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Beyond the Baton

September 19, 2017

A Q&A with Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Photo by Chris Lee

From the September/October 2017 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and Bernstein’s West Side Story.

What is it about the emotional connection our audiences have with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 that makes it a fitting finale to our opening week? Revisiting the pieces that have made the history of my orchestra is something extremely special and I feel privileged to do so. To always present our audiences with another way of looking again at these masterpieces, hearing them with fresh ears, is what we do. We take time to reflect on what they mean and what the composers meant through them, and also which traditions within those pieces we want to keep or maybe question. A piece like Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is one that many concertgoers know very well. For example the second movement—which is so gorgeous because there’s such chamber music between the solo oboe, the solo bassoon, and all the strings answering each other—has a very pure melody and yet is so heartbreaking. There’s the famous third movement with the pizzicato. There’s a lot to do with plucking the strings—there are various ways of doing it and various ways of phrasing it. And of course the grand finale of that Symphony is the ultimate virtuoso piece for our great Orchestra. I’m looking forward to kicking off the season with this great masterpiece. 

This is your first time conducting West Side Story with the Orchestra. Like many people, I know West Side Story since my youth—I’ve known the movie, I know the music, I conducted many times the Symphonic Dances. The Orchestra has performed on many occasions the Symphonic Dances, as well as the film music with the film being projected. But now this is a totally different experience, to have all the original music that was composed by Leonard Bernstein. We will present the complete score of all the music in concert format because we want people to just listen and enjoy musically the inventivity [sic] of the melodies, the rhythmic novelty of it, and the way the scenes are integrated. We’ll have a fabulous cast and it won’t be static, of course. Our audience knows us; we always have a theatrical way of presenting things. But most importantly we will have the true Philadelphia Sound expressed through the music of Leonard Bernstein, who is one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century. So to celebrate the centennial of his birth this way will be an amazing event to launch our season.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 will be performed October 6-8 and Bernstein’s West Side Story in concert will be performed October 12-15.

From the April/May 2017 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Mahler's Symphony No. 3.

Mahler famously said “A symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything.” The Third Symphony might embody this the most. The first Mahler symphony I ever listened to, and I also ever conducted, was his “Resurrection” Symphony, the Second. When I started discovering and loving all of his symphonies, there was one right after the Second, the Third of course, that grabbed my attention in a very unusual way. I first fell in love with the last movement, which you can’t really understand if you don’t have all the other movements. It’s his longest symphony and it’s said to be the absolute longest symphony in the standard repertoire. It should not scare people that it’s so long though, because as in any Mahler symphony the Third is an entire world. And in this case it was really designed to embrace and embody the entire universe beginning with the creation of the world. The first movement has a lot to do with the mineral life, which eventually becomes the elements. The second movement is one step further, with the vegetables, flowers, and fruits. And the third movement is about the animals. Gradually it moves to human life and we have the sound of the mezzo soloist for this, then the female and children’s choruses, which represent paradise and the afterlife or eternity, in the last movement.

This work is very special to you. Up to this day every time I conduct this I can’t hold my tears, because to me the final words are the most beautiful that Mahler has given us. They are full of nostalgia but they are also full of hope. And to finish our season with such a powerful piece, after having done so many Mahler symphonies together with The Philadelphia Orchestra, and having this grand finale send us into the summer season, looking forward to many more seasons together, I’m sure it will be extra meaningful. And this is why I’m very eager to share with the Philadelphia audiences maybe one of my top three favorite symphonies ever in the entire repertoire.

Mahler’s Third Symphony will be performed May 18-21.

From the March 2017 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Bartók’s opera is a very dramatic and intense work. Bluebeard! That legend inspired quite a bit of literature and artwork. And in music, I think the best-known work is Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók. It’s his only opera, and it is a work that can be fully staged. But very uncharacteristically for opera, it has only two characters, Bluebeard and his new wife, Judith. That builds up the tension in the piece, which is also due to its length—it’s about an hour—so the drama is really concentrated. Bartók’s music is always so refined and very detailed and crafted, and that enables him to create tension in the drama and the music each time one of the seven doors is opened. For those of you who don’t know the story: Whatever happens that last door is bad, it shouldn’t be opened!

Tell us a little about the Philadelphia performances. I’m excited to present this because we have truly fantastic singers—Michelle DeYoung and John Relyea—who I would say at the moment are the best performers worldwide of this piece. And they are both well known here in Philadelphia. We’ll be able to hear our Fred J. Cooper Memorial organ in the work, and it will be my first performances of the piece. I’ve always dreamed of conducting this. So to do this and under these circumstances with The Philadelphia Orchestra is special.

Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle will be performed March 2-4.

From the February 2017 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Bach’s Cantata No. 150

Tell us about the connection between the Brahms and Bach pieces. Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is especially famous for its last movement, which is based on a chaconne and is a tribute to Bach. For years it was quite vague what Brahms’s model was, and even what a chaconne or passacaglia is (two different ways of talking about the same thing, which is a set of variations over a melody or bass line in this case). The genius of Brahms was to take this and put it in a very Romantic and dramatic context. Then it was discovered that the precise piece that inspired his chaconne was the last movement of Bach’s Cantata No. 150. In the Bach cantatas, their numbers have nothing to do with their chronology, and one important thing to know, and which makes me even more excited to bring this to Philadelphia, is that the 150th Cantata is among the first three or four he composed. So Bach must have been something like 16 or 17 when he wrote it. So it’s a very early cantata, very early Baroque, and therefore has this form of variations on the same bass line. Brahms took that bass line and used it more as a melody instead of as a harmonic base. He was not only an admirer of Baroque music but was also very knowledgeable about it. He collected all the [François] Couperin pieces he could find and kept them in his library. He would study very early music in order to inform his own writing.

You’ve rounded out this concert with more Brahms. I feel the best way to complete this program is to take a set of organ preludes that Brahms wrote at the very end of his life and have them orchestrated as a certain transcription, in the same way he transcribed in a way Bach’s music. So this concert has the work of three generations of composers—Detlev Glanert will do the orchestrations for us—and I hope this will shed a new light on the Fourth Symphony, which we think we know so well. It’s always a great masterpiece to play with this Orchestra but maybe we can understand more how it came about and how it informs us today.

Excerpts from Brahms’s Eleven Choral Preludes, Bach’s Cantata No. 150, and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony will be performed February 23-25.

From the January 2017 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne and Schmitt's The Tragedy of Salome.

You’ve included two lesser known selections in the first week of the Paris Festival. Tell us about the Schmitt: It’s exciting to focus on French music with both pieces we know and pieces we know less. I’m happy to be able to reintroduce to Philadelphia audiences the Tragedy of Salome by Florent Schmitt, a work not heard here since 1919. The first thing that’s really important to know is when it was composed—around 1912-13, when the Ballets Russes was commissioning composers in Paris, which brought so many incredible pieces: Debussy’s Jeux, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, most famously Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. And right around that time, the Tragedy of Salome was performed by the Ballets Russes. This work has received a little less play than those other pieces, maybe because Schmitt was not as prolific a composer. But now we’re rediscovering his larger pieces. I’ve already had the chance to record this in Montreal with the Orchestre Métropolitain and I played it in Paris with the Orchestre National de France. I really love this work because it has the exotic feel that is closely associated with the Middle-Eastern world of Salome, and yet it has all the components of ballet music in the best sense of the word. It’s very French, of course, with the writing, especially the woodwinds, and the string colors and harmonies. But it’s also a very dramatic piece that has a certain energy and tension, which I think brings the best of what French music can give us.

