The Philadelphia Orchestra’s genius conductor, our annual summer neighbor at Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the planet’s biggest classical music superstar, takes on his toughest challenge yet—changing everything.
By Richard Pérez-Feria
Photography by Arthur Elgort / Philadelphia Orchestra
That was truly my initial thought when I first met Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Is this the most appropriate reaction to being introduced to this colossally important figure in the current classical music universe? Probably not, but when you encounter a 5’4” smiling man wearing a way-too-loud color-block sweater, it makes a bit more sense. Yes, of course Nézet-Séguin is the hottest commodity in the arts right now as conductor and music director of not only the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montréal but also the Philadelphia Orchestra, arguably the greatest musical ensemble in the galaxy. But he’s also funny, passionate and a man very much on a mission to change nothing less than the very world we inhabit.
Nézet-Séguin, 48, acts and looks at least a decade younger than his age. I first saw him in action at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) as part of the Philly Orchestra’s longstanding three-week summer residency at the fabled Saratoga Springs, NY outdoor amphitheater. That would prove to be the first of many Nézet-Séguin performances I’d attend while enjoying the music, yes, but mostly being riveted by the peripatetic conductor down front: arms akimbo, eyes closed, intensity personified. If passion could ever be captured, Yannick Nézet-Séguin at work would surely be it.
A few years ago, SPAC’s dynamic CEO and my good friend Elizabeth Sobol invited me to tag along with a small number of SPAC board members and staff on a weekend road trip to Philadelphia to see the world-class orchestra’s and Nézet-Séguin’s latest triumphant debut. It was on that occasion that I came face-to-face with the impossibly charismatic man backstage post performance. So, yeah, he’s definitely adorable—and impossible to ignore.
The fact that this giant talent resides a short drive away for several weeks every summer is reason enough to make the pilgrimage to SPAC. This year, I’ll again be enjoying several performances including a much-anticipated collaboration between the Philly Orchestra and multiple Tony Award-winner Audra MacDonald. It should be, in a word, spectacular.
When I sat down to have our exclusive conversation with the affable musical genius—the subject of two major high profile media interviews recently in The New York Times and 60 Minutes—I again couldn’t help but think: he’s adorable. Has anyone in the cultured arts ever seemed happier, more jovial than this Québec native? What was that about? I wondered. “Joy is essential to my life,” Nézet-Séguin begins. “I’ve become more conscious of it more recently, in the last decade or so. Joy is something that’s unusual among conductors, but for me there cannot be music without joy. It’s not like I must put on a joyful face all the time. It just is. I truly believe that without joy there cannot be music. It’s as simple as that.”
But what I find the most intriguing and important about the work the celebrated conductor’s championing is his relentless and very public attempt to democratize the arts, specifically classical music. Music, he argues, is for everyone. In this regard, Nézet-Séguin reminds me a bit of another superhero in the current zeitgeist, Chef José Andrés, and his efforts to globalize access to food. The conductor’s doing similar work by feeding people’s souls.
“I believe that anyone who dares to take something to the highest level of quality doesn’t mean that work must be reserved only for a certain portion of the population,” he says, settling in to explain his raison d’etre. “And of course, that’s my model and it’s what makes me wake up in the morning. I want to bring high art to everyone. Art shouldn’t have a class divide. It’s absurd that it does. In terms of classical music, the divide has existed for a long time because there’s an economic component, but also because it’s mere habit. Classical music—opera, symphonies, orchestras, ballet—has been used too much throughout history to identify a certain upper class. But when the composers during the 18th and 19th centuries were writing the music that we currently play, they never intended the music to be exclusively for the rich. But then that shifted in a major way.”
So, does Nézet-Séguin think classical music, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, no less, can really appeal to, say, the Walmart shopper? In a word, yes; yes he does.
“Look, there’s still a big hint of that elitism today, and that stands in the way of our efforts to spread the word about how music is for everyone—everyone,” he says, speaking with a clarity of purpose I haven’t heard until now. “Music can make every person react, whether it’s by shocking them, by making them dream, by enabling them to heal or by finding the music itself intriguing. Music, my friend, is for every single one of us for whatever purpose we need it or want it in our lives. So, if you hear the Philadelphia Orchestra perform a piece of music you may not be familiar with at all—this could even be the first time you attend a classical concert by the greatest orchestra in the world—I promise that you’ll still find something that’s going to touch your soul. And that’s why music is for everyone.”
Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s brand of indefatigable positivity is nothing if not infectious. Relentless, even. But, when he’s surrounded by the decidedly bucolic environs of Saratoga Springs—and its nearby mountains and lakes—how does this cultured Energizer bunny chill out? What does he do to relax when he arrives here? Or can he?
