sure, why not?” Then, I realized I wanted to have my own role in making the music; that’s how I decided to be a conductor. I had other career temptations over the years, but they were never that serious. An architect, then a journalist— 

I think you made the right call. From the outside, it seems like the expectations of what a conductor should look like—and who can be one—have shifted a lot since you were a kid. You’re openly gay. You have bleached blond hair and painted nails—

All still true. 

Did you ever feel pressure from the classical world to tame your style?

I never felt direct pressure; it was more of an unspoken thing. No one ever asked me to dress or act differently, or hide who I was, but I chose my places. Montreal, Rotterdam, Philadelphia—they’re very open-minded cities. I never had trouble in Berlin or Vienna, either, but they’re some of the more conservative places in the orchestra world. I got the artistic director job at the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal when I was 25, which is pretty young. I thought, Well, if they came to me to do this, I shouldn’t try to be anyone else. I think that, now, people are liking that I’m not like everyone else.

I recently watched American Symphony, the Netflix documentary partly about Jon Batiste’s 2022 concert at Carnegie Hall. He’s part of a bigger push to make the classical repertoire a bit less… classical. Less rarefied, less male, less persistently German. How do you accomplish that when purists would prefer you to just play the hits?

I arrived at the Orchestre Métropolitain wanting to diversify the repertoire, but I used to imagine that an orchestra was like a cruise liner—that you couldn’t just do a 180-degree turn or you’d sink. I did a lot of soul-searching during the pandemic, when events in the art world were completely shut down. I thought, If we’re not pushing more forcefully, change is never going to happen.

Is it happening?

Last year, Terence Blanchard became the first Black composer to have his work played on our stage in Philadelphia—about time, of course. When we show new artists at the Met, 50 per cent of the people who buy tickets are first-timers. And many of the old-timers—78-year-olds who have been coming to concerts since they were six—they’re excited to discover new composers. A vocal minority is threatened by change. That’s the world! But it’s not like if we play Valerie Coleman or Louise Farrenc or Barbara Assiginaak, we’ll stop playing Verdi and Puccini. If you’re a white European male, you’re still gonna be played. Brahms is still gonna be played, don’t worry.

I might be asking you to describe the indescribable here, but what does it feel like in your body when you’re conducting, when you’re really in the zone? Some people call it a flow state. I occasionally call it “blacking out.”

Conducting is very physically demanding, and yet, I’m not aware of my body or my gestures when I do it. As soon as I start thinking, it interferes with the clarity of the music.

Kind of like how, if you think about walking up the stairs while you’re doing it, you trip.

That’s exactly it. There are a hundred people on stage, but, as the conductor, you’re alone. No one is coaching you. The music is loud. It’s fast. Pieces sometimes last for three or four hours. If I do a big opera, it’s very much like a tennis match. It’s relentless. Maybe that’s why I love tennis so much. 

Bradley Cooper’s gunning for a Best Actor trophy for his portrayal of Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, thanks to your help. If you watch the six-minute scene where he’s conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at Ely Cathedral, Cooper’s absolutely drenched in sweat. I realize it’s probably fake sweat, but he’s clearly engaged in a full-body workout. Do you train for your job, too?

When I was about 30, my right shoulder started to get sore; you hold the baton in your right hand, even if you’re left-handed. So I started seeing a personal trainer. She watches the concerts to make sure my posture’s good. I do some weightlifting, some yoga. I treat my body a bit like an athlete would—seven to eight hours of sleep, not much drinking.

Imagine conducting Rachmaninoff with a bad hangover.

I mean, I’m sure it’s been done.

How did you get a complete conducting newbie like Cooper to approximate a great? Any tricks?

One thing he didn’t want was for it to be like, Bradley Cooper: conductor! He wanted to be Bernstein, not just copy every gesture exactly from the available concert footage, a lot of which he’d already watched without my help. What I did do was add a voiceover to the videos to explain what Bernstein was doing: here, he turns to the violins. Now he’s cueing the brass. Here, he’s opening his eyes because this is where the music gets brighter. Here, he opens his mouth because the singers are starting.