What makes the Canteloube songs so evocative? There’s another piece I wanted to include in this program, which is excerpts from a series of songs by Joseph Canteloube, Songs of the Auvergne. This is an unusual set of melodies for voice and orchestra. It’s not written in French but in the dialect from this region in southern France. Immediately because of the language—even if we don’t really understand, or even if we speak French we don’t understand all the words—we hear in the accents and the way it’s set to music and the vocal line things like the lavender, we hear the sound of the little insects everywhere, or the grass in the wind. People who have traveled there will recognize immediately that landscape. Susan Graham has agreed to sing some of these songs for us. She’s, of course, one of the greatest singers alive. She has a special feel for French music, which combined with the colors of our Orchestra will make for an unforgettable performance of these pieces.

Selections from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne and Schmitt’s The Tragedy of Salome will be performed January 12-14.

From the December 2016 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4.

Tells us a little about pianist Yefim Bronfman. Of course Yefim Bronfman, Fima to his friends, is one of the greatest pianists alive, and he is adored and admired everywhere, including in Philadelphia, where he has played for many years. Soon after I was named music director designate here I made my Berlin Philharmonic debut, with Symphonie fantastique, a work by Messiaen, and Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, with, for the first time, me working with Fima. What he brings to every type of repertoire, but especially the Russian repertoire, is this incredibly beautiful sound in music that is often so percussive and demands so much of the performer. An example is this great cadenza at the end of the first movement of this Concerto that is so long and actually written on three staves for the piano. This is where generally pianists can get so intense that they start being quite rough with the keyboard. And Fima, to get power and immediacy to his sound, doesn’t need get rough. I think this is one of the marvels of his playing. He was so humble and such a great chamber musician, and he helped me through my debut. He would always say backstage beforehand, “I’m sorry if I make any wrong notes,” and I would say “I’m more sorry if I don’t follow you well”—it became a sort of running joke. I’m so excited to be doing this piece six years later here with Fima and my orchestra in Philadelphia.

Is there a particular passage in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony that really speaks to you? Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is one of his most important symphonies and one of his largest creations for orchestra. It has everything Shostakovich ever did, with several layers of understanding of his message, darkness, also irony. One of my favorite passages in this Symphony, which I think is unlike any other symphony, is this fugato, almost right at the beginning. It’s so fast and so high, it starts with the violins playing all repeated notes extremely fast and has a message of almost panic. Usually when there’s a fugue in symphonic music, it’s more like a tribute to the Baroque. Shostakovich has a completely different purpose. It’s famously difficult to play, but with the Fabulous Philadelphians it will be peerless.

Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony will be performed December 1-3.

From the November 2016 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé.

Daphnis and Chloé is a very symphonic piece, isn’t it? First, I’m a huge Ravel lover. I love all music Ravel ever composed, from the very small Ma Mère l’Oy [Mother Goose] to Daphnis and Chloé, which is arguably his largest-scale work. It’s a one-hour ballet but to me it’s more like a symphony. French musicians at that time wouldn’t call it a symphony because that form was considered too Germanic, and French musicians and composers wanted to separate themselves very much from German music and German-oriented music. This is why we have such a wealth of impressionistic music from Ravel and Debussy, most famously. This piece is such an entity to itself, it’s more than a ballet. All the thematic developments hold together so well.

This is such an important piece in the history of music. Can you point out a few interesting things? The very first notes, which are barely audible, are the harp playing a slow arpeggio that is like a tableau of the most beautiful nature opening up in front of our eyes and ears. The place of the chorus in this piece is really interesting, because it’s wordless. It only sings “ah” and “oo” and “oh” and doesn’t really have, most of the time, a place in the storytelling. It’s more about being another section of the orchestra, like the woodwinds or the brass or the strings. There are also a lot of instrumental solos, most famous of all at the end of the ballet, where there’s a flute solo that is maybe the most gorgeous flute solo ever written—very sensuous, sensual. It’s followed by this incredible dance that is very complex, the bacchanal at the end. The year after Daphnis was composed, there was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the dancers in Paris could dance the Rite very well, but they complained just one year before that they couldn’t dance the final scene of Daphnis and Chloé. So that tells you how groundbreaking that piece was in history even if it didn’t cause a riot like the Rite of Spring. But this was a period of time when the combination of French literature and French music with a Russian-trained ballet company in Paris gave us one of the greatest masterpieces of all time.

Ravel’s complete Daphnis and Chloé will be performed November 10-12.

From the September/October 2016 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Mozart’s Mass in C minor.

Tell us about the background of the Mass: We all know of this legend of Mozart who was always composing so fast and apparently so easily. Yet he left two incredible masterpieces unfinished. One is, famously, his Requiem, because he died before finishing it. But earlier in his life was this Mass in C minor, which, even though unfinished, is in certain ways one of his greatest masterpieces. Mozart wanted to marry Constanze Weber and felt that his father did not approve. Also at this time Constanze had become quite sick. But the wedding did take place anyway. So this piece was intended as almost a wedding present to her, and also a present of gratitude to God, because he allowed her to become healthy again—and to his father, who allowed the wedding to happen. Constanze even sang in the first performance of the Mass.

Why was it left in this state? It was such a fantastic torso that was left, so in a way he couldn’t complete it because even for his own standards the piece had such large proportions. How do you treat crucifixion? How do you treat resurrection, especially when in the first movement the music is already so rich and powerful? We can thankfully still perform the piece even in its unfinished format because it feels complete in its own right. And every movement is something that is so special within Mozart’s body of work, that it’s something I always like to conduct.

What’s your experience with the piece? I had the chance to sing it as a boy soprano and then eventually as a tenor, and I conducted this work in the church in Salzburg where it was first performed. That was really amazing. So I have a long relationship with this piece. Now to do it with The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir will be such a treat. We’ve done a lot of vocal music together, and years ago we did Mozart’s Requiem. This piece I think goes even further than the Requiem, because there are many references to Baroque music, a lot of fugues, double fugues, things that are really complex in the writing. And yet because Mozart is the genius he is, he makes it sound just like the inside of a beautiful Baroque church. All the decorations may be so rich and yet, as we often say with Mozart, there’s not one note too many. This is one of my favorite pieces in the whole world.

Mozart’s Mass in C minor will be performed September 29-October 2.

From the April/May 2016 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Weill's Symphony No. 2, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7, and Mahler's Symphony No. 10.

Tell us a little bit about Kurt Weill. Weill is a composer who has always fascinated me. Of course what we know of him are The Threepenny Opera or his songs. Sometimes we don’t even know they are composed by Weill, like “Youkali” or “Pirate Jenny.” But it’s more popular music. He was one of those composers at the early stages of what we today call “crossover,” people who were completely classically trained in a certain tradition but were able to bridge their talent to make it more accessible to a different audience. That is basically what we’re trying to do now and doing increasingly all over the world. This is why to introduce to our audience this Symphony by Kurt Weill is something I’m really looking forward to.

Not many people are familiar with Weill’s more “classical” works. Why did you program it? This symphony is a jewel. It was premiered by Bruno Walter at the Concertgebouw [Amsterdam], the same person who premiered some of Mahler’s symphonies. But we’re talking about something much shorter—a relatively small symphony. Sometimes it’s like Stravinsky and some other times it’s indeed like smaller Mahler. But more importantly I think we can recognize Weill and an almost rough aspect of late-night cabarets in Berlin. The lyrical inspiration of it and the construction—the structure and architecture—and even the dramatic input are of someone who really completely mastered the symphonic world. To introduce Kurt Weill in the 1930s in a program in which there are better known works from the same era—Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand—I think will hopefully serve to convince people that he is really a first-rate composer.

Weill’s Second Symphony will be performed April 8-10.

