If classical music had a more honoured place in our culture, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s appointment to head the Philadelphia Orchestra would have been front page news in every newspaper in the country. Get a life, people, this is an historic event! Never mind that Canadian conductors have long since gotten used to doors being shut in their faces in their own country. It is by now a cliché to say that Canadians have to go elsewhere to find success. But YNS has not only found success abroad, he has climbed Mt. Everest. Two years ago he was conducting opera with Rolando Villazon at the Salzburg Festival, last year he took on the music directorship of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and principal guest conductorship of the London Philharmonic, then earlier this year he made his debut at the Met conducting Carmen.Now, a scant few months later he is announced as the new leader of the orchestra made famous by Stokowski. Even after Stokowski’s departure, with Eugene Ormandy in charge, Columbia Records routinely billed the Philadelphia Orchestra as “the world’s greatest orchestra” and, as I recall, no one begged to differ.
How is it possible that a 35-year old conductor from Montreal can be selected to lead such an orchestra? And – here’s a dose of reality for you – how can he hope to succeed in an organization that has demonstrated administrative incompetence and financial malpractice more often than sublime music-making in recent years? Yes, the fact is that this once-great orchestra has been self-destructing to the point of threatened bankruptcy. It didn’t help matters that some disgruntled musicians and a malicious and destructive music critic ran off music director Christoph Eschenbach before he had even settled in, leaving an artistic vacuum that drove down audience numbers at warp speed.
There is no doubt that YNS is stepping into a situation in Philadelphia that is challenging to say the least. But now there is an executive director in place with an excellent track record – Allison Vulgamore from Atlanta – and a new board chairman in Richard Worley. There are also reports that the deficit at the end of the current season will be much less than expected. And after nearly four years of deliberating and dithering the orchestra has finally chosen a music director.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is clearly part of the solution to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s problems. Without an exciting conductor to galvanize both the musicians and the audiences, not much can be accomplished. Those of us who have watched YNS in Montreal know that he is an exceptional leader. Under his direction the Orchestre Métropolitain has given one inspired performance after another in concerts and on recordings. Some critics scoffed at the arrogance of such a young man to decide to record all the Bruckner symphonies. But the results have been remarkable. Perhaps not yet in the class of Jochum, Karajan or Wand but well-considered and beautiful in their own right.
Make no mistake about it, YNS is a solidly grounded musician with an enormous talent for understanding the music he conducts and for getting musicians to play well for him. But it is a very different matter to conduct a part-time orchestra in Montreal or even a second-level orchestra in Rotterdam, than to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra. When YNS is not there the Philadelphians will be led by guest conductors of the stature of Simon Rattle and Valery Gergiev. It is well-known that Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, was under serious consideration for the Philadelphia post and was the number one choice for many of the musicians. He too will likely be a frequent guest conductor with the orchestra in years to come. YNS may have been chosen for the music director position on the strength of his two appearances with the orchestra, but as he becomes a more frequent presence he will have to show that he truly belongs there and that in such elite company he still stands out for his own artistry and charisma. And let’s not forget that Christoph Eschenbach has re-emerged from his unpleasant experience in Philadelphia in a position of potentially greater influence: this fall he takes up his dual post as music director of the National Symphony and artistic director of the Kennedy Center in Washington. Philadelphia is less than 200 km from Washington and comparisons will undoubtedly be made.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is not only a young man in years. He is a young man who exudes youthful energy. He is a young Leonard Bernstein, or more to the point, he is an East Coast Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel is very physical in his conducting style and so too is YNS. But it is more than that. It is the physical expression of love of life and music that Dudamel conveys to his young Venezuelan musicians and now also to the hardened professionals of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. YNS has that same persona. That is a huge plus for orchestras looking for ways to make classical music fresh again and to bring younger people into the concert hall. But there is a risk too as the LA Philharmonic recently discovered on its first tour under Dudamel. The flash and exuberance is beginning to wear thin and critics are now wondering if there is anything underneath. YNS will face the same scrutiny in Philadelphia and wherever he appears on tour with the orchestra. Is YNS really a serious musician or is he merely an entertainer or a marketing ploy? We’ll see.
And let’s not underestimate what music critics with an agenda can do to undermine music directors. It has happened time and again. Claudia Cassidy famously destroyed Rafael Kubelik’s tenure with the Chicago Symphony. New York critics beat on Baribrolli when he succeeded Toscanini as music director of the New York Philharmonic to the point where he had to leave, and Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer combined backstage gossip, personal attacks and questionable musical analysis to hasten Eschenbach’s departure from Philadelphia. It was illuminating to see that when Eschenbach took the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour the reviews were often ecstatic. But it is the constant drip drip of negative criticism at home that really counts. Eschenbach deserved better just as Kubelik and Barbirolli did before him. And watch out – Dobrin’s initial reaction to YNS is skepticism: “he has proven mostly to be an extremely charismatic manifestation of adrenaline.” Dobrin also says that he would have preferred Jurowski.
And Verizon Hall? Sad to say, the Philadelphia Orchestra plays in a new hall that is a disaster. The entrance is cavernous and gloomy in the extreme – not a welcoming feeling at all – and the concert hall itself has very poor acoustics. The musicians complained for years about their old hall – the Academy of Music – and it was bad. But Verizon Hall is even worse. The hall is not kind to the various timbres in the orchestra, there is neither warmth nor presence, and bass response is disappointing. What is to be done? At a time when the orchestra is struggling to make ends meet it is unrealistic to think that money can easily be found to fix the problems. But it must be done. It is as necessary as finding a new executive director or a music director. Avery Fisher Hall has been improved – several times, in fact – and Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto was greatly improved after years of suffering and denial. And Place des Arts? Even in the OSM’s golden years under Dutoit – at least on recordings – nothing could be done. A generation went by before the OSM’s board found the backbone to do what had been needed for years; either improve Place des Arts or build a new hall. I have no doubt that this will be a priority item on YNS’s agenda in Philadelphia. He has always been a man who knew what he wanted and got it done ASAP.
As we celebrate Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s appointment in Philadelphia let’s not forget that two other Canadian conductors are making international careers: Jacques Lacombe has just been appointed to succeed Neeme Järvi as head of the New Jersey Symphony, and Bernard Labadie is in great demand as a guest conductor in the United States.