Is it true that, at one point, you directed Cooper via an earpiece? That would never fly at the Met!

We didn’t do it for every take. It was helpful sometimes, but tricky, too. I had to be ahead of the beat but not too far ahead. We had to figure out how to make the  magic work. 

You and Bernstein are both known for having pretty animated conducting styles. Were there any times when you watched footage of him and thought, “Oh, I do that, too!” Or, “I would never.” 

Bradley is very tall, but Bernstein was closer to my stature—quite short. I would never compare myself to his level of genius, but I do think we have a similar way of making up for our lack of height by using a lot of lateral movements, like opening our arms, left and right, to embrace the orchestra. I teach that to my conducting students at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. I always say, “Look, spread your wings!”

A black and white photo of a single hand holding a conductor's baton.

If you mess up while filming a movie, you can easily just reshoot a scene. How do you keep your momentum going when random factors creep in on stage? What if you get an arm cramp? Or someone’s cellphone goes off?

I heard stories about one conductor who actually had a heart attack on stage. He felt a little weird, but he still finished the concert. Then he collapsed. 

Oh my god.

He spent weeks in the hospital after that, but he’s fine! A million things can happen, but it’s funny you mentioned cellphones. Last year, one went off during a concert in Philadelphia. It was early enough that I stopped and started the piece again—no big deal. It happens. But then a different cellphone went off around almost exactly the same time. I turned to face the audience and said, “Can we live without the damn phone for just one hour?” That quote now appears on some merchandise in the Philadelphia Orchestra web store—a T-shirt, a tote and a phone case.

You’re now conducting orchestras in three cities. Do you have a favourite child? 

The favourite child is always the one you’re with at the moment! In all seriousness, being on a different trajectory with each keeps me sane. A lot of my work is in the States, but I’m forever bound to Montreal—it’s important for me to give back to the place that saw me grow. They’re the family I’ve been with the longest. I don’t have kids, but it all feels very much like being a parent. There’s always something with one of them.

You’re married to a violinist, right?

Violist. 

Oh, pardon me. That is different. 

There’s the violin and the cello, and in the middle, there’s the viola. The medium-sized one.

What do you two listen to at home? Is it even more classical, or do you ever put on something more pedestrian? Like, “Screw it. Let’s have some Nickelback!” 

It’s almost never classical. Pierre and I used to love Björk and Radiohead, but now we play almost exclusively R&B and soul in the house—Janelle Monáe, Daniel Caesar. My favourite singer in the world is Sarah Vaughan, so there’s a lot of jazz going on. I have a thing for Bad Bunny, so he’s our go-to thing when we work out. There’s also some French chansons.

Any Roch Voisine?

Actually, we were just on holiday and one day, we played a trivia game about Quebec in the 1980s. So, we decided to find a playlist. Yes, Roch Voisine was on it. Celine. The usual suspects.

Before the pandemic, you made a 34-hour, 326-song playlist for pets and uploaded it to Spotify and Apple Music. How did that come about? 

The Pennsylvania SPCA asked me to make a playlist for their rescues. But for years before that, Pierre and I would leave music on for our pets when we were out. Our cats have always been very musical. They love Bruckner symphonies, Wagner operas, Debussy on piano.

How many cats are we talking here?

Two. We used to have three, but Mélisande, the little girl, died a year ago. Rafa and Rodolfo are happy buddies together, so I think we’ll just leave them as a duet for the moment.

Can you recommend any good compositions for particularly neurotic animals? 

Part of the playlist is Chopin nocturnes. There are like 20-something of them. 

Do you usually watch the Oscars? Are your plans different this year? 

I’m going. I’m going to the Grammys first, though. I’m nominated for two.

So, what do you think? EGOT? 

I’m not aiming to be Beyoncé. (I love her, by the way.) An EGOT has crossed my mind, but I think it would be a stretch. How am I going to win an Emmy?

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