Prokofiev's Seventh Symphony is not one many people know well. Can you tell us about it? When we say Prokofiev and symphonies, we think huge orchestrations, quite loud, like the Fifth or Sixth symphonies. There are also some lesser known symphonies that are quite aggressive and serve a certain way of defining the world. But then there’s the First Symphony, the “Classical,” which is so elegant and pure and quintessentially classical. His last symphony is so underestimated because nobody plays it, and actually it’s as gorgeous as the “Classical” Symphony. It’s as if Prokofiev was coming back to his roots, or coming back at the end of his life to a sense of purity. The Seventh Symphony is not necessarily a happy work, but it’s a work that has very defined melodies—almost like an empty way of orchestrating (there’s only one line in the violins and the very low strings are accompanying, and there’s a big part for the tuba). So there’s an emptiness and nostalgic aspect to this music, which is very moving. And yet there is all the dance and rhythmic vitality we associate with Prokofiev and the balletic aspect, too, which was very important to him.

There are two endings to the Symphony, which will you perform? The Philadelphia Orchestra gave the U.S. premiere of the Seventh and recorded for the first time a new ending, which was a faster and brighter one. There’s a complicated story about this Symphony being written to get an award, which would give Prokofiev some money at the end of his life, which he really needed. Someone advised him that if he was to write a fast ending it would get more applause and maybe more money. But he did ask that after his death the new ending never be played. So even though our history is closely associated with the fast ending, we will do the original one, which I think is much more moving and touching about one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony will be performed April 14-16.

How many symphonies did Mahler write? He wrote nine complete with numbers and he wrote a tenth one, which is The Song of the Earth. He was actually avoiding the number nine, so he wrote The Song of the Earth first because he was superstitious about the number nine, after Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák. And then there’s the Tenth.

The Tenth is only a fragment. Can you describe it? It’s a torso, uninterrupted, of sketches of five movements, all from Mahler’s hand. The first movement is complete, and as we go through the Symphony there’s less and less information, and by the last movement there is more or less only one melodic line and a few rhythmic or harmonic indications. But still the entire structure or overview is by Mahler. I personally believe that even though some passages that Deryck Cooke has re-orchestrated or arranged to complete the torso sound like Mahler might have done it a little differently, it’s more than worth playing because some of the passages are perhaps the most beautiful that Mahler ever wrote. A few highlights: In the very last movement the cellos and violas accompany a solo flute, which lasts a few seconds but is so heartbreaking. It’s a soliloquy that’s so intimate and yet it’s not necessarily dark. It’s just very lonely and it’s as if Mahler speaks more simply and directly to our soul and heart, more than in some of his other symphonies where he uses all these extra doublings and large orchestrations. There are also a few striking moments with a big drum, which marks an interruption of a very melodic line from the tuba. And there’s a very short movement in the middle of the Symphony with nice solos from the flute and oboe, which are dancing. And now I’m back to the Adagio, which is the only really completed movement by Mahler. It’s very poised and has longer lines, almost like Bruckner but with a very deep and personal take on it, famous for its viola section solos. There are four times the violas have a very long line without accompaniment. I think from the first note to the last we feel it’s the work of afterlife, someone who’s lived very much. Yes it’s still an exaggerated or hyper-active work in many ways, but it’s also a work that goes back to a certain purity, like one would expect from a genius at the end of his journey.

Mahler’s Tenth Symphony will be performed May 12-14.

From the March 2016 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 ("Spring").

Tell us about the first time you heard Schumann’s First Symphony: The first time I heard the “Spring” Symphony in concert was actually in the middle of winter in Montreal. I was very young and struck by one thing—the use of triangle. It’s so unusual in repertoire of that time, I discovered later. Brahms did use it eventually in his Fourth Symphony. It’s an instrument that, of course, adds a lot of brilliance but also something magical.

Schumann had bouts with ill health and depression throughout his life, but this work is quite joyful. It’s a very happy work. It’s a work of a man who was in full possession of his powers and who was very optimistic for a brief time in his life. This is what we can hear through the B-flat major. Even the slow movement, which is in E-flat major, is more a romance where one can imagine the cooler nights of early spring when you still need a blanket or a fireplace at night to make sure you stay warm. There’s also a feeling of dance and virtuosity in the Symphony. It’s a great display of the talent of our Orchestra, partly because the string writing is extremely rich and complex and virtuosic. I had the pleasure to record this piece recently with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which has a smaller string section, and we really could hear the clarity of the orchestration. This is the first Schumann symphony I will conduct with The Philadelphia Orchestra and I intend, of course, to use the rich sound of the Orchestra without sacrificing the clarity of the counterpoint, which is informed by smaller sections. So I’m really excited to see what that blend will create, and it will become a very personal offering.

Schumann’s First Symphony will be performed March 3-5.

From the February 2016 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.

There’s a great connection between Dvořák and Brahms: The Orchestra and I have visited together all four Brahms symphonies. This is very important in any relationship between a music director and an orchestra, to have such a stable of repertoire that we can revisit and find common ground. I, of course, can’t hold all the repertoire for myself, and I was happy to agree to give a Dvořák symphony to Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who is one of the most wonderful younger colleagues I have. And for his debut with the Orchestra he chose the Seventh. I’m talking about Brahms because this is the most Brahms-influenced of Dvořák’s symphonies. He loved Brahms, and, I wouldn’t say he copied him, but he really learned how to orchestrate by studying his music. And Brahms, in return, had a lot of admiration for Dvořák, and also a little bit of envy because he was this North German with a very cerebral tradition, and Dvořák had much more of a Czech flavor, much more folklore inside him. Brahms always wished he had this natural gift for folklore. There are many stories of how both composers influenced each other and loved each other. The first movement of this Symphony, with its meter in six beats, which is quite unusual for a symphony, is very Brahms. And it’s in D minor, which is also the key of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, the first and second movements of which are also in six. So there are many similarities across the Symphony. And yet, in the third movement, this folklore and the dancing aspect often found in Dvořák are so clear. You can’t mistake this. It wouldn’t be Brahms whatsoever. And I think that unusual combination of rhythmic flair and the serious, dark, and quite heavy approach, which is very much influenced by Brahms, makes this Symphony something very, very unusual. Since Andrés Orozco-Estrada is himself especially good at rhythmical music, I’m sure audiences are in for a treat.

It’s natural then to pair this work with something by Brahms: The presence of Dvořák on the program called for having some Brahms, especially because of this particular Symphony. The Brahms Violin Concerto, like Dvořák’s Seventh, is infused by the influence of central European folklore. The last movement is virtually a Hungarian dance. Of course it’s not Czech but I think this is a movement where the violin is so virtuosic and the orchestra feels like a crowd dancing and provides the real rhythmical grounds above which the violin is able to fly. And this is the same idea that Dvořák had in his Seventh Symphony. The unusual blend of those two sides of the same coin will make an unusually good combination for this concert, like two dishes in a meal that make perfect sense.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony will be performed February 4-6.

From the January 2016 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4.

Tell us a little about Bruckner and this Symphony: Bruckner is one of those composers who is so close to my heart, as a musician, as a human being, but especially as a conductor, of course. So far we’ve done with the Orchestra the Seventh and Ninth symphonies, but this Fourth might be the most approachable and easily accessible of all his nine symphonies (plus the ones he named 0 and 00, so there are actually 11). The Fourth is called the “Romantic,” not in the sense of romance and of people loving each other, but in the real, pure German sense of the word, which has a lot to do with the symbolism and imagery of the forest and nature. The third movement is maybe the most telling about this. It’s a hunting scene, and we hear the horns announcing the hunt very early; it’s a very distant sound that comes closer and closer. I feel there is a lot of action in the music. I always see a bunch of dogs coming toward us, just as they are about to launch the hunt. There is a trio section in the middle that is the most calm and mysterious aspect of the forest—we hear the wind, nature, water. This makes Bruckner more of a secular composer, as opposed to the sacred composer that is found in many of his other works. He was such a devout man that his symphonies are very often like unspoken Masses. But in the Fourth Symphony there is very little of this.

