When Yannick Nézet-Séguin went to Philadelphia in June to be shown off as the Philadelphia Orchestra's next music director, they put him in a Phillies game shirt, took him to the local stadium, and had him conduct 45,000 baseball fans in a seventh-inning-stretch performance of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
But there was also a formal contract-signing in the presence of the orchestra and board at the Academy of Music's Renaissance-style ballroom, "a highly charged room, with [Leopold]Stokowski and [Eugene]Ormandy souvenirs there," as Nézet-Séguin recalls, visibly pleased at the recollection of being so ceremoniously associated with two of the most successful conductors of the 20th century.
Such high-contrast encounters are probably going to be frequent for Nézet-Séguin in Philadelphia, where one of America's "big five" orchestras is hoping for something close to a miracle from a 35-year-old Canadian who only four years ago was scarcely known outside Montreal, where he was (and remains) music director of Orchestre Métropolitain. The Fabulous Philadelphians, as his new band is sometimes called, have bet the next seven years on Nézet-Séguin's ability to galvanize the public and restore the orchestra's lustre after a punishing period of organizational uncertainty and financial decline.
The Philadelphia job, which gets under way this weekend with a first round of performances as music-director designate, stands as the staggering climax to an incredible rush of appointments and renown for Nézet-Séguin. In 2006, the Rotterdam Philharmonic chose him to succeed Valery Gergiev as music director, and a year later the London Philharmonic signed him as principal guest conductor (both contracts have been extended through 2015 and 2014, respectively).
He finished his debut performances at the Metropolitan Opera last year with a commitment to five more productions there in the coming years. (The next is Verdi's Don Carlo, opening Nov. 22.) He's a fixture at the prestigious Salzburg Festival, and a very frequent flyer who has spent most of his free days lately scooting from one debut to another - last weekend, he gave his first performances with the Berlin Philharmonic.
No one seems more surprised by the furor than Nézet-Séguin, who says that the Philadelphia post came up, like the one in Rotterdam, much more quickly than he could have hoped. He had done only two programs in Philadelphia, over two years, when the orchestra began courting him.
"I was expecting to have to meet the orchestra for a third, fourth or fifth visit," he says, though the search for a music director had already dragged on for four years by the time he performed his second program, last December. By then, he already knew that there was something special going on during rehearsals and concerts.
"I was expecting that one of the big five American orchestras would be somewhat cold, or playing their usual stuff very professionally," he says. "But there was something extremely available about those musicians, and I responded very strongly to that."
The feeling was apparently mutual. Blair Bollinger, bass trombonist and chair of the musicians' search committee, says he sent e-mails to board members after the first rehearsals, urging them to check out the young Canadian. "There was an immediate connection," he says. "He was very positive, full of vibrancy and energy."
Those words come up a lot when you talk with musicians who have played with Nézet-Séguin. They also talk about his imaginative reach, his appetite for intelligent risk-taking, his calm and efficient working habits, and his amiable personal style.
"He has the ability to transfer his passion to the orchestra," says tuba player and choral conductor Alain Cazes, who has watched Nézet-Séguin grow up as a conductor since he took over Orchestra Metropolitain 10 years ago. "He's a great communicator. His requirements become our requirements. And he's always polite and respectful."
In an artistic field where autocracy is still a real option, where players regard conductors with at least a grain of suspicion, huge ability tempered with respect for colleagues goes a long way. "It kills me as an orchestra musician to say this, but rehearsing and working with Yannick is just great from every point of view," says cellist Christopher Best, a 25-year veteran of Orchestre Métropolitain.
Nézet-Séguin's entry into the Philadelphia scene was partly engineered by another conductor with deep roots in Montreal: Charles Dutoit, former music director of l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Dutoit began conducting in Philadelphia shortly after he took over the OSM in 1977 (he left Montreal in 2002 after a tumultuous dispute with the players' union), and has been chief conductor in Philadelphia since 2008.
Dutoit, who will stay on as conductor laureate after Nézet-Séguin takes over in earnest in 2012, had a big say in selecting the works performed at his younger colleague's Philadelphia concerts, which included (in December) the Symphony in D minor of César Franck and Montreal composer Claude Vivier's Orion - neither of them surefire crowd-pleasers.
"That program was very good for me, because I could meet the orchestra in a territory where they were less at ease, where we did not have the immediate emotional effect of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony [with which he debuted a year earlier] I think that's also good in a search, and the orchestra recognized that. There was a lot in the media, about how maybe the second visit was disappointing, but it was absolutely not disappointing; it just wasn't the type of program to generate the same kind of buzz that the Tchaikovsky will."
Coming in after the orchestra's heavy exposure to Dutoit's Gallic repertoire, Nézet-Séguin may soft-pedal French music for a while, preferring to explore things that have been underplayed, including 18th-century, contemporary and operatic repertoire.
"There are things they did a lot during the Ormandy years or the [Riccardo] Muti years that have almost disappeared - Skryabin, for instance," he says. "I want to do a lot of Haydn, and I'm doing a Mozart Requiem with them for my second visit this season. It's such a refined orchestra, so clean rhythmically, and I'm curious to see how this applies to that repertoire, and also I have a lot of background in doing that music in a historically informed way. And we will most likely do operas in concert, or semi-staged. Why not do a complete set of Wagner operas?"
He's also going to have to learn a whole new and rapidly shifting institutional order. Falling attendance and heavy deficits recently forced the Philadelphia Orchestra to extract millions in concessions from the players and to set up a recovery fund with a target of $8-million (U.S.) just to stem the red ink. The orchestra took on a new chief executive in February and has plunged into a strategic planning process in which everything about how the orchestra presents itself to the public is open to discussion.
"Everything is on the table," says Nézet-Séguin. "We're just starting to discuss how to build the orchestra up artistically … I'm a music director at heart, I'm someone who likes to be involved deeper with the musicians, to know them, to know what to expect from them, to find out what to do in order to go further with them. And of course that reflects also on the city and the institution as a whole."
In the short term, he can boost the cause just by showing up for work. His two series of concerts in Philadelphia this season are already the highest-selling of the year, according to president Allison Vulgamore. The honeymoon could be a long one, to judge from the way he is viewed by the players who know him best.
"A lot of conductors get so busy, so in demand, it's almost as if they start to believe their own PR," says clarinetist Simon Aldrich, another Orchestre Métropolitain veteran. "At a certain point, they have no more time for you, no time to be civil with the people they used to know. With Yannick, that doesn't seem to be envisionable. There's a loyalty and a humanity there. He's reachable. He's Yannick."