“As of late, when I arrive in Saratoga—and I go as often as every afternoon—I try to be on a lake,” he says. “So many of our Philly Orchestra musicians rent lake houses, a lot of them for many, many years now. My parents still have a lake house in Québec, so I’m very much a lake person. And when I discovered how many lakes there were in this gorgeous region of New York, I got very excited. I also like water sports on lakes. I go in the water and that act alone just clears my mind right way. I feel as if I’m connecting with the region and with nature. You know where I’ve been, and love, is the Berkshires because it reminds me so much of Québec. The older I get—though I don’t consider myself to be very old—I find that nature becomes even more a part of who I am. I try to just breathe the air, observe the mountains and I’m always sorry when it’s time for me to go.”
There’s also something else about Nézet-Séguin not entirely framed by his occupation. He has swag. He doesn’t walk up to you as much as strides, never losing eye contact. It’s, frankly…sexy.
“Wow…OK, I’ll take that,” he says, smiling like a Cheshire cat. “I think that my energy in general—my optimism—is probably something sexy. I also dare say something I wouldn’t have said maybe 20 years ago, but now that I’m more at peace with the way I look physically, I can say it. I’m very diminutive—you know, I’m quite petite—and maybe that, too, makes me sexy because it’s so unusual.” [Laughs]
Staying on this track for a moment, I ask this spectacular pianist and happiest-dude-on-the-planet what else may be unusual about him, a man very much in the public eye, the high priest reigning from those hallowed temples of highfalutin culture. “The most surprising thing about me may be that I don’t have a driver’s license and I never learned how to drive a car,” he tells me conspiratorially. “I may be conducting world-class orchestras, but I couldn’t be a conductor of anything else!” [Laughs]
To Nézet-Séguin’s larger point of inclusivity and musical barriers being eliminated, his very essence, his aura matches or exceeds other musical superstars I’ve met. I ask him about the hottest word in the music ether right now: collab—unsurprisingly, he jumped right in.
“Oh, yes, of course, I’d love to collaborate with Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes or Rihanna,” Nézet-Séguin says enthusiastically. “I love something about all of them, and I have very eclectic musical tastes. A few hours ago, I was listening to Janelle Monáe’s new album, The Age Of Pleasure. I mean, I love what she does. I love her acting and I love her music—her whole vibe. I’m also a bit obsessed with Lil Nas X because he’s also pushing the envelope. And, of course, Beyoncé’s latest album, Renaissance, is also brilliant. As far as collaborating with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I’ve dreamed for years of doing something important with Céline Dion. We did one television show at some point, but it wasn’t a real collaboration, so that would be a dream. Oh, and working with Barbra Streisand would be amazing as well. And, how about George Michael? That would’ve been great. There are so many possibilities, no?”
Getting serious again, I wonder about the times we’re all living through, full of so much political division, a planet in crisis, technology dictating a reality we may not want. How can music—classical music, no less—help with any of that?
“I believe the future is bright because we need art and music more than ever,” Nézet-Séguin says softly now. “The future is also somewhat scary because sometimes we forget our humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, for example. And I love AI. I think it’s very intriguing and all of that, and it’s exciting in many ways, but being able to stop, smell, look and reflect is what music can do for all of us. And attending live concerts specifically, is what’s going to keep us connected to our deepest parts of our humanity.”
And how does this impossibly famous musical prodigy connect with the deepest parts of his considerable humanity?
“Gratitude is really something that I try to always acknowledge every morning,” he says. “Gratitude for what has happened the day before. Gratitude for the people surrounding me every day. Gratitude for my life with my partner and husband—you know we’ve been together now for almost a quarter century. So, yes, acknowledging and being cognizant of how grateful I should be makes a marked difference in my life.”
As we get ready to wrap up this easy-breezy encounter, it suddenly hits me that Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s undeniably appealing, matter-of-fact declarations of his mind-blowing intentions to positively shake up the world via classical music is still, to my ear, a far-off dream at best. Is the goal, then, to achieve all his lofty objectives, or is it at least to get on the road toward a more perfect society?
“Wow, yes—what a great question,” the famous conductor flatters me as he begins. “The end goal for me and my work would be to live in a world where there’s more acceptance, more unity, more embracing of each other. This will be achieved through music with the musicians I conduct, in the institutions I lead or wherever I’m surrounded by music. But here’s the thing, I’m never alone in this. I’m the figurehead because I’m the conductor, yes, and people see me wave my arms in the front of the stage. But I have a very gregarious job because I alone can’t do anything. It’s a team effort or none of us will succeed. I don’t see Utopia, my friend, but I still think that if we all contribute seriously to the arts, it can be done. And it will be done. But I’m so tired of the naysayers. I’ll always be the optimistic conductor. I’m always the person who sees the possible in everything I do.”
Adorable, yes. But definitely a warrior.