You have a very personal memory of the Fourth: The first time I bought a record of a Bruckner symphony was the Fourth because I had read somewhere that it was the easiest one to listen to. And I have to say at first I really did not like it. I remember telling my piano teacher, I must have been around 16 years old, I don’t get Bruckner. And she said, “You know you may want to consider going to a concert and hearing it live, because Bruckner is one of those composers where you have to be there and feel the vibrations of the music.” When a few months or years later I finally attended my first concert of a Bruckner symphony I was completely in love. This is why we should say to our audiences that if you still have reservations about Bruckner, you should come and hear it played by this Orchestra with me in this hall, and I think you’ll be convinced.

Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony will be performed January 21-22.

From the December 2015 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Handel’s Messiah.

Tell us about your early experiences with Messiah: In Montreal, as in Philadelphia as well as almost everywhere in North America, the tradition of having Messiah at Christmastime is very, very important. It was when I grew up and still is. I got to discover this wonderful score when I was a child. I got to sing it when I was in my choir and conducted it for the first time with the ensemble I founded, La Chapelle de Montréal, which was doing mostly oratorios of the Baroque era. As the years went on I had a different approach to it, because I understood this was very popular in the English-speaking world, but was originally meant for Easter, because it’s the life of Christ but all his life, not only his birth. To me it’s still special that we take time around Christmas to do this piece. But I think we do it because we need in our society and in our world moments where we can be together and reflect. Christmastime is also about tradition, and we want to keep alive traditions, and whether you are religious or not, that doesn’t really matter. We need this time to hear beautiful music that helps us reflect on the beauty of our lives and feel a sense of celebration.

What do you hope to bring to these performances in Philadelphia? Tradition is something that can live by itself for a few years. The Orchestra knows this piece and we’ve had really great guest conductors who also know the piece very well. They put this together in a certain way, and it gives a beautiful result for our audiences. But for me, as music director, when I get to work on something like this with the Orchestra the idea is also to somehow revisit the work, to look at it with fresh eyes and try to take that tradition and move it slightly forward. Not to do something completely different than what used to be, but to regenerate the tradition with fresh ideas. Because we’ve been doing some Baroque music in the past few years, especially the two sets of performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, I think we will build on this new tradition I’ve created with the Orchestra and apply this. In other words have a way of looking at Messiah with the same eyes and ears we did for the Passion.

Handel’s Messiah will be performed December 11-13.

From the November 2015 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Hannibal’s One Land, One River, One People.

Tell us a little about Hannibal and your work with him so far on this piece. One Land, One River, One People: First, I think this is an extraordinary title. I think it sums up who Hannibal is as a person. He embraces the whole world, and when one meets him you feel embraced by him. And by doing so he is embracing many different musical genres. In music, so-called “classical” music in general, we tend to put things in small boxes. And that’s perhaps a metaphor for what happens in our world today. Everybody wants to define who they are and stay there but at the end of the day we live together. And there’s a force that is beyond everything, which is harmony. And music is harmony, and Hannibal uses music to break all boundaries and bring everyone together. Hannibal is just an open heart and his music is an open heart. When I communicate with him he’s very specific about what he wants. But it’s never in musical terms—it’s never about being faster, or slower, or louder—it’s about being more driven or drawn to a different energy.

How does Hannibal’s piece fit into the entire program? The Sibelius [Symphony No. 5] and Copland [Appalachian Spring] on this program is music that has been strongly associated with a certain love of country. Music, we have to remember, is a powerful force to bring us all together. And season after season, we need and want those projects (last season was Bernstein’s MASS). And I’m looking forward to having this piece by Hannibal bring us all together in Philadelphia and in the world.

Hannibal’s One Land, One River, One People will be performed November 13-15.

From the September/October 2015 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade.

How does this piece speak to the Philadelphia Sound? Sheherazade is the ultimate symphonic poem, and the ultimate piece to show off an orchestra. Of course Russian music always shows all the colors of an orchestra. But in this case, because it’s related to the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, it has this dreamy and vaguely fearful aspect to it. It’s all about a special world that is foreign to Rimsky-Korsakov and therefore to us. It’s one of those fascinating works, and has been so for many decades because it encompasses many different cultures inside it. Therefore it’s closely associated with the history of The Philadelphia Orchestra and its sound. Every music director before me, from Stokowski and Ormandy onward, has put their stamp on this piece with the Orchestra. So I’m eager now to put my own stamp on it and step into this tradition.

Why did you choose this piece to put on the opening subscription concerts? One of the features of this piece is that it has the full orchestra always evoking the sea and the landscape. But the characters, especially the solo violin, the concertmaster, which portrays Sheherazade herself, has this way of narrating the story and connecting all the parts together. The same motifs vaguely repeat each time but in a different mood. We can imagine the storyteller just narrating the story and indicating the emotion that’s about to happen. Other instruments come and go: There’s a famous bassoon solo, a famous clarinet solo, and a famous solo for the second trombone. So there are slightly unusual combinations, which make the story interesting to hear, and to listen to as a whole. But the piece also features different soloists and every section of the Orchestra. In short this couldn’t be more ideally suited to the opening of a season of our great Philadelphia Orchestra.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade will be performed October 1-4.

From the April/May 2015 Playbill

This month Yannick talks about Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

What was your first experience with this Concerto? It was not a piece which was part of my learning. With Shostakovich I knew the symphonies, the string quartets, the piano music, the piano concertos, the cello concertos much before I heard his First Violin Concerto. The first time I really got to know the piece was when I was assigned to conduct a concert of the laureates of the Queen Elisabeth Competition. It was in Luxembourg and two winners that year were two wonderful violinists. One of the two was Sergey Khachatryan, he’s been here with the Orchestra a few seasons ago, Armenian violinist, and he played the First Concerto of Shostakovich. I couldn’t believe it. Beautiful from the very first note. I think it’s Shostakovich at his best. Each movement has such a profound message, meaning. There is also the interaction between the orchestra and the violin. The finale and the second movement are both very difficult to put together because they are so virtuosic and have a lot to do with solo winds dialoguing with the solo instrument. Of course the centerpiece of it is the passacaglia, which is this bass line that’s coming back and coming back, almost like an entire nation marching to something that’s inexorable and which we don’t know exactly how it will end. There’s a sense of threat and yet a sense of weight. But with Shostakovich there’s always a glimpse of hope, too. And in the hands and talent of this young violinist from Armenia, this was extraordinary.

Are you looking forward to performing it in Philadelphia? Here in Philadelphia it was important to do this piece with a musical partner that combines all the qualities of the greatest violinists but also a very deep human connection to what this Concerto means. I’m so thrilled that we will be performing with Lisa Batiashvili. Lisa is a great friend of the Orchestra, for years now, and she’s a great personal friend of mine, for years, too. I believe when she plays, anything she plays, she gets beyond the notes, beyond even the first degree of significance of the piece. And doing this Concerto with her will be the first time that we collaborate on that particular piece. But I can not imagine a better way for me to get to know this piece even better and to bring it to our audiences.

