A New Beginning: In Conversation with Yannick N_zet-S_guin

Classic Arts Features   A New Beginning: In Conversation with Yannick N_zet-S_guin
The Philadelphia Orchestra began a new stage in its history on June 14, 2010, when Yannick N_zet-S_guin was named the next music director of the ensemble. In this in depth conversation, he speaks about the ensemble, the city and the thrill of "Yannick Day."


Four days later, Mr. N_zet-S_guin, or Yannick as he prefers to be called, spent a day of celebration in Philadelphia, getting to know the city and his numerous fans. Allison Vulgamore, the Orchestra Association's president and chief executive officer, recently spoke with Yannick via video on Skype while he was in Cologne conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

Allison Vulgamore: Yannick, people around Philadelphia are still talking about "Yannick Day" last June. I'd like to share with you what I've heard people saying about that day, but first, what were your impressions of Philadelphia?

Yannick N_zet-S_guin: My impression of the city and of that day was of several strong aspects. There's a real sense of history here in Philadelphia, and such a strong identity, which is linked to its history, of course, and also a sense of warmth and community. I feel that it's a city where people are really living together well. And this is also how I feel about the Orchestra. There is the history of the Orchestra and the real psychological connection between the musicians themselves. There is a strong harmonious relationship. So in other words, what I feel about the city is very much what I feel about the Orchestra, and it makes me happy that both go very well together.

AV: I know people remember the snapshots of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. They remember the smiles on the musicians' faces at the Neighborhood Concert. And they remember the Phillies game and the sheer joy of you connecting with the sport scene, which is such a passion of Philadelphia. People stopped me all summer long asking when they were going to see you next. And people are carrying your recordings and pulling them out and saying, "See, I'm getting to know him!" It's very, very exciting to feel their exuberance and know they've already made such a strong connection.

YNS: Yes, there's a real sense of wanting more, and I so look forward to deepening these new relationships. AV: Absolutely. And the ceremony at the Academy Ballroom, placing your commitment to the future of the Orchestra inside the Academy's legacy in an open embrace with so many people who have made this Orchestra important had a whole other set of emotions around it. It had a real sense of history in the making. A gravity and yet a joyful sense to it.

YNS: Yes: again, the history is vital and the ceremony was so important for all of us.

AV: People in Philadelphia now feel connected to you through the memory of that day, the way they feel connected to the historical importance of this city.

YNS: Yes! You're right! It's important because these memories are what will keep us all connected during the time when I am not able to be here physically in Philadelphia. Those memories are good.

AV: Yannick, this connection you felt with Philadelphia actually goes way back. You made this early connection through recordings of The Philadelphia Orchestra. You grew up with the Orchestra in your home, as many people have. What is it like to now interact with the musicians who carry on this tradition, to be a partner to this Orchestra that you grew up with?

YNS: This is a very special feeling. One of the unique aspects of an orchestra is that it's one of those rare groups of people that carry unspoken traditions, like an oral tradition. It's a tradition of feelings, of an attitude you can't write, you can't teach: it's just part of the blood of an institution. And not many orchestras in the world actually carry this, but Philadelphia definitely is one of them. And for a conductor, carrying that tradition is paradoxical but also most beautifully about making it relevant and alive. You know, [the conductor] Carlo Maria Giulini used to talk a lot about the fact that music is the only form of art that really demands someone to make it live. Because, if you look at a painting, just the fact of looking at the painting, it does exist as a work of art. Looking at the score, the work of art is there, but it needs people to play it or to conduct it for it to become alive. So for me, taking this tradition, it's like a torch that I carry through time and make it as beautiful and as relevant as possible for people now. But it's not something that has to do only with the past. It's both past and present.

AV: And the Orchestra members transfer this tradition, this connective musical tissue, from generation to generation. There is an inherent pull of connectivity with the music directors who worked with this Orchestra, to honor that but also to breathe life anew into that tradition.

YNS: It's important to send a message that this is not about remembering the past. It's remembering the past to go forward, knowing where we came from to know where we go.

AV: Thinking on a grander scale, what role should music play in people's lives? Is it art? Is it entertainment? Is it lifeblood? What is it that music brings to our lives and what is that quality we want to share with those who experience our music-making?

