Music: The kid’s all right

Montreal’s Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be the Philadelphia Orchestra’s next music director. The hometown paper provides coverage, at extravagant length, here. The New York Times takes note here. The Washington Post‘s critic blogs here. Montreal’s Arthur Kaptainis tells the Philadelphians what to expect here. These four pieces explain better than I can what a big deal this is.

Now finishing his tenth season at Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain (very much the city’s second orchestra after the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal), he is also music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic.  Nézet-Séguin is now incontestably the most prominent Canadian conductor in the world and indeed, eclipsed only by Venezuela’s Gustavo Dudamel and New York’s Alan Gilbert among the world’s young conductors.

It’s a big week for the 35-year-old. He’ll conduct the combined forces of the National Arts Centre Orchestra and his own Orchestre Métropolitain with massed choirs from Montreal and Ottawa on Wednesday and Thursday in Ottawa, and on Sunday in Montreal, in Mahler’s 8th Symphony, the “Symphony of a Thousand.” (True, it’ll be a sort of chamber-music reduction; barely 450 musicians onstage.)

On Wednesday Michaëlle Jean will be onstage for a few minutes before the music starts, to deliver a Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award to Nézet-Séguin.

Leading his Montreal band with the Ottawa orchestra — it’ll be his third time conducting the latter ensemble — and all those soloists and choirs is a non-trivial logistical and musical challenge for Nézet-Séguin, but frankly bigger fights lie ahead. The Philadelphia orchestra is in rough financial waters. Its home city is in long-term decline. Some of the pieces linked above wonder about the apple-cheeked and diminutive Quebecer’s ability to handle the heavy politics such a predicament involves. It’s a fair question. I chatted with him briefly, and spent more time listening to him hold court, last time he was in Ottawa. I can report that he sounded anything but naive and pliable when it comes to backstage politics.

As for his musical ability, obviously he’s an immense talent. A few writers worry that his breakneck schedule may be causing early-onset fatigue. He just cancelled a Toronto appearance precisely because he’s been overbooked. He’ll have to be careful. Some other writers worry that he’s an adrenaline freak who favours fast, glib performances over musical depth. I don’t buy it.

In 2008 he took Brahms’ First Symphony at a surprisingly slow opening tempo to lovely effect. The same year in the dank auditorium of a Cégep in east-end Montreal (the Orchestre Métrpolitain often plays in unglamorous settings as part of its mandate to take music to the people) he ended Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with such ethereal quiet that the audience didn’t applaud for almost a full minute after the music ended, as if afraid to break the spell. I’ve watched him rehearse the NACO in new music, a piece by the composer Linda Bouchard, and he took it as seriously as the Brahms and Gershwin on the program, consulting closely with Bouchard throughout the rehearsal and leaving her tremendously impressed by his talent.

For Ottawa listeners, it’s good to benefit from frequent visits by Nézet-Séguin, but hard to avoid noticing that his new gig takes him out of the picture as a potential replacement for Pinchas Zukerman, whose contract runs out in 2015. Who will lead the NACO when it reaches its half-century in 2019? Of course conductors from outside Canada should be considered (I believe the NACO has never had a Canadian-born chief conductor); for the moment, the homegrown favourite would probably be this guy.

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