|| Conductor ||
His high-definition conducting yields performances of unalloyed beauty.
by Adam Wasserman, photographs by Dario Acosta.
The maestro at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia
Portrait by Dario Acosta
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik for Tom Ford Beauty
NÉZET-SÉGUIN'S FIRST MOMENTS WITH THE MET ORCHESTRA CONTAINED MULTITUDES.
Portrait by Dario Acosta
YANNICK NÉZET-SÉGUIN'S rise to the top musical position in the American opera world should surprise no one who has followed the remarkable course of his career. Still, it’s impossible not to be astonished by the sheer pleasure to be found in so much of the maestro’s work. Perhaps more than any other conductor working today, Nézet-Séguin seems to have the ineffable ability to appeal to the contemporary listener’s ears through utter beauty of sound. Nézet-Séguin’s baton may elicit high-definition playing for our HD era, but his art remains thoroughly classical.
The trajectory of Nézet-Séguin’s career is an undeniable part of his music-making. The forty-two-year-old music-director designate of the Metropolitan Opera trained as a concert pianist in his native Quebec and studied choral conducting. When he was twenty-two, Carlo Maria Giulini became his mentor, and it wouldn’t be wrong to hear echoes of the elder maestro’s poetry and selfless devotion in much of Nézet-Séguin’s work. After founding the Baroque ensemble La Chapelle de Montréal in 1995, Nézet-Séguin became an assistant conductor and chorus master at Opéra de Montréal; in 2000, he was appointed artistic director and principal conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain. What’s remarkable about Nézet-Séguin’s early-aughts transition to leading big orchestras on international stages—pacing groups such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic—is that so much of his large-scale music-making has retained the intimacy of chamber music.
In December 2009, the conductor made his Met debut leading the premiere of Richard Eyre’s production of Carmen. Nézet-Séguin’s first moments with the Met orchestra contained multitudes: the first notes of the overture were shocking in their martial clarity, yet the lyrical strains of the toreador song materialized like a silken curtain that artfully obscured the carnal lust at the opera’s core. Similarly, Nézet-Séguin’s explosive pacing of “Le veau d’or” in the Met’s 2011 production of Faust was so finely attuned to René Pape’s suave, rhythmically fleet conception of Méphistophélès that even a close viewing of the DVD confirms the difficulty of telling who is pulling whose strings. Likewise Renée Fleming’s “Song to the Moon” in a 2014 Rusalka, in which Nézet-Séguin provides the soprano with all the requisite softness of support while retaining a sinister underlying pulse that subtly reminds the listener that not all fairy tales have happy endings. My favorite Met moment by Nézet-Séguin comes from his 2010 performances of Don Carlo. In an opera that ignites at the explosive intersection of politics and religion, it’s clear that the conductor recognizes that the quiet prelude to Act III is about something else entirely—the deeply personal expression of faith.
Over the course of forty years, James Levine built the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra into a collective of astonishing interpretive prowess and arguably the best opera orchestra in the world. Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay Nézet-Séguin is that, under his baton, the band continues to operate at its zenith. Excitement about the future is almost beside the point when the music being performed right now under Nézet-Séguin’s direction is so awe-inspiring. Fully appreciating the maestro’s nascent mastery may require a seasoned operagoer to adopt a novice’s approach—which is to say, let’s just listen and hear what happens. —Adam Wasserman