YNS: First is feeling connected to who we are as human beings. That's a collective thing, and that's why also it relates very much to the collectivity of an orchestra. Music that we play, we call classical music but I prefer to call concert music, is music that reaches our soul, reaches our heart, very immediately and deeply. There is a connection between our ancestors and where we are now because music then and now is about life, about love, about fear, about hope, and that is something that is a very human thing. We can still feel that today, even if that music was composed a few centuries ago. Music makes us dream, makes us go to magical places. It goes to areas in everyday life we can't really access because we have too much to think about. It is entertainment. But it is also reflection. It is spirituality. It is all of this, but I think it's also dreams. And we need those dreams in order to move ahead with our lives. The most important thing is that we are having an experience with music. It might be challenging, it might be calming, it might be overwhelming, even rejuvenating and energizing, but whatever it is, it is both a very personal connection with the music as well as a collective experience.

It is for that reason that I wish that every concert, every performance of The Philadelphia Orchestra, is something that will entertain you, but in a very rewarding and rich way.

AV: Can I ask you to talk a little bit about concert music? I haven't heard that term and I'm fascinated by it.

YNS: It comes from a concept of just rethinking what becomes a classic. What is it? Through time these works have not only survived but have even gotten better or more relevant, and that's why they become classics. But of course they didn't start out that way. For me, when we're playing Beethoven for example, the important thing is to play in such a way that we will feel somehow what people felt at the time the piece was composed. How revolutionary it was, how daring it was, how immediately inspiring it was. But back then, they were not playing it as the wonderful classic that it has become today. And that's why concert music is great. It doesn't present it as though it's a classic, but puts it back to the real immediacy of a composer communicating with people directly.

AV: That's a great thought, a unique perspective, the notion of the immediacy of the concert experience, the fact that you must have that experience for something to become a treasured work, that in fact classical music is where we are rooted but that all music-making begins with the collective experience of a concert.

YNS: Exactly.

AV: Yannick, you have worked in a broad range of repertoire. You're a man of great orchestral sound, but you're also a man of opera, of oratorio, and a chamber musician. You bring your joy to making music in multiple ways that bring you fulfillment. So is there a difference between what you love to conduct versus listen to? Do you separate how you enjoy your music when you conduct it from how you experience it as a listener?

YNS: An orchestra in the 21st century can encompass and embrace multiple musical forms, going back 400 years or more. We have a great inheritance of masterpieces and lesser-known works from this range of repertoire. They are all part of the same heritage, and I think we have the responsibility of breaking the boundaries between them. And for me personally, it's not even a choice. I feel that I need it. It's almost physical. I need it to live and to breathe as an artist. So what I want to share with everyone, with the Orchestra and with the audience, is to feel that there are no boundaries.

AV: I think one of the magical things about the ensemble of an orchestra is its ability to adapt to all of types of music. It can take a Haydn oratorio and adapt its size and performance style to that particular type of work, or it can take a large-scale piece like Mahler's Symphony No. 8 and adapt itself to a very different kind of composition.

YNS: Yes, flexibility is so important. And for the programs that I build there is always a story connection, a juxtaposition, between geography or an era or influence. There is always a line that connects them. I think it has to be well-balanced but also rewarding, and it has to tell us something about the history and the emotional impact of every piece.

AV: So, if that's the experience that you're inviting us to as an audience, how will you approach building concert programs in Philadelphia?

YNS: Well, much of the answer to that question goes with my previous answer about links between history. I think what we can expect is to create connections and links between repertoire, different eras, and composers. It's how every program relates to the other so that within a season we get a great window of the great collective heritage that the world has in music, in art. I like the concept of a window because if you look out a window from one angle _ã_ actually here, it's very beautiful. I have the Cologne Cathedral in front of me. If I'm standing just in front of the window, I see a little bit of the Cathedral, and yet if I look from a different angle from the same window, I see only the Cathedral but it's still the same landscape. It's about different viewpoints and perceptions. It's something like this I want to suggest.

AV: Yes! You're looking through the window from different perspectives and noticing what you see and don't see. And a window brings a sense of openness and welcome. What a fabulous analogy! Is there anything else you want to tell our patrons and our community?

YNS: You know I was so warmed by meeting so many Orchestra lovers and supporters after the concerts in October. People had so much they wanted to hear from me. I would now say to them, please, tell me, what are your dreams for our wonderful Philadelphia Orchestra? I hope people will open their minds to imagine and connect and share their dreams.

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