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Nézet-Séguin: 'Generosity is the key word'

The 40-year-old conductor's star is on the rise. Many would like to see him succeed Simon Rattle at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic. Yannick tells DW about what makes orchestras - and himself - tick.

Montreal native Yannick Nézet-Séguin was on the short list of candidates to succeed Simon Rattle in the Berlin Philharmonic's - meanwhile postponed - election of its future principle conductor. The French Canadian has had a multi-year residency at the Konzerthaus in Dortmund. DW caught up with him there during a recent tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he has led since 2010.

DW: Hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra here is having a warm sound in a warm acoustic. You have a special connection to the Konzerthaus. What is the spirit of this hall? Why do you keep coming back? Is it the substance or the style of the place?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: Anything has to start with the substance. Its director Benedikt Stampa first came to see me in 2008 and said, "Come to Dortmund! It's one of the best concert halls recently built." And on my first visit, I immediately fell in love with it. From that point, I was very interested in the concept: To attract people from all over Germany and also to culturally revitalize the region. I found the style - of programming, marketing, imagining, creating, and of daring - something that goes very much with my own way of approaching music.

I'm also very grateful to the Dortmund audience. They've always responded warmly and showed up in big numbers - whether I was here with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe or the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. And of course the crowning thing for me now is to bring Philadelphia here and to hear how the sound of the hall goes so well with the sound of the orchestra.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. (c) dpa - Bildfunk

Precise and high-profile conducting - with warmth and charisma

You're credited with having brought this orchestra back from the brink of bankruptcy. Of course it probably has a different business model now. But can you give me the artist's perspective? What about their soul? Do they play as if their lives depend on it, because in fact they do?

Well, in the bankruptcy zone - which was 2010, '11, '12 - never did the orchestra let that affect their artistic belief or quality. Coming back from that crisis demanded efforts from everyone. But I was always ready to spearhead that challenge, because I knew that I had a group of musicians for which the word "generosity" - and I'm not talking money, but musically - is at the core of how they feel about music. It's also at the center of how I feel about music.

So yes, their lives do depend on it, but not just since 2011. It's always been that way because what we call the Philadelphia sound, which dates back to the era of Leopold Stokowski, has always been a rich sound - and that has resonated in our community.

You mentioned the Philadelphia sound. Is it in fact getting more difficult to say, "This is the tradition, the sound, the particular flavor of an orchestra"? Because in fact you are conducting on two continents. But do you still feel a little shock every time you come back to Europe and conduct, for example, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and then return to Philadelphia: Is there a little shock then too?

Personalities and orchestras are a fascinating subject. I think I'm in an exceptional position at the moment to witness this. Orchestral personalities do exist of course, and yes, they're in danger of disappearing. It's up to us conductors to try and keep that alive and to nurture it, not to try to make everything sound the same.

Yes, I'm still in shock when I come back. Sometimes I hear the first sound, and even if I anticipate it, I still think, "Oh, it's true!" For example, earlier this season I did Brahms' Third Symphony, first with the Rotterdam orchestra. I had something in mind which was very pure and somehow poetic. Then, when I arrived in Philadelphia, even the first violins at the highest range sounded dark. It's so different. Of course I worked on the same interpretation with both, but certainly without ever compromising their basic qualities.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Musicians and fans fondly call him 'Yannick'

So it's incumbent to preserve an orchestra's individual sound identity. By extrapolation: Is there an American and an European orchestral sound, or is that too general? Would we be able to put it into words if there were?

I think there used to be more of those differences: American, European… But then, what do you do about Asian now, and Canadian or Australian? I think there once were some very defined schools. For example, Philadelphia is at the core of the American school of woodwind playing. That style was taken there in the early 20th century by Europeans. And when we tour, especially in Germany, some people will tell me, "That sound is very old fashioned." To Europeans, it sounds like the Berlin or the Vienna Philharmonic did in the early 20th century.

So yes, there are still sound differences between the Old World and the New. But I think nowadays the difference is more in the way orchestras behave, how they rehearse. A group like the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which I conduct a lot, is at the same level as the Philadelphia Orchestra, but they rehearse much more. Not because they need it to put things together, but because they want to dig into the music and talk a lot about it. The Philadelphians, on the other hand, come so well prepared that they need just a little cue from my hand or my eyes, and they understand. So we talk less and rehearse less there.

But apart from those differences, I think we should concentrate on the differences between cities and their orchestral identities and traditions - and on how to communicate that to the world. Rather than being nationalistic about it.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the 2014 Beethovenfest in Bonn. Copyright: Barbara Frommann

Time, too, is on his side

One event still fresh in our minds is the day the Berlin Philharmonic were going to elect a conductor - and didn't. You have experienced this group. Was there perhaps too much hype over this election, putting too much pressure on the musicians? As if the decision would decide the course of music for the rest of the world, for eternity...

I can't speak for them. But that might be true: this ensemble is still at the forefront of the music world, for historical reasons and also because of recent history, with what Simon Rattle brought - including their understanding of the media, their Digital Concert Hall.

I think it's great that the Berlin Philharmonic remains the flagship of our music world. So yes, they must have felt a great responsibility. All eyes turned to them. And it's wonderful that newspapers, radio and TV were so interested in the subject. This is positive for our world. Did they feel too much pressure? I see it this way: they're not in a hurry, and if they couldn't agree, it's okay to wait. So I'm very relaxed about it, at least from their perspective!

DW's Rick Fulker spoke with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. A performance with this conductor and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra can be heard in the current edition of Concert Hour.

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