Why is Russian music so perfect for The Philadelphia Orchestra, and how does Nico Muhly’s new work fit in? Russian repertoire is always and will always be closely associated with this Orchestra, because of its sound, because of its generosity. Also because of great conductors who’ve been nurturing the right way of having this impressive, imposing sound and attitude toward this music. Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony is a great display for this Orchestra. It was intended to be this way, similar to the Symphonic Dances. By the end of his life, I think we can feel Rachmaninoff’s nostalgia and the pain of being increasingly estranged from his own country, his own nation. And in that sense, that piece of Rachmaninoff relates very deeply and closely to the Shostakovich, which is a very dark work, but I have to say also a great display for the qualities of the Orchestra on a pure technical basis. And when I imagined this program, I immediately asked Nico Muhly to write a piece to open such a concert. And I wanted him to know the context of this Shostakovich and this Rachmaninoff precisely. And he is coming up with this wonderful piece, called Mixed Messages. Because message is a key word I think in both of the bigger pieces in this program, it proves to be the perfect fit for all three.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 will be performed May 13-16.

From the March 2015 Playbill

This month Yannick talks about Haydn's Symphony No. 92 ("Oxford").

Why is Haydn so important? As a young student, before I was allowed even to touch a Mozart piano sonata, my teacher made me play a lot of Haydn sonatas. They’re lesser known—it still is the case. And it’s the same for the symphonies—we know Mozart better than we know Haydn. But Haydn is actually the “father” in a way of Mozart. And he is precisely the “father” of the symphony, the “father” of the symphonic repertoire that we play all the way through the 21st century. It all originates in Haydn’s music.

Is there a reason you’d like to conduct more Haydn here? His 104 symphonies would be a fascinating journey to do. We can’t do all of those 104 symphonies in one season but I think doing more Haydn with this orchestra serves many purposes. The first is to go back to a more intimate way of writing. To play Haydn means to listen to each other a lot so it helps understanding even playing Beethoven better, it helps understanding playing Brahms better, and the list goes on. It’s also I think a fascinating journey for an audience, because Haydn has a lot of humor. His music is not about being only very proper. The way we understand the word Classical nowadays is slightly wrong because we think it’s something perfect and ideal that is difficult to touch. But it’s rather the opposite. It’s something that’s full of life, full of spirit. To play Haydn is finding with little means, orchestration-wise, a lot of different colors because of the meaning and the spirit. This is why I believe that the virtuosity, which is one of the great qualities of the Philadelphia Sound, is especially well-suited to Haydn.

Why did you pair this work with ones by Beethoven and Vaughan Williams? In one of my very early programs with the Orchestra I combined a Haydn symphony, No. 100, with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. So I think this time, because Haydn was very popular in London, and in England in general, he dedicated this symphony to Oxford (its name is “Oxford”), and because we are having Vaughan Williams on that program, we thought it interesting to see how the English native composers were influenced by Haydn’s music—the Austrian—and by extension another Viennese-oriented German composer, Beethoven, on the same program.

Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony will be performed March 5-7.

From the February 2015 Playbill

This month Yannick talks about Debussy’s La Mer.

What was your early experience with the work? When I was a music student I did not understand La Mer because I always thought it sounds more like rocks than water. But I guess I was just completely wrong and never was in a performance that completely inspired me until I heard it under Charles Dutoit. I fell in love with the piece and understood that it’s much more about what’s under the water—yes there are waves and reflections of the sun on it—but it’s mostly about the inner world, a very busy world, of an ocean, so that helped. Also knowing that this was actually inspired by the English sea, which is not necessarily turquoise, or green, or light blue. It’s more a stormy one, with shades of gray. I started conducting the piece a lot and even recorded it with my Montreal orchestra.

Tell us a little about your thoughts on the piece. I happen to think that it’s really not only a picture of the sea but a symphony with three movements and it has a real narrative to it: the explosion at the end and the storm of the third movement and the way it resolves in the rays of light with the oboe and flute duet at the very end, which also makes the piece finish in a complete splash. I think it gives the whole orchestra something to do, something to chew on. It’s the ultimate poetry but it also requires so much discipline in the playing, with lots of divisi strings and lots of unusual use of the brass and winds. I can’t wait to conduct it myself with the Orchestra, but I’m also very happy to leave this to my friend Robin [Ticciati], who is developing a great relationship with this Orchestra. And in the context of the rest of this program it will shed a new light on this absolute masterpiece.

Debussy’s La Mer will be performed February 20-22.

From the January 2015 Playbill

This month Yannick talks about Turnage’s Piano Concerto.

You premiered this Concerto with Marc-André Hamelin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 2013. Can you tell us a little bit about the character of the piece? Among all the premieres that I have done, this is one that most immediately got my attention. I was fortunate to have commissioned this piece in Rotterdam for Marc-André Hamelin, our soloist also in Philadelphia. I was struck by great qualities that are not so usual in new music. For example, immediacy of rhythm. It’s something where one wants to dance and it immediately goes right into the stomach in terms of impact and enjoyment. It’s connected to jazz very much. I think Turnage had as a model Gershwin and his treatment of piano and orchestra, whether it’s in Rhapsody in Blue or in the Concerto in F. I think it’s also very, very personal and it doesn’t repeat itself too much—that’s also a great quality. There’s not one note too many, I find. There are some great moments where the piano goes alone, on its own, not really like a cadenza, but more generating the impulse where the orchestra is just taking it and bringing it to another level. It was an immediate success when we performed it in Rotterdam and I expect at least that success when we perform it here.

The piece is part of our St. Petersburg Festival, performed with works by Rachmaninoff. So there was some specific thinking about this pairing. When we talk about Gershwin, which is a connection to Turnage, we talk also about a very specific era where the roots of concert music, which now we call classical, and jazz were still common. And there was an ebullience at that moment where composers were taking this into different directions and eventually it became like two branches of the same tree. So now we’re just there where the tree is about to divide in branches and there is this specific era, which applies not only to Gershwin but to Rachmaninoff. And Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, which is paired with the Turnage, might not be his jazziest, because he had not spent much time in North America, but you can feel already that kind of thinking rhythmically. That will allow later Rachmaninoff to develop in a different direction, which is closer to jazz and Gershwin—therefore Turnage. And it was interesting for us to underline this connection in this program.
 
Turnage’s Piano Concerto will be performed January 22 and 23.

From the December 2014 Playbill

This month Yannick talks about Brahms’s Symphony No. 3.

You have often said Brahms is your favorite composer. How does his Third Symphony rank among his other symphonies? The most beautiful Brahms symphony, out of the four symphonies he wrote, is always the one you just heard or played or conducted. I am no exception. This is the way I feel with each of these wonderful masterpieces. However, if really called to choose one, No. 3 is my favorite because to me it’s the secret garden of Brahms. It’s where what makes Brahms Brahms: in his language, in his atmospheres, in his doublings. Where he is the most specific is really in this Third Symphony. It’s not a symphony that finishes loud and is not made to have rousing applause at the end, even if we play it very well or not. It’s more about poetic images and lower woodwinds, horn solos, complex rhythm. In the first movement there is a lot of disorientation rhythmically, so that, unless we look at the page, we think the first beat is there, but actually no, it’s there. It makes it also extra complex to perform, to understand, to conduct, to play as chamber music. Maybe for all these reasons I find it a real gem and treasure among his symphonic works.

How does the Symphony fit in with that specific concert program this month? Because of its nature, I was curious to program this Symphony not as a concert ending, but more as an opening. First of all those chords at the beginning of the Symphony—there’s a great feeling of introduction, of taking two big breaths of fresh air and then launching into that wonderful first movement, and then going into some hidden woods in the second and third movements. The ending that leaves the imagination going. I think this fits well with the second half of our program, with Haydn and Richard Strauss, who influenced Brahms, and who was influenced by Brahms, also with this Viennese thread with the three composers on that program. I want to keep exploring how we get out of the pattern of overture, concerto, intermission, symphony, and I think this is the ideal piece to experiment with this. 

What is something people may not realize about the work? People don’t always realize that they already know the melody of the third movement of the Third Symphony. It’s been used in movies, in jazz, in crooning songs. To me it’s closely linked to this wonderful movie, Goodbye Again, that was also a book, Aimez-vous Brahms (Do You Love Brahms), and this is all based on this wonderful, very simple melody that has the most profound and touching effect.

Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 will be performed December 4 and 6. 

From the November 2014 Playbill

This month Yannick talks about Alexandre Guilmant’s Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra.

In early talks about the Art of the Pipe Organ Celebration, the Guilmant First Symphony was one of the first pieces that came to your mind. There’s not much repertoire when you first think about organ and orchestra together, but if you search there is actually quite a bit. Everybody knows the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony and Poulenc’s Organ Concerto with strings and timpani, but the Guilmant is a piece I came across at an organ festival in Toulouse in France at the beginning of my career as a guest conductor. The organ was actually a church organ and was not in the same location as the orchestra. Technically it was very complex to realize and I remember thinking, one day I want to do it properly with the organ on location.

How do the organ and orchestra interact in this piece? This performance will be a great opportunity to see how that piece works symphonically, because the organ is completely integrated with the orchestra in the same way a piano or violin concerto would be. It’s really a dialogue with the two instruments instead of finding other ways to combine organ and orchestra, which is like some of the other works we’re playing this year. This is a real Romantic concerto, it just happens to be with organ.

How do you describe the piece, coloristically and stylistically? The development of organ repertoire is really influenced by the development of the symphonic organ, which happened in France sometime in the course of the 19th century. The French always were intrigued by this idea of colors, whether they were writing for the keyboard or the orchestra, or operas, like Bizet and Massenet. Similarly the organ was developing as an instrument that would imitate all the instruments of the orchestra. It has stops that sound like flute, and oboe, and trumpet, and gamba, and on and on. So I envision the Guilmant color wise as two orchestras speaking to each other in a way, because the organ part is trying to imitate an orchestra. The orchestra, at the same time, is trying to take the organ out of its religious context, which was the instrument’s historic use. This is why it makes sense for us to play it because it connects the purpose of this organ being in a concert venue so we can hear the instrument with different ears than those that only associate it with church service.

Guilmant’s Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra will be performed November 7. 

From the September/October 2014 Playbill

This Month Yannick Talks about Mahler’s Symphony No. 2

Mahler’s Second was the first Mahler symphony you conducted? Yes that’s true. I randomly bought this recording as a young boy, and it was Leonard Bernstein. It had the most wonderful effect on me. And I became interested in hearing more Mahler symphonies. The ending, partly because of my choral background, is something that always gave me goose bumps. It starts from such a pianissimo, but the crescendo and the bells—for me there was nothing more powerful. I already wanted to become a conductor and at that moment I could imagine that it was the most rewarding piece to conduct. That is why I chose it as my first Mahler symphony ever to conduct, when I was in Montreal. And, yes, I did get goose bumps when I conducted it and I still do in that finale. 

Other than the finale is there one specific moment in the piece that you absolutely fell in love with? There are many moments, especially in the first movement, which is lengthy and can stand on its own—the famous Totenfeier that we programmed last year. It’s in sonata form, so when the beginning comes back—the recapitulation as we say—there are these Gs that are repeated by the entire brass. This insistence is so rhythmical and nothing is exaggerated and yet it’s the most powerful effect. Also the very beginning of the movement, with the cellos and basses. I think the Second Symphony has everything that we like in Mahler’s music—the dreamy aspect, the influences from its Austrian roots, such as the second movement Ländler [a dance similar to a waltz]. And in the fourth movement the Lieder, the songs, such as “Urlicht” sung by the contralto. So in a way it sums up all Mahler. If this was the first Mahler symphony that someone heard, that would be the entire world.

Why are you excited to bring the Second to Philadelphia? The first Mahler symphony that I conducted with The Philadelphia Orchestra was No. 5. Then we did Nos. 6, 4, and 1. And now we’re moving to this wonderful No. 2. It’s actually the first choral one I’m conducting with the Orchestra and maybe the subtitle “Resurrection” makes sense this season as we are having this apotheosis of our requiem series with Bernstein’s MASS later in April. I think these two anchors speak to each other beautifully in how they go spiritually above any defined religion. And this is always a very big part of the message of Mahler.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) will be performed October 30-November 2. 

From the April 2014 Playbill

What makes The Philadelphia Orchestra unique, apart from other ensembles with which you’ve worked?
Orchestral sound is something mysterious and great orchestras retain their own very strong personalities. I’m happy to say The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the very few orchestras that has such a strong personality in its sound. And I’m here to nurture it and make it evolve.

How much time did you dedicate to practicing as a young music student?
Between age five and age 10 I barely did my half hour a day. But I did sit down at the piano to improvise and explore the sounds, in addition to that. It was when I started singing in a choir that it motivated me more to practice longer. And obviously from age 13 onward it was never less than four hours a day. 

If you had only one final opportunity to conduct, what pieces would you choose for the program?
The great Claudio Abbado passed away earlier this year and his final concert was the most beautiful and meaningful program ever, with Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Bruckner’s Ninth, also unfinished. But I would never answer this question for myself because I’d be too superstitious to do so. 

Your worst habit?
I’m a “snooze” specialist. I have several alarm clocks. I like it when I wake up and can say, “Oh I still have 10 more minutes!”

Favorite place you’ve traveled for work?
Australia and New Zealand—there is something very special and magical there. To visit is a wonderful thing, but I think I wouldn’t be able to live there full time. I would miss America and Europe too much.

From the March 2014 Playbill

How do you deal with increased media interest as you become more famous?
The orchestra world has a very public face—many people comment on our performances. I am happy to be recognized on the street as I walk to the hall! But it is also very important to guard your personal and private time. There must be a balance.

What is one thing concertgoers would be surprised to hear about you?
If for some reason I couldn’t be a musician anymore I’d be a florist. I always loved the smell of flowers and I used to garden a lot when I was a very young child. Not that I’m planning on retiring any time soon! 

How do you prepare for each rehearsal, and how do you prepare for each concert? How does this differ?
For me the greatest preparation is the one prior to the rehearsal. Rehearsals are where my vision of the work has to be combined with the tradition and expressivity of the orchestra. Once rehearsals are done I feel that there is no more pressure, it’s only about bringing it to life for the audience.

If you could go back to when you were a teenager and give yourself some advice, what would you say?
Believe in yourself and believe in your own path. And only try to discover what is your path and learn how to accept it and assume it and work for it.

 How do you go about learning a score (what are the steps)?
I start by identifying the structure, which means the period, the phrases, the sections. And then I identify the leading lines of every section and then go afterwards to the next layer, the counterpart, the harmonic foundation, and then the orchestration.

What’s something you thought you would never have the guts to try, but did?
To eat blowfish in Japan (which can be poisonous). I did and survived and found it very good!

From the February 2014 Playbill

This month we revisit some of the most popular questions and answers from past Beyond the Baton features.

1) Which recordings would you bring to a desert island?

Bruckner Ninth Symphony with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Vienna Philharmonic; Chopin Nocturnes with Claudio Arrau; J.S. Bach Cello Suites with Jean-Guihen Queyras; Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony with Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra

2) If you had to pick any century to live in, which would it be and why?

Definitely early-20th-century Paris. I would love to have lived in the time of Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, and also to have experienced the dancing of Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes—all of this, leading the way into the modern era, into the 1920s and Kurt Weill. That time was such an explosion of artistic innovation and creation!

 3) Who is your favorite composer?

Brahms has always been my favorite composer, the very first. In second position, Bruckner, Mahler, Bach, Ravel …

4) Who are your non-classical musical influences?

Some early ones were Radiohead and Bjork, and the great divas of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. 

5) Why a turtle tattoo?

In Polynesian culture the turtle means good luck. And I think it must have helped me here, because I have a lot of luck!

6) What’s the one thing you always have to do before going onstage?

I don’t have a special ritual, however I wear my grandfather’s ring on my finger, always. And before going onstage I have a moment where I touch the ring and think of him. He passed away before seeing me conduct, so this is a small way of sharing.

From the January 2014 Playbill

1) When did you decide to pursue music as a career?

I had many many interests, of course, even when I decided that music would be my life when I was very young, 10 or 11. I was very interested in so many things, but at age 15 I realized I couldn’t spread eggs in so many baskets. I realized that I needed to focus my energies on only one thing and I had to make that decision myself.

2) What do you love the most about your hometown of Montreal?

Montreal is similar in size and feel to Philadelphia, and perhaps this is why I love both cities so much. You have the best in restaurants and cultural life, but it is still a humane size. I can also tell you that I love to be near the St. Lawrence River in Montreal, and of course here in Philadelphia we are blessed with two rivers!

3) Do you think music plays a role in calming people or relaxation?

Music has the power to influence many emotions—it excites and energizes us, fills us with joy and sorrow, inspires dance, and yes, can also relax and calm us. It also has a profound healing effect and helps us express ourselves spiritually. Each of us has a unique experience with music—I know that I certainly play a very different type of music when I am working out than when I am relaxing at home. But I wonder if you are asking a more specific question, which is whether CLASSICAL music when played in public spaces has a calming effect. And to this question I have to say that I do not know, but would not be surprised if this were true.

4) What contemporary, popular artists would you most like to collaborate with?

Collaborating across musical genres helps stretch our creativity so working with contemporary popular artists is very appealing. When we do collaborate with popular music artists I like to work with people who are absolutely tops in their field, the best in their genre—this makes for the right combination with our own world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra musicians. So I am delighted that we will collaborate with Philadelphia’s own R&B/jazz artist, poet, and actress, Jill Scott, for our Academy Anniversary Concert this month.

From the December 2013 Playbill

 

1) What are your plans to expand the repertoire to include more works by modern, living composers?

My philosophy is that it is important to renew and add to the repertoire and we’re expanding the Orchestra’s reach in every direction, both with new works and also with works written earlier that haven’t been performed by us. I think it’s important to integrate new music in a thoughtful way, programmatically or through things like our recent Philadelphia Commissions Micro-Festival. I also believe strongly that we should not just premiere a work and never play it again—we must continue to perform these pieces so that audiences can hear them more than once. What are our plans? Well, you should stay tuned for our season announcement in February—I think you will be pleased!

2) What’s the most important attribute you listen for in a candidate’s playing when sitting on an audition panel?

Attention to everything a composer wrote is something that we look for alongside solid technique. But at the end of the day, after we’ve heard dozens and perhaps hundreds of candidates, what stands out is the one who is really telling a story with the music. You must have both. 

3) Why a turtle tattoo?

In Polynesian culture the turtle means good luck. And I think it must have helped me here, because I have a lot of luck! 

4) Who is your favorite clothes designer that you like to wear?

I’m very comfortable in Prada shoes. I love Ralph Lauren or Lacoste polo shirts for rehearsals. I like to have very beautiful tuxedos but unfortunately even beautiful ones don’t last long because they are subjected to very difficult conditions. 

5) Have you ever been in a position where you and the soloist disagree over the interpretation of a piece? If so, how did you resolve the issue?

I like to embrace and support the vision of a soloist and help the orchestra believe in it as well—that produces the best result. There isn’t only one right way to do it. So it is not a matter of disagreement, but instead it is a way of working together.

From the November 2013 Playbill

1) What two words would you use to describe yourself?

Can I have three words?! I would say fortunate, honest, and optimistic.

2) Can you remember a time in your life when you heard the word “no,” didn’t pay attention to it, and were all the better for it?

When I was offered the position at 24 of being the music director of the Orchestre Métropolitain many people told me I shouldn’t take it, and that I should go to Europe and study with a well-known conductor. But my feelings were that in order to develop you need an orchestra. The future has proven them wrong.

3) With all this jet-setting, how do you find the time to study the score?

Obviously it takes a certain discipline. I’m a good student. Every time I find myself studying on the plane. There’s not one single day when I’m not studying a score, even on holiday. A conductor must love being alone with a score. And that’s okay. So far, even on vacation it’s not being about taking a holiday from music.

4) What is the one food you can’t live without?

Eggs. If I could I would eat breakfast all day. 

5) How do you keep your energy level high? Do you have any routines that keep you focused and fresh?

Sometimes I would love to take a nap, but I’m not good at napping and wake up feeling worse. I have a personal trainer and she sometimes travels with me. I try to keep fit, running and some weight lifting to balance my body. My first responsibility is to maintain my energy level, otherwise how can I expect the orchestra to do the same.

6) What do you do right before bed?

When I’m on the road and I need to unwind I watch episodes of Modern Family that I download from iTunes. 

From the September/October 2013 Playbill:

1) Which five recordings would you bring to a desert island?

Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Vienna Philharmonic, Chopin Nocturnes with Claudio Arrau, J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites with Jean-Guihen Queyras, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony with Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra.

2) If you had to pick any century to live in, which would it be and why?

Definitely early-20th-century Paris. I would love to have lived in the time of Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, and also to have experienced the dancing of Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes—all of this, leading the way into the modern era, into the 1920s and Kurt Weill. That time was such an explosion of artistic innovation and creation!

3) How important is a baton to your conducting? Do you have a lucky baton, or certain ones you use for certain pieces?

Actually I’m as comfortable with a baton as without. In fact, this season I intend to experiment a bit with the Orchestra, sometimes to use a baton and sometimes not. When I do use a baton I do not always use the same one, because for me there really is no connection between a baton and a conductor, it’s not personal. 

4) What’s the most nervous you’ve ever been for a performance, and how did you shake those nerves?

Usually I’m nervous before the first rehearsal, more so than before a performance. When I made my debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, the rehearsals went very well. But 10 minutes before the performance I looked out at the stage and thought of Karajan and all the legendary conductors that had been on that podium and in that hall. And it really shook me! I just went out and began conducting, and the music brought me back and helped me shake those nerves.

5) If you could walk in someone else’s shoes for one day, whose would you choose?

I would like to be an orchestra musician. As a pianist it was never something I considered for a career. For me it is still a little bit of a mystery.

From the April 2013 Playbill:

1) What was the first piece of music you conducted, and where?

The first time I actually stood in front of a group was when I was nine, and I “conducted” the national anthem of Canada in a rehearsal. I was dying to try it, and it worked! So that was when I knew I could have that ambition. The first time I conducted a concert, with choir and organ, was the Fauré Requiem, when I was 18. And the first time with orchestra was Bach’s St. John Passion.

2) What is the hardest piece you’ve ever conducted, and why?

Berg’s Wozzeck. I was excited to be given this opportunity, but I was very young. I started studying a few months ahead of time and remember my panic when I looked at the first page—I couldn’t understand a thing! I spent two hours on that one page! It was very difficult, but eventually, of course, I did it. 

3) You conduct a lot of opera. Do you have a favorite?

Oh, it is so hard to choose, because of my love for choruses and big ensembles. I love so much, from Mozart to Strauss, but perhaps I can say that I feel especially at ease with Puccini’s Turandot. 

4) What would you do on an unexpected night off?

I’m still trying to get a real night off to go and see a show on Broadway. I have never seen a Broadway musical, and I would really like to have that experience. 

5) What instrument(s) do you play?

The piano is my real instrument. I had cello lessons and trumpet lessons, but never consider that I really play these instruments.

6) Do you have a favorite movie?

The greatest movie I’ve ever seen, and my favorite, is Dancer in the Dark by Lars van Trier, starring Björk.

7) Do you play any sports?

When I was in school in gym class, the thing I succeeded at the most was gymnastics because I have the build of a gymnast. But now I also consider myself very good at wind surfing. And I’ve had a few tennis lessons, but I would need to do more to become really good. 

 

From the March 2013 Playbill:

1) How do you cope with jet lag since you travel so much?

My trick is to consider I am in the new time zone as soon as I deplane. I don’t think, “Oh, I am jet lagged” or “I am so tired!” It is the only way—just  embrace and accept it.

2) When and where were you happiest?

I am very lucky. I have had so many happy moments in my life that I can’t really single out one!

3) Have you ever injured yourself conducting?

I wasn’t conducting yet but was just waiting to go out to the podium for a rehearsal of the Orchestre Métropolitain. I was holding my baton upright and I moved my arm suddenly and the baton jerked upward and went inside my nostril! My nose started bleeding, and I was so embarrassed!

4) Who are your favorite writers?

Oscar Wilde and Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and philosopher. His writing is very beautiful and I feel when reading it both a passion and an acceptance of the world.

5) What one app could you not live without?

FlightTrack. It is great for all the travel that I do. It lets you know if there will be any delay, in real time, anywhere in the world! 

6) What is your greatest fear?

To be honest, my fear is to die. I love life so much, and while this has not changed as I’ve grown older, I think that one day I may find a different feeling about this.

 

From the February 2013 Playbill:

1) Who are your non-classical musical influences?

Some early ones were Radiohead and Bjork, and the great divas of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn.

2) What book is on your nightstand?

Music scores.

3) Who do you consider to be your greatest musical influences?

The great Carlo Maria Giulini, with all his humanity and his way of respecting and loving the musicians, was very inspiring for me. And my piano teacher for eight years at the Conservatory of Music in Montreal, Anisia Campos. She taught me music and discipline, very old school, and was simply a marvelous human being.

4) What is your greatest extravagance?

A good massage! It’s so worth it after a day of hard, physical work.

5) If a movie was made of your life, who would you want to play you?

A young Michael J. Fox. 

6) What languages do you speak?

French and English, of course, and I am also reasonably fluent in Italian and German. I also understand Dutch. And I would like to learn to speak Finnish, because it sounds so beautiful, and maybe Korean as well!

 

From the January 2013 Playbill: 

1) What piece of music have you always wanted to conduct but haven’t had the chance to yet?

I delayed conducting Wagner operas because they are such a whole world on their own. But in a few months I will finally be starting my first Wagner opera. 

2) What’s the first thing you do when learning a new piece of music?

Studying scores is a lengthy and layered process, but the first step is to divide the phrases, the sections, in order to get a sense of its structure.

3) Do you have a favorite visual artist?

David Altmejd, a sculptor who is a Montreal native and who has represented Canada at the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial. Increasingly he is creating outdoor sculptures, a little bit like all the public art we have here in Philadelphia. He is now gaining much more notice because of his recent installation, The Eye, in front of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 

4) What is the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?

I have actually received some excellent coaching from pianist Yundi Li. He advised me that I should eat a dish of tiny chicken bones because it would be good for my skin!

5) Which talent would you most like to have?

I would have loved to become a dancer and I definitely wish I had a real talent to play tennis.

6) Do you have a favorite vacation spot?

One of the most wonderful was Bora Bora—the closest to Paradise!

 

From the December 2012 Playbill:

1) Who is your favorite composer?

Brahms has always been my favorite composer, the very first. In second position, Bruckner, Mahler, Bach, Ravel …

2) What are you currently listening to on your iPod?

On the popular music side it is Frank Ocean. He is somewhat new on the R&B and hip hop scene, and widely recognized for how special his music is. And on the classical side I’m listening to the first edit of the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony I just recorded for Deutsche Grammophon with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, before its commercial release.

3) Do you have any pets?

Three cats: Mélisande, Parsifal, and Rodolfo.

4) If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Well, if I could I’d like to be taller. But you know, many of the conductors I admire most were not that tall, for instance the great Eugene Ormandy!

5) What do you like to do when you go on vacation?

Lie on the beach! 

6) Do you work out? What’s your favorite routine?

Of course, yes. Many people think I get my cardio workout through my conducting but I actually do have to do cardio in order to have the stamina to conduct the way I do. So, I am a jogger and I balance it with weight training, and this helps me avoid injuries.

From the November 2012 Playbill:

1) If you could be any profession other than conductor, what would it be?

Before I decided fully to become a conductor I wanted to be an architect. I think the two are very similar in that one builds physical structures and one builds a performance or a concert, taking a combination of different elements to shape the whole. I also wanted to be a dancer, because dance moves me a lot. But I don’t have a dancer’s body!

2) What piece of music never fails to move you?

I’m moved by music in a very different way when listening than I am when I conduct. For me it’s a different emotional process; conducting is transferring the emotion to others. In particular the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony is really really special for me. While studying this piece before I conducted it for the first time I cried and was wondering, “How am I ever going to conduct this?” But when I got on the podium there was no problem, because of this difference in listening vs. conducting.

3) What is your favorite type of food?

I really like Italian food. I like fish cooked in a little lemon and olive oil, and salad with fresh basil. I prefer food that is fresh.

4) What do you most value in your friends?

I’m always traveling and I constantly meet up with people who do the same. It’s easy to make ties with these people. You see them for a month or two and then maybe not again for a long time. What really makes a friendship special is when you pick up right where you left off when you don’t see someone for a long period. This requires a certain level of trust. It’s a deeper kind of relationship than you have with people you see on a daily basis.

5) What’s your favorite sport to follow? Do you have a favorite athlete?

I love tennis and Rafael Nadal is my favorite player. We both started our international careers at about the same time. I was making my conducting debut in Monaco and the day before the concert was the Monte-Carlo Masters Championship. My father also loves tennis so I bought tickets. Nadal won and that was the launching of his career. I think he and I are similar in that he always goes for every shot just as I go for every note. I met him very briefly in Rotterdam but would love to meet him again and speak longer with him.

From the October 2012 Playbill:

1) What is your earliest musical memory? My earliest musical memory is of transgressing the family rule that children were not allowed to touch the stereo. I was always a good boy but I just couldn’t resist the lure of that machine and I was always putting on records so I could listen to music. I think I was around two or three.

2) If you could ask one composer one question, who would it be and what would you ask them? Definitely Bach. And I would ask him: How was it possible for a single human brain and soul to compose all you composed while having so many children?

3) What piece of music could you conduct over and over again? There are some works I really feel that I have a need to conduct—I always want to program them. The Verdi Requiem is one, and also pretty much all the Mahler and Bruckner symphonies. When I finish a performance I feel much emotion, both exhilarated but also somewhat drained. So I couldn’t jump right into another performance. However, by the next day, I am ready to conduct the same piece again and again!

4) What’s the one thing you always have to do before going onstage? I don’t have a special ritual, however I wear my grandfather’s ring on my finger, always. And before going onstage I have a moment where I touch the ring and think of him. He passed away before seeing me conduct, so this is a small way of sharing.

5) Do you have any hobbies? Jogging has become a favorite hobby. It is not only a way of staying fit but also gives me a chance to get to know the cities where I conduct. And already I have discovered the wonderful Schuylkill Trail along the river here in Philadelphia!

6) What’s your favorite Philadelphia restaurant? There are quite a few that I like, but I will say that I feel very welcome already at both Estia and Girasole. The food and the atmosphere at both are superb. However, I look forward to the chance to explore more of Philadelphia’s great restaurants!

Photo: